Seat squeeze in economy class getting worse

CLIVE DORMAN
Last updated 08:13 19/11/2013

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The balancing act being attempted by one of the world's Big Two plane makers, Airbus, at the Dubai Airshow this week is both bizarre and outrageous.

Three weeks ago, Airbus stridently sided with air travel consumers in launching a global campaign, "It's not you, it's the seat",  designed to discourage the new epidemic among airlines jamming seats closer together to squeeze a few more percentage points from the value equation of each plane they put into the air.

This isn't just about allowing less forward space per seat row: in economy, 81 cms (32 inches) was once standard; now it's as little as 71 cms (28 inches) for shorthaul and 76 cms (30 inches) for longhaul.

There's also a trend being pioneered by big carriers like Emirates to squeeze seat width from 45 cms (18 inches) to 43 cms (17 inches) - even less in some configurations and plane types.

In Dubai this week, Airbus is talking with the airlines leading the squeeze in cattle class about hundreds of billions of dollars in new orders for aircraft and, at the same time, berating them over their lack of adherence to what it says should be minimum standards of comfort.

Underscoring Airbus' modern standard for comfort - with an 18-inch-wide seat in economy class for long-haul travel - the company's latest marketing effort is the talk of the air transport sector heading into the event, said Kevin Keniston, the company's head of passenger comfort.

"This campaign is generating incredible interest - particularly with passengers," says Keniston. "We have raised tremendous awareness and seen very positive feedback from the flying public, which is increasingly aware of their comfort choices, while also highlighting the potential airline benefits for this modern 18-inch (45 cm) standard with respect to passenger well-being."

But who is Airbus to argue with a giants like Emirates, of Dubai, which is expected to shortly announce that it is going to squeeze an extra seat into each economy row of its A380 superjumbos?

(Emirates yesterday announced an order for an extra 50 A380s, taking its total order to 140, or nearly half of all of the super-jumbos ordered.)

According to a report from America's Aviation Week in Dubai this morning Australian time, Emirates is looking at an 11-abreast seating configuration in economy, with a 3-5-3 arrangement on the main deck, instead of the 10-abreast layout (the same as the 747) that it was designed to accommodate.

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Emirates president Tim Clark says no decision has been made yet, although he signals that it is likely to come. "I am sure Airbus is going to persuade us to do it," he told Aviation Week, despite the Airbus public campaign.

Clark says he wants to make sure that seats remain at least 45 cms (18 inches) wide and indicates a lot of planning work is going into how that new layout could be fitted into the existing cabin.

An 11-abreast setup would increase the number of economy seats by up to 40, but it would also reduce the seat width by about two cms (one inch).

Emirates could also retrofit its existing A380 fleet with the new, denser economy cabin, but Clark says "that may not be necessary". It may also not be practical as the extra seats and weight would shorten the superjumbo's range, which may become a problem on long routes like those to Dubai from Australia.

But Emirates, like its neighbour Etihad, is already a big fan of sardine seating in economy, with 10-abreast economy seating in its Boeing 777s, instead of the nine-abreast standard allowed for by the manufacturer.

In fact, there are now at least 18 carriers with 10-abreast economy seating in their 777s, according to routehappy.com.

Similarly, Jetstar's new Boeing 787 Dreamliners are fitted out with nine-abreast economy seating instead of the eight-abreast standard.

Airbus upped the pro-consumer pressure overnight with the release of yet more research revealing that "a new generation of discerning passengers are increasingly researching in-flight seat comfort prior to booking long haul full service flights".

They are also prepared to dig deeper into their pocket to pay for more comfort in economy, the plane-maker says.  "Some 54 per cent believe an increase of seat comfort is critical, leading to 41 per cent prepared to pay more within economy and five per cent considering investing in an upgrade in search of more comfort.

"This growing cohort of economy passengers are increasingly not prepared to accept crusher seats and 34 per cent are turning to specialist websites, in order to determine true seat value prior to booking flights."

Kevin Keniston hammers the point home with another crack at the seat space misers: "Seat width ... is a key determinant of comfort and as such passengers are increasingly investing time and money to avoid enduring a 17-inch crusher seat on a full-service, long haul flight."

Does an extra inch of width or pitch influence who you fly with? Have you travelled on a 777 in the new squeezy configuration? Are you doing what Airbus is urging you to do and boycotting airlines with super-squeezy seating? Post your comments below.

- FFX Aus

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