Airbus’ 24cm problem with popularizing the ten-abreast A350


With the absence of the A380 at the upper range of its future aircraft plans, Airbus’ push to compare a 400-passenger A350-1000 with a 400-passenger Boeing 777X as its high-capacity offering is, it seems, based on requiring ten-abreast seating that the airframer initially pegged at 16.4”, but is now promising as 17”.

Following an Airbus pre-briefing in advance of the Paris Air Show, this push is so far relying on substantial confusion, a firm lack of detail, and what felt like obfuscation around the competition between the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777X.

At its Innovation Days media summit in Toulouse last month, Scherer (and other Airbus executives) teased the airframer’s work to densify the A350’s economy class, promising a more palatable ten-abreast configuration than the 16.4” seat width that the A350 3-4-3 layout was initially calculated to give.

Praising the A350 in Paris, Scherer said, “when you fly long ranges at up to 8,000 miles, when you fly 350-400 people up to 8,000 miles, that’s where the economic difference from new technology becomes very, very perceptible — for the airline, for the airline CEO on the bottom line, and for the passenger in the cabin. I just sat the other day on the ultra-long-range flight from Los Angeles to Singapore. I came out of that A350 flight feeling absolutely great. It sounds esoteric, perhaps, but the cabin experience of a brand new A350 with the air quality, the cabin pressure altitude, and the noise level of the airplane makes a huge difference.”

Far be it for Runway Girl Network to get ‘esoteric’ about cabins, but Scherer will, of course, have been at least in premium economy and more likely business class on that Singapore Airlines flight, which does not offer an economy class product on the route — let alone an ultra-narrow ten-abreast one.

In what was one of his most controversial statements of the evening, Scherer continued, stating that “quantitatively, the A350-1000, 400 passengers, will fly a good solid 400 people, full of cargo, deep from inside Asia, deep into America. That airplane, when it takes off with its full load out of Asia, will take off 45 tonnes lighter than its equivalent competing aircraft.”

In answer to RGN’s question about whether this 45t (consisting, Scherer said, of 35t lighter weight and thus 10t less fuel) and 400-passenger configuration included the need to operate ten-abreast seating, Scherer noted that “the short answer to your question is: ten-abreast vs ten-abreast, the A350 is unbeatable.”

Air Caraïbes’ offering of a 3-3-3 economy seat in its Classe Caraïbes and a 3-4-3 version in Classe Soleil demonstrates the difference between the two layouts. Image: Air Caraïbes

This is not surprising: an airplane substantially shorter (73.79m compared with 76.72m of the 777-9X) and narrower than another airplane should indeed be lighter.

Based on the A350’s fuselage width of 5.96m and the 777-9’s fuselage width of 6.2m, the difference between fuselage widths is 24cm (9.45 inches), or 2.4cm per passenger in ten abreast seating, if Boeing and Airbus can do similar work on sidewalls.

No matter how sculpted a sidewall (as here on the A320neo Airspace cabin), fuselage width is eventually impossible to deny. Image: John Walton

As for 400 seats, this looks to be complicated as well. While airframer “typical configurations” are often unrealistic, the sort of longhaul configurations of the -1000 seen so far are Qatar Airways (46 business plus 281 economy for a total of 327) and Cathay Pacific (46 business plus 32 premium economy and 256 economy for a total of 334).

Qatar Airways’ A350 economy is the wider 3-3-3, despite narrower seats on its 787 and 777 aircraft. Image: Airbus

Rumored configurations from other longhaul carriers look similar, with regular economy looking to be around Cathay’s 30 rows or Qatar’s 32. Adding a seat in each row gets the layout thus to some 360-odd seats. Perhaps one might imagine the Qatar example without the two rows of Qsuites after doors 2, but even so, there are few airlines willing to eschew the profitability of premium economy these days.

“This symbolic statement I made is in your typical configurations, but you’re right, the 777 is slightly larger,” Scherer admitted in response to RGN. “We are having a number of initiatives that we can demonstrate now giving airlines the opportunity to put 17” seats ten abreast across the A350, allowing it to be just as large in terms of passenger capacity as the 9X. That makes it uncatchable.”

Adding an extra seat doesn’t just impact seat width; it’s also about aisle space. Image: Cathay Pacific

While RGN is by no means unfamiliar with the advances in seating and monument ergonomics and kinematics to carve out extra space within the cabins, a 2.4cm per passenger difference is enormous and requires detailed justification to be taken as read. Despite multiple requests from RGN, Airbus has not supplied any further details of how it plans to create 24cm of room within the A350’s fuselage.

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  1. NickSJ

    It’s a mystery why airlines offer 9 abreast seating in a 3-3-3 configuration when a 2-5-2 layout has many advantages. That the 2 seat sides are much more comfortable goes without saying, but the advantage of the 5 seat center section is that if there is one seat vacant in the row, there are effectively no center seats filled. The next seat in from the aisle on both sides has an empty seat next to it, so the row effectively becomes 2-2-2-2. Even when the row is full, there is only one seat per row which is 2 seats away from the aisle, and the 2 seat side sections are still more comfortable. There are millions of passengers flying today in middle seats who wouldn’t have to endure that experience in a 2-5-2 row configuration.

  2. Ray Bond

    As some one who does a lot of long hauls in the back usually I’m surprised at what he said about the A350 being quiet? I too just did the Singapore to NY return flight on SQ, yes cabin comfort & service excellent but compared to the A380 or even the 787 it is a very loud internally plane with a terrible drone. No wonder they give you noise cancelling headphones even in Premium economy.

  3. Thien

    I wonder why Airbus does not propose the toilets and galleys downstairs like the Lufhansa A340. More seats available. But still 18 inches wide!

  4. Zoe chow

    Ugh. Maybe they are carving out just a tiny bit of space to get their horrible seats to 16.5” and then rounding up to 17”. Would make sense of why he’s using inches rather than centimeters. I would love to see updates if you get them. Thanks for your great work!

  5. Fergal Sherlock

    What has ever happened to staggered economy seats, staggered arm rests, staggered seat heights etc. Lot’s of awards but still no deployment to facilitate the kind of densification being considered?

    I foresee a ‘basic/saver’ economy ‘cabin’ at the rear of widebody aircraft going forward whereby low-tariff tickets come with tighter seats (10-abreast in this example; 9 for an a330), buy-on-board food/IFE etc. Once you know what your getting for your € you should be more inclined to accept the ordeal. Having it as a defined ‘cabin’ allows for easier service delivery management.

    No need for LCC carriers if the majors ‘conpartimentalize’ their offerings into defined spec cabins.

  6. Flaus Musk

    If you gain 5cm per each sidewall and 12mm per armrest… You gain what you need for the 17″ seat place.

  7. A ten-abreast 777x and a nine-abreast A350 are almost identical across seat widths, armrests and aisles; across three seats, the Airbus is better by nearly an inch.

    There’s only a total 26 cm difference between the 777x’s fuselage diameter and its cabin interior width. The same measurement for the A350, as well as the current 777 yields 36 cm. For the Dreamliner, the difference is 30 cm. Could Airbus be able to thin out its walls a bit – will it be noisier?

  8. Asmith

    Breaking news. International flight regulating authorities agree to increase capacity of planes by allowing people to stand. By packing in about 1,000 people per flight, airlines can offer super reduced rates and people in search of great deals can fly to Europe and Asia for 50 percent of the cost of a traditional fare.

    In other news, portable tripod chair manufacturers prepare for record sales.

    And finally, Samsonite’s “people pod luggage” concept ready for final federal aviation approval. Boasts first class seating in “luggage designed for human travels”. Steerage class gets a new definition.

  9. Barrie Wall

    The slave ships had passenger transportation down to a fine art: every one could – was in fact, obliged to – lie flat. However much carriers fiddle with virtually imperceptible changes to seat width and pitch, travelling “back there” for any flight longer than three hours is unmitigated hell.

    One more beef, it should be obligatory for travel and transportation journalists to declare up front (figuratively speaking) if they’re riding at the back with hoi polloi at their own expense or as pampered guests of the carrier in the hallowed halls of Business or First. By and large, it seems Runway Girl shares and abides by that view.

  10. RaflW

    If this Airbus 17″ is like the stunts being pulled by 737 operators who just made the armrests slimmer, it’s a farce. When three adults sit in a 737 together, there simply isn’t enough shoulder room. A 0.5″ wider backrest with no more shoulder space is an illusion that *should* fool no one. And heaven help it if one is in the 4 seat center section with three other adults.