Qantas graphic of the A380 sleeper in a retrofitted 747-400
Qantas graphic of the A380 sleeper in a retrofitted 747-400

Never mind the fate of first class seating on Qantas, which mesmerised the media this morning. Or the prospect of 550 seat Qantas A380s, which is 100 seats more than now.

The writing is on the terminal walls, or between the lines of the Qantas announcement yesterday of lousy returns from expensive fares, and a trebling of profits from Jetstar’s cheapies. The 650-700 seat Airbus A380 is coming, whether Jetstar does this for-and to-Qantas, or someone else does it.

Qantas has provided some apparently generic graphics of how A380 premium seats will be fitted inside the nine Boeing 747-400s it will keep in service until about 2020.

But the real issue from yesterday’s announcement of fewer first class seats, and more economy and premium economy seats, in the Qantas long haul fleet, is when Qantas will offer more than 600 seats in a Jetstar A380.

While the Qantas retrofit graphics don’t show with complete certainty how the revamp of the last Qantas 744s will work after first class is removed and the upgrade is completed, from late 2011, they beg this additional question, where will Jetstar REALLY fit in with the future of the airline in the light of yesterday’s reporting of the group’s first half to December 31 financial results?

The A380 IFE equipped premium economy seat in a 744, Qantas graphic
The A380 IFE equipped premium economy seat in a 744, Qantas graphic

Let’s look for a start at the new post first class configurations for the 744s and the changes being made to the A380s in the same late 2011-2013 interval.

The A380 style business class seats are obviously going to be put in the nose of the 747s where first class is today. But that will most likely only fit 16-18 of them, since the dimensions of the tapered nose of the 747 are unforgiving and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce broke the good news for all travellers yesterday that seat density, that is, legroom and other measures, will not be altered by the retrofits of the 744s or changes in the configurations of the A380s, including the six out of 20 already delivered.

The current 307 seat 744 cabins will be converted into 359 seats, 58 in business, 36 in premium economy and 265 in economy.

The image captioned simply ‘aisle wine service’ by Qantas shows the A380 style pods located upstairs if the roof line is any guide, but it may not be, and at most there is only room for 20 of them, under the Joyce declaration. So no matter what happens, some of those 58 business class seats will be in zone B, across the full width of the main deck of the 747-400, where the current product is seven across, with triple units, containing a middle seat. Middle seats aren’t all that popular in any class of cabin, but perhaps as with the current product, there will only be a small number of them.

The A380 sleeper in clinical isolation. it's really not that lonely. Qantas graphic
The A380 sleeper in clinical isolation. It's really not that lonely. Qantas graphic

The premium economy graphic however looks like it is upstairs too, as both images show the sloping cabin wall and the window locker line that is obvious in a 744 but can be found on the main deck of that type, for example in premium economy on British Airways jets, as a much thinner gap between the armrest and wall. (Where it acts as the perfect trap for small mislaid objects too.)

All 36 premium economy seats could be fitted in the 747 upper deck, but possibly not with quite as much seat pitch in some rows as found in the A380, which locates that class of service in a rather special feeling ‘club room ‘ at the rear of its top deck.

There is no graphic for how a reconfigured A380 will look either in the 490 seat ‘Pacific + some London flights model’ which will retain 14 first class suites but reduce business class to expand premium economy, or the high capacity 550 seat version, which will have no first class, and less business class seating but more economy and premium economy seats.

One guess would be that on the 550 seat version Qantas would shift premium economy to the forward zone of the main deck of the A380, since it is so wide that it would only make economic sense for business class to be there if it was arranged seven across, and that brings up the middle seat issue. This would in turn imply that economy class would continue into the rear of the top deck, where premium economy is found now on the four class Qantas A380s, which is also where Singapore Airlines puts extra economy seats today, and where Emirates puts a premium passenger bar .

These are just guesses. Who knows what feats of cramming are being accomplished in the Qantas comfort laboratories! At least Joyce’s promise rules out the prospect of 11 across seating in economy on the main deck of the A380. But not of course from a Jetstar A380 when that comes along.

Let’s think carefully about this. A 550 seat A380 is going to deeply undercut the per seat kilometre operating costs of a Boeing 777-300ER, its nearest cost efficient competitor at this moment, especially where some operators have already stuffed their customers into a 10 abreast format which is equivalent in terms of acute discomfort to 8 across in an A340/A330 until a coma sets in after about three hours.

And Jetstar is ‘murdering’ Qantas in terms of growth and contribution to profits as the demand for air travel, corporate accounts included, opts for lowest fare of the day. On medium haul international routes, Jetstar’s version of premium economy, Star Class, is also ultra competitive against the Qantas premium economy offering-not identical, but ultra competitive.

The issue must be that either Qantas deploys Jetstar A380s in a two class configuration on the longer  as well as medium range routes in the next 4-5 years in order to be the price leader in the mass market with cost advantages that not even a 550 seat A380 can provide, or someone else does it, to them.

This situation is compounded by the unpalatable reality that the Boeing 787-9, the stretched version that Qantas may eventually get around 2015, has had its wing span lopped to the same as the shorter range and lower capacity 787-8. Which means that at the passenger density Jetstar requires, the -9 Dreamliner ain’t going to be a non-stop to America jet, nor a one-stop jet to Europe, at least not in the first 4-5 years after the type is eventually introduced into service. The original role for the huge but recently trimmed Qantas group order for 787s is one it seems less likely than ever to fulfil in the next 10 years.

The 787-9 is going to be a more comfortable version of the Airbus A330-300, with bigger windows too. And that seems to be about all. Which is rather depressing after all the hoop-la of the past about ultra light high composite structures and a full volumetric payload over distances of 14,800 kilometres. (Yes, that was the original claim when the jet was ordered in 2005. ) So if Jetstar is ever going to win back for Qantas lost territory in Europe, and clean up on the US and Asia leisure markets the way it has begun to with great success in Japan, it will need something with very low per seat costs and the ability to fill all of them on flight stages of up to 15 hours.

This brings us to the prospect of advanced Boeing 777s, and that is a real chance, and advanced versions of the A380, which is unchallenged at the low cost high seat density end of the spectrum already.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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