TOULOUSE — Following our in-depth interview last month with Airbus executives around the New Production Standard variant for the airframer’s A350 twinjet, Runway Girl Network’s journalists secured exclusive access to Airbus’ mockup centre, where the airframer’s A350 cabin — and external galley mockups — have the new NPS seat area with ten-abreast seating, galleys and lavatories on show. After spending about an hour with Airbus passenger experience executives within the mockups, on a no-photos basis, there is much to consider.
There is great news from the galley and lavatory perspective. The work that Airbus has done to add extra work and storage space is excellent, and both flight attendants and catering designers — from front to back of the aircraft — should be pleased.
The option for a larger lavatory ahead of door 1L, too, is good news for premium class passengers and, potentially, for wheelchair users and passengers with reduced mobility. This might even allow Airbus to offer a properly accessible lavatory. And an extra four inches of cabin width is a bonus for premium economy and business class too, although it was notable that no new seating options taking advantage of the NPS width were on show.
But clearly, the greatest interest in — and primary driver of — this NPS aircraft variant is the way that the resculpted sidewalls enable a slightly less uncomfortable experience in the ten-abreast 3-4-3 economy configuration, which was previously only taken up by budget carriers like French bee and Air Caraïbes.
At first glance, few outside the industry will notice much difference in the sidewalls. The frames are changed to an extent that only the most observant of experts would notice any difference apart from, as an option, the electrically dimmable windows. (These are fine: your author generally dislikes the idea because flight attendants have a disappointing tendency to slam them to full black when they want passengers to fall asleep and stop bothering them, but they do at least go very dark, and are easily swapped out if they fail.)
Overall, the cabin engineering is impressive, and the extra four inches will be welcome in economy, making the nine-abreast A350 economy experience even better.
But it’s the 3-4-3 that’s driving this, not a more comfortable experience in 3-3-3. Airbus has designed and managed this in a way that makes the budget airline experience better, though ten-abreast on an A350 still cannot be said to be a product that is suitable for a full-service carrier at full-service pricing.
In seat terms, Airbus has a half dozen economy options in the mockup including fully featured products from the usual seatmaker suspects, and comfort levels varied between them in the way that we would expect: the more fully featured seats with advanced kinematics and shin space sculpting were unsurprisingly much more comfortable than the more basic products without these engineered benefits.
Within the cabin, and with the proviso that we are talking 1-2 rows of each seat vendor’s product with gaps — so the cabin inherently appeared a little odd — the rows of seats looked surprisingly normal, more so than expected.
We do note, with some interest, that not one single row of nine-abreast seating was installed on the aircraft, so direct comparisons were not available — neither to us nor to airline executives viewing the new seats.
Airbus has indeed managed to eke out 17” of seat width between the armrests. Yes, the armrests are thin, but the airframer has clearly learned from the nonsense proposals of the ridiculously narrow armrests on the proposed eleven-abreast A380 cabin. These can’t exactly be called generous, but they look within proportion for a 2020s-era seat. This is itself impressive.
The aisles are not nonsensically narrow, even for wider passengers. But the cabin is very tight at the shoulder level by the windows, particularly where there is sidewall sticking out rather than the gap for the window. Passengers broader at the shoulders are likely to feel very hemmed in, especially at the window seats, and even more so where their shoulders do not line up with an actual window.
Airlines might well consider taking the weight and complexity penalty of movable armrests on the window side of the triples — which, on the plus side would come with a reduced part count — to allow for a small amount of extra comfort.
The biggest problem beyond pure seat width comes at foot level, and largely for people with bigger feet. With the window seat passenger markedly closer to the window, much of their foot space is taken up by the structure of the leg. We would estimate that approximately one third of the seat’s legroom is affected in this way. It’s not quite the extent that the A380 eleven-abreast seat was, but it is still problematic and will be unacceptable to some passengers.
At the behest of airlines that do not want to have to work with two different sets of seat track positions on the A350, Airbus has not changed them to allow for one foot to be placed either side of the seat triple’s leg structure. Both RGN’s journalists’ feet size out at an EU 48 (UK 13, US 14), so on the higher end, and we could not fit our feet between the sidewall and the seat leg at all. An Airbus executive suggested — and indeed demonstrated — that her smaller feet did indeed fit, wiggled in, side-on. She also suggested that, during testing, some shorter passengers appreciated being able to put their foot up on the angled rising leg structure. This seemed very optimistic.
Overall, the ten-abreast option is not precisely good news for passengers, because adding an extra person in every row makes it tight indeed. But seatmakers in particular have made advances in the modern cabin since, say, the introduction of ten-abreast seating on the Boeing 777 or even nine-abreast seating on the Boeing 787. In overall comfort terms, the feel was similar to a first-generation 3-4-3 Boeing 777 from 20–30 years ago.
While the seats are definitely narrower and less comfortable in ten-abreast than in nine-abreast, Airbus has done a decent job in minimising the tradeoffs and still producing a cabin that is tight but manageable and secures an extra seat in every row. An 11% seat count bonus is nothing to sniff at, even if the environmental arguments Airbus tries to make for the move seem very questionable post facto justifications verging on greenwashing.
The key contextual question is what Boeing has managed to do with the widened cabin of the much-delayed 777X. The American airframer has 24cm more width to the 777 than the A350, which works out at just under an inch per passenger in ten-abreast. If Boeing can raise the 3-4-3 experience of the 777-300ER generation, the difference between it and the A350 NPS starts to widen.
RGN understands that the first aircraft to be delivered with the NPS specification is either going to be or has very recently been to Spanish carrier Iberia, in the nine-abreast configuration in economy. Iberia did not immediately respond to requests for information about this cabin or its layout.
Additional reporting by Fintan Horan-Stear
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Featured image credited to Airbus