Airbus changes tack on seat comfort, posits ‘sub-economy’ on A350

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When a major aircraft manufacturer has a series of senior executive changes, its strategy can be expected to change too. Airbus, which has a new chief executive and chief commercial officer, among other positions, is no exception. Either in conjunction with this change or as a coincidence, Airbus’ strategy to market its aircraft as having comfortable seats has been the subject of a remarkably strong U-turn.

Chief commercial officer Christian Scherer asserted just prior to the Paris Air Show that Airbus can offer 17”-wide seats in a ten-abreast A350. Not only is this a full 0.6” more than the 16.4” that Airbus sold years ago, but in the absence of some very creative rounding up of numbers it seems very unlikely to be achievable without deal-breaking compromises on comfort.

Doubling down on this Airbus messaging was senior vice president for marketing François Caudron, who sat down for an extensive interview with RGN at Le Bourget.

On the A350, Caudron says Scherer “is right when he says that ten-abreast is comfortable. It’s as comfortable as what you currently fly in the 300ER, that’s what it is, from a seat perspective. Ten-abreast already flies on 350. Air Caraïbes, French Bee, these guys fly it.”

As yet, only low-cost and leisure airlines have ordered 3-4-3 in economy on the A350. Image: Airbus

Fundamentally, the comparative comfort of the 9.5-inch wider Boeing 777 and the 9.5-inch narrower A350 with the same number of seats cannot be objectively the same. Despite ongoing requests, Airbus has not provided Runway Girl Network with any documentation that might explain how the “24cm gap” between the fuselage size of the A350 and the 777 can be discounted.

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In fairness to Caudron, who makes the point that passengers of the two leisure-focused, low-cost airlines from France’s Groupe Dubreuil are satisfied, both the airlines he mentions are clear about their value propositions: cheap flights and minimal comfort as the basic offering. French Bee and Air Caraïbes also both offer relatively low-priced options for passengers wanting to upgrade out of their tightest economy seats.

“I expect that the longhaul, low-cost, the leisure travelers, that matches their market,” Caudron says, and then drops something of a bombshell about ten-abreast A350 seats.

“We can sense, for the last year-and-a-half, that some of the mainline carriers are more interested than they were before, because they are really under pressure from the longhaul, low-cost,” Caudron notes. “The market is evolving, right? So it’s up to them to decide: do we want to compete against the longhaul [low-cost airlines]?”

It would seem that Caudron means competing on the simple basis of cost, rather than on passenger experience and the increased value side of the value-for-money equation.

French Bee, formerly French Blue, is a longhaul, low-cost carrier based at Paris Orly. Image: Airbus

As for airlines, Caudron says, “some of them are very clear: no, we are not in that market. Fine if they [the LHLCCs] attract some of our pax into their long-haul, low-cost business. Some of them say we may want to have a cabin portion, just to have a product that allows us to compete with the long-haul, low-cost. And then I’m seeing in the mainline carriers, this is what we’re going to be seeing. The back of the cabin, or it’s a part of the economy cabin, ten-abreast, and then a nine-abreast, and then a premium economy, and then business.”

This could be something further along the lines of what American Airlines tried with its Boeing 777-300ER in its initial configuration: a ten-abreast Main Cabin economy, but with its extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra economy seats in the nine-abreast layout.

Adding an extra seat to the much-vaunted comfort economy 9-abreast layout on the A350 will mean very narrow seats. Image: Airbus

Caudron is cautious that the true trend is not yet clear. “We’ll see. Maybe some of them will opt for a full ten-abreast. I think it’s more likely that they will go for an additional cabin segmentation. Because that has the benefit of giving them, basically, configuration where they can fight on fares with very low service, and better up-sell the nine-abreast.”

This sort of ‘sub-economy’ segmentation would create a fourth class of economy travel, behind premium economy, extra-legroom economy, and the present entry-level economy class.

It creates all sorts of questions for airlines, far beyond the ‘basic economy’ trend started by the US carriers that has been filtering across the world as fuller service airlines look to compete with their long-haul, low-cost rivals. Basic economy seats currently sit in the entry-class economy travel, and the strategy has been successful both in allowing airlines to display cut-price lead-in fares and, crucially, to reduce the friction of purchasing ancillary products: if a passenger is willing to pay a bit more to upgrade themselves out of the current worst experience, they are in theory more likely to also be willing to add additional items to their online shopping cart.

But the global distribution system (GDS) flight search and ticket sales networks are set up only to compare four classes at present: first, business, premium economy and regular economy. Basic economy falls into the latter category, as indeed does the existing ultra-narrow economy from airlines such as Air Transat or AirAsia X. The argument for further GDS segmentation would therefore be further raised, but with that Pandora’s Box comes a wealth of other problems.

Nearly two years ago, this RGN journalist wrote a much-discussed column highlighting the binary economy seating choices that Airbus and Boeing offer to airlines:

A: relatively wide

B: relatively comfortable

C: uncomfortably narrow

D: ultra-narrow

The previous Airbus marketing strategy was offering airlines a choice between A and D. Now, it seems, they’re offering both — on the same airplane.

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11 Comments

  1. Ben Defaultant

    I really don’t understand the tone of this article – the barely concealed outrage over Airbus satisfying market demand for a basic, and potentially uncomfortable, product. What should Airbus do, refuse to give airlines what they want in the hope of strong-arming them into providing better PaxEx? I guess that would work if you’re happy with just a moral victory since Boeing seems to have no problem with cutting all sorts of corners in the name of satisfying customer demands.

    I think there is the danger of having the bias of someone who travels frequently, has a discerning eye and a healthy feeling of customer entitlement that misses the fact that people have all sorts of traveling needs, and them being denied a suitable, if subpar, product is in some way discriminatory.

    • TLS

      I take it you don’t travel much? Personally I avoid the 787 in economy at all cost. I’ve flown in a middle seat for 10+ hours and it was hell. I had zero space, as the other two people I was sitting next to, took up what little space there was. So no, this is not entitlement, this is logic. Human beings aren’t boxes that can be stacked.

    • John Walton

      Hi Ben, and thanks for your comment. Taking these changes entirely out of their substantial and ongoing historical context, I really have no problem with an airline being very clear about selling ultra-narrow economy, as long as there are simple and reasonably priced options for passengers for whom that does not meet their travelling needs to still travel. (For the avoidance of doubt: “If you don’t like economy, fly business”! does not count.)

      As I said in my coverage of the Cebu Pacific A330neo elsewhere and here re: the Dubreuils, I’m very cognisant of not imposing my own personal flying preferences and indeed space needs on the rest of the world. I have markedly less sympathy once airlines marketing themselves as full service carriers turn around and say ‘nono, 16.4″ is longhaul economy now’. I have even less when Airbus has been saying ‘longhaul economy should be at least 18″‘ for the best part of a decade.

      This is a huge U-turn from Airbus’ previous strategy, which is itself notable. I have real equity concerns if — as Christian Scherer did — we have 16.4″ seats being compared with 17″ seats (being compared with 18″ seats…) as if passenger comfort were entirely irrelevant. As I said in the piece, it has substantial wider implications, and there are real questions about whether these products are “suitable” in terms of egress, in terms of passengers with mobility needs, in terms of generating inflight conflict through sheer proximity, and in simply in terms of global human height and breadth increasing.

      And while I recognise (and have taken steps to make the point about) the danger you highlight, I also think there’s an equal if not greater danger of a dismissive “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” — “Let them eat Skyrider” — argument about passenger experience.

  2. K Le

    I refuse to go any where with 787 9-seat, 777 10-seat, and A350 10-seat abreast airplanes on any route with 6 hour plus flight time. I rather stay home. Recently I had to travel to Japan for work and I paid $400 more for an economy ticket on 777 9-abreast on Japan Airlines rather than going with 777 10-abreast or 787 9-abreast.

    • TLS

      Seriously? It’s the US that’s leading the seat densification. Asian airlines do in general have more space, which might come as a surprise to you.

  3. Jorge L Estevanez

    The continued reduction of seat size is unacceptable. The trend in seat designs also includes reducing padding to the point that a long haul flight are acceptable in terms of comfort & safety as passenger’s circulation is reduced to unsafe levels. Increasing number of passenger on a plane increases evacuation times which can be catastrophic. It’s time for governments to intervene & set design stadards to enforce reasonal levels of passenger confort & health.

  4. Flew last September cdg to narita via abu dabi on Etihed. First leg on Airbus380 was wonderful, The second leg on Boeing 787 was a nightmare, most uncomfortable flight in my 73 years. My first flight in a DC3 in 1956 was luxury by comparison . The seat is simply not designed for a normal size homo sapiens, its impossible to achieve a normal sitting position, the publicised dimming windows don’t and when you place your head against the fuselage to try escaping from your next seat passenger you feel a amazing blast of vibration, shudderings and unbelievable range of noises that gives one no confidence in the airframe ability to sustain flight. A 55 min late arrival due to landing in a Typhoon was at least no fault of the Airline. I will, of course never fly again on a 10 seat across Boeing 787 however cheap the flight.

    • TLS

      The 787 is only 9 across, but was originally designed for 8 across. Only JAL flies this configuration as far as I’m aware.
      You’re correct though, it’s s horrible plane in economy and even flying it in Singapore Airlines business configuration isn’t what I’d call great, as the seats are so narrow that there’s no shoulder space.

  5. Peter Mac

    I am a Marketer, I’m prone to ask companies, “Do you make what you sell? Or, do you sell what you make?” The answer they give tells me at once if they will be successful. The correct answer of course is the former. Both Boeing and Airbus subscribe to the former and they both respond to what their customers want. And if the airlines think that they can get away with 10 abreast seating then THEY proceed at THEIR own risk. Personally I will not book a long flight in 10 abreast

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