A350 premium economy trends towards narrower 2-4-2 layout

What does premium economy look like? For most of the life of this middle cabin — launched in 1992 by either Virgin Atlantic or EVA Air, which is an interesting story in itself — airlines have largely agreed on the number of seats in each row. Eight on a Boeing 747 or 777 or Airbus A380, seven on the Airbus A330, A340 or Boeing 787.

But the A350 was different from the start, with early operators split about whether to install seven seats in a 2-3-2 configuration or eight in a 2-4-2 layout.

This split wasn’t along the usual lines of airlines renowned for offering additional inflight comfort, either. Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific were offering eight seats across while Lufthansa and China Airlines fit just seven in the same space.

2-3-2 in premium economy on the A350 is increasingly rare. Image: China Airlines

As deliveries have proceeded apace — at the end of July Airbus’ orders and deliveries spreadsheet shows 295 of the A350 are in operation — the vast majority of airlines that have installed premium economy have chosen eight-abreast seating.

These 2-4-2 airlines include Delta, Air China, Vietnam Airlines, China Eastern, Philippine Airlines, Iberia, China Southern, Japan Airlines (in its domestic Class J product, which is akin to an international premium economy seat), Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. I understand that Air France and Aeroflot will also be installing eight-abreast seating in their own forthcoming A350s.

Will passengers notice narrower premium economy seats in a 2-4-2 layout? Image: Virgin Atlantic

The one exception to the rule is, interestingly, Frenchbee, the long-haul low-cost carrier from Groupe Dubreuil, based in (unsurprisingly from the name of the airline) France. Its Premium Class is in the more spacious 2-3-2 configuration, which is especially interesting given that the ultra-narrow seats down the back are in the 3-4-3 layout.

(Another detail to note is Air Caraïbes, also from Groupe Dubreuil, which has 3-4-3 down the back in its economy Class Soleil, but the regular mainline carrier 3-3-3 economy class seats in its Class Caraïbes, which is a sort of ‘premium economy lite’ offering.)

One might have expected given the received wisdom — and experience with the Boeing 777’s transition from nine-abreast to ten-abreast among full service airlines — that carriers would seek to maximize the “comfort canyon” between economy and premium economy in order to create the greatest demand for upselling to what is the most profitable cabin in the aircraft.

That would mean that carriers with better economy class seating should theoretically look to offer better premium economy seating, and vice versa.

It’s fascinating to see that this does not seem to be the case, and it will be equally fascinating to see whether today’s — and tomorrow’s — increasingly mobile, vocal and social passengers notice the detail in space between eight- and seven-abreast.

Lufthansa’s ZIM premium economy is one of the few in a 2-3-2 layout. Image: John Walton

Newer premium economy seats, like those in economy class, have in many cases been designed to give a feeling of more space compared with previous generations.

These design improvements could well mean that enough passengers don’t notice enough of a difference to think that the extra price of premium economy — some two to three times that of economy class, as a general rule — is still worth it.

But the risk for airlines is that they might be slicing too much density off the meaty thighs of the premium economy golden goose.

The risk for passengers is even greater: if not enough people are upgrading to premium economy because economy class is “too nice”, airlines will see pressure from their accountants to make economy class much less pleasant.

Could the eight-abreast A350 premium economy be what eventually drives regular economy seats into ultra-narrow ten-abreast configurations?

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  1. RaflW

    I did find Delta’s 2-4-2 P.E. offering on the A350 just a tad disappointing. I had imagined it being a little more like domestic First, but the seat was rather narrow. The bulkhead row had the USB port in a very inconvenient place, further reducing already tight thigh space.
    I paid only a 20% premium over discount Y, however, due to an unusual routing. So it was ‘worth it’ but left me wondering if I’d just take a decently spacious 3-3-3 seat next time if the cost is more canyon-like.

    All that said, I hope DL’s 777 refit uses the extra width to make the 2-4-2 seats an inch or so wider. That may be the sweet spot longhaul seating. And I’m *very* curious to eventually try the 2-2-2 P.E. on Delta’s 764! That’s a rarity, yes?

  2. Howard Miller

    As an average sized, middle-age male, who’s height is 5’8” and still fits into W32 Levi’s jeans, I find it worrisome that mainline brands might seek to squeeze ten 16.5” wide seats per row in economy class cabins for aircraft that are specifically intended for long-haul flights.

    Bad enough it’s expected by most airlines, and a very devious Boeing that knows full-well that some gullible folks swallow the “myths” hook, line and sinker that its solely the “greedy airlines” who are to be blamed for those hideous and wholly unacceptable 9-abreast 787s & 10-abreast 777s, when of course, Boeing is every bit complicit when it promises of unbeatable unit costs for its terrible for the 85% of flyers who are stuffed into 17.2” wide seats that are packed into 31” (maybe if they’re really lucky 32”) pitch rows while they’re trapped aboard those atrocious, densified, Boeing beasts for 5-15 (or even more) hours.

    Yeah, right, Boeing doesn’t have a role in creating this misery as it bases its sales & marketing campaigns citing unit costs based on densified configurations!


    Worse, still, is how it manages to pack in an extra, unacceptably narrow economy class seat aboard aircraft that were originally promised to offer unsurpassed comfort given the long haul missions they were designed for – that oh, so conveniently, allows Boeing to cheat by squeezing in an extra seat per row on aircraft with fuselages that are slightly narrower (which “games” drag by being narrower) and lighter (which means lower fuel consumption due to less weight) than #airbus’s wide-bodies with their promised 18” wide seats can possibly offer.

    So, now the new CEO of Airbus wants to out-cheat Boeing and beat it at its own game by seeking to cram ten, 16.5”-16.75” wide seats per row aboard A350s, which, of course, were originally touted as “Extra Wide Body” (XWB) specifically because they’d offer more comfortable seating for long haul flights than Boeing’s truly terrible (for Economy class flyers) 777s & 787s – which, by the way, are aircraft I REFUSE to fly in economy class, and with rare exceptions, REFUSE to book those who turn to me for advice or to straight up book their flights unless they, or I, are guaranteed to be in a premium cabin.

    “Friends don’t let friends” & loved ones ever be subjected to any 17.2” wide seat for 5-15 (or more) hours is my motto!

    After all, even at my hardly exceptional size, the width between my shoulders is 19” – so how is it even possible to reasonably expect an average sized person such as myself (let alone the many in this world considerably taller & wider) to squeeze into a 17.2” wide seat for any flight longer than 3 hours?

    When the CEOs, CFOs and Board members at our airlines and aircraft manufacturers routinely subject themselves to this abject misery for their long haul flights I might think otherwise.

    But until then, they need to get real in their expectations of how much sadistic abuse in the name of greed to fund already obscenely generous stock buybacks the majority – as in 85% of flyers without whom no airline will exist – can be subjected to.

    Bad enough at 17.2” for Boeing; Monsieurs Guilaume Faury & Christian Scherer are flat out out of their minds expecting passengers on name-brand airlines to ever subject themselves to even less than the nastiness of Boeing’s horrible, and unacceptable 17.2” wide economy class seats for 5-15 (or more) hours flights.

    16.5”-16.75” wide seats? Yeah, right.

    When they – or pigs – fly.

    Otherwise, they need to get over themselves.

    FAST. Really, really fast.

  3. James Jenkinson

    I flew premium economy on Singapore airlines a350_ 900 in june 2019 Christchurch to Singapore in 33k window seat for three times the economy price and found the meals disappointing , I flew Singapore airlines in 2014 in economy and the meals were a delight, also trying to get out of the window seat to use the very small toilets was no easy feat , very little room as armrests are immovable, overall very disappointed for the cost of a seat compared to the economy price .looking forward to seeing the Emirates premium economy seat in 2020 and perhaps try them on my next trip to the UK