Airbuds infographic on its sleep and seat width study

It will probably provoke another one of those Airbus v Boeing slanging matches that get so tiresome, but the European plane maker’s call this evening for a humane minimum seat width of 18 inches (45.72 cms) in future airliner long haul economy cabins would be worthy of bilateral support.

Both Airbus and Boeing have proposed and current airliners that were created to achieve such a seating standard, yet have been, or perhaps soon will be, ruined by the hellish pack- them-in attitudes of too many airlines.

This ought to be Airbus and Boeing versus inhumane long haul seating not versus each other. (In our dreams of course.)

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But first, this is the core of  the what and why of the Airbus proposal.

Today Airbus reveals new research into the impact seat width makes to levels of passenger comfort on board long haul economy flights; calling on the aviation industry to set a minimum standard of 18 inches (45.72cm) in order to improve the comfort of long haul air travel.

The ground breaking research conducted by Harley Street medical practice The London Sleep Centre using polysomnography* to record every standard physiological sleep measurement – including monitoring brainwaves, eye, abdominal, chest and hip leg movement – on a selection of passengers revealed that a minimum seat width of 18 inches improved passenger sleep quality by 53%.

Dr Irshaad Ebrahim of The London Sleep Centre commented: “The difference was significant. All passengers experienced a deeper, less disturbed and longer nights’ sleep in the 18 inch seat. They went from one sleep stage to the next as you would expect them to do under normal circumstances. Whilst, in the narrower 17 inch seat the passengers were affected by numerous disturbances during sleep – which meant they rarely experienced deep restorative sleep. When it comes to flying long haul in economy, an inch makes a huge difference on passenger comfort.”

Kevin Keniston, Airbus’ Head of Passenger Comfort comments: “If the aviation industry doesn’t take a stand right now then we risk jeopardising passenger comfort into 2045 and beyond – especially if you take into account aircraft delivery timetables combined with expected years in service. Which means another generation of passengers will be consigned to seats which are based on outdated standards.”

Airbus points out that its current A380 and now in flight testing A350 designs meet or exceed this minimum standard.

But so did the current series Boeing 777s and 787s before economy amenity was destroyed by cramming in extra seats that take the former from nine across seats to ten across and the latter from eight across to nine across. (There are honourable exceptions to this.)

Similarly, today’s A330s have been trashed for long haul flying by changing its eight across seating to nine across in some carriers, resulting in seat widths of 16.5 inches (42 cms)  in an AirAsia X or Cebu Pacific A330-300, an atrocity foreshadowed by Air Inter in the 80s and 90s in its similarly wide A300s, which could cripple the masses just between Orly and Lyon before they were rescued by the first TGV trains.

There is no doubt that Airbus strategists see some leverage in the 18 inch minimum seat width, since that produces a nine across standard economy seating cabin in its A350s, and if the larger and later Boeing 777-X series of airliners was to do the same, it could actually have a wider nine across configuration, but it would be volumetrically challenged by the earlier Airbus design and especially one might surmise by any stretches that might be offered for a similar entry into service of around 2021.

But there are swings and roundabouts in such scenarios that can bite both Airbus and Boeing. At the moment the prevailing attitude among airlines is that they have largely succumbed to the temptation to cram the Dreamliners with really awful nine across seating, (17 inches or 43.18 cms, the same as a short haul tight pack 737) compared to nine across in an A350 at the proposed minimum standard of 18″ or 45.72 cms.

However if A350 customers decide to go 10 across in an A350, which would be inhumanely possible, or 11 across on the main deck of an A380, the amenity of both of those Airbus products would be just as seriously trashed as a tight fit format in current 777s or 787s. The operating economics per seat per kilometre would be outstanding, but if there was a keenly priced but 2.5-3 cms wider alternative, such an A350 or A380 option would be one that better informed or previously mishandled flyers might avoid.

Regular flyers have reason to be cynical as to where this is headed. An increasing number of carriers are offering a premium economy product that gives back to travellers what they have lost since DC-10s were eight across in economy and classic 747s were nine across.

While airline economics dictate ever smaller seats, the average sized human is gradually increasing in size due to everything from better nutrition to excessive nutrition.

Airbus is right in urging that a minimum standard be agreed, but clearly the airliner manufacturers aren’t in any position to make it a binding condition on what seat width is installed in one of their jets provided the total number doesn’t exceed the maximum permitted under safety rules under strict emeergency evacuation tests.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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