Feel the squeeze

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Travellers are getting bigger, but Economy Class cabins are becoming tighter. Alex McWhirter of Business Traveller UK reports on the decline in standards at the back of the aircraft.

Today’s premium fare travellers are luxuriating in the sort of onboard comfort that was beyond their wildest dreams at the beginning of the 1970s. The bad news is that this is at the expense of those at the back of the plane. Economy class passengers are now having to make do with much less space, even though the average traveller takes up more room than they did several decades ago, because the cabin is less lucrative for the airlines.

It wasn’t meant to happen this way. The first Boeing 747 jumbo jet took to the skies in January 1970. Operated by Pan Am, it took the Blue Riband route between New York and London.

In his book Wide-Body, Clive Irving talks about the clever B747 design team who specifically intended for passengers to have more space and comfort because, after the Second World War, the average traveller was larger.

My first B747 flights took place in the early 1970s with Pan Am and Japan Airlines. I still recall the spacious nine-across (2-4-3) seating, while the seat pitch felt as though it was 35 or 36 inches (89 or 91 cm). In fact, the B747 Economy class in 1970 was not far removed from today’s Premium Economy products.

At that time, passengers had every reason to believe things would only get better. It was the age of the wide-body plane and the PR people made us believe that narrow-body aircraft on long-distance routes would be consigned to the dustbin of history. (But even they offered more space than today.)

For their part, the airlines were happy to oblige. In 1970, trade body IATA (the International Air Transport Association) controlled pricing worldwide and carriers had guaranteed revenue streams. IATA allowed them to raise fares automatically to reflect higher operating costs or shifting currency values.

By the end of the decade, mass travel had well and truly arrived, spurred on by IATA losing pricing control, which meant the airlines could charge the sort of prices that passengers wanted to pay.

It was at this moment that Economy class passengers, while paying less for their tickets, began to see a decline in onboard comfort as airlines squeezed in more seats to offset the lower yield they were now earning from sales. The B747 went from nine- to ten-abreast, while its other wide-body rivals, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed TriStar, moved from eight to nine.

Then, when the airlines could go no further, they started to reduce legroom (or pitch). Thus, what used to be at least 34 to 36 inches (86 to 91 cm) on the original B747s has gradually been whittled down to 30 inches (76 cm)  in some cases.

It doesn’t end there. Airlines are now realising that even more space can be found by using “slimline” seating. Legroom may remain roughly the same, but passengers end up being bunched up closer together.

So the space required for Business class – and latterly Premium Economy, which arrived just over 20 years ago – has been found from the Economy cabin, which as a result has seen a continual decline in standards.

Look at the B777, which Boeing devised as a nine-across, 3-3-3 aircraft for Economy passengers. The B777 is comfortable when configured this way (if not as spacious as nine-across on a B747) and many airlines, including major carriers such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and United, retain that configuration.

Emirates broke ranks when taking delivery of its B777 fleet many years ago. These were configured ten-across (3-4-3), even tighter than ten-across on a B747. Many passengers complain, including our readers, because the B777’s fuselage is narrower than that of a B747.

There is no going back. Over the years, more and more airlines have followed Emirates’ example and configured their new B777s with ten-across seating. Some are now retrofitting their older B777s with the tighter layouts.

Then came the B787 Dreamliner. The drawn-out PR campaign prior to the aircraft’s launch promised standards of comfort never seen before. Boeing demonstrated the plane’s interior would have a spacious 2-4-2 configuration, so nobody doubted the claim. When the first two customers, Japan’s ANA and JAL, showed off their B787s, the world’s press were again enthused by the comfortable eight-across layout.

And then it happened. Comfort went downhill when every other Dreamliner customer installed tighter 3-3-3 seating. ANA followed suit – only its older B787 aircraft have the eight-across version for now.

At present, the new Airbus A350 also has 3-3-3 seating. Of the two aircraft, the A350 is said to be slightly roomier, while the B787’s onboard space – with seats only 16.9 inches (43cm) wide – has been widely condemned. But for how much longer will the A350 retain its comfort advantage? Air Asia X has ordered a ten-across version from Airbus that will enter service in a few years’ time.

Now the A380 superjumbo, which offers Economy class passengers some of the most spacious interiors in the air, may well jump on the bandwagon with an 11-across cabin. Air Canada has shown that the B777-300ER, which is cheaper to buy and operate, can accommodate 458 passengers, which is as many as some airlines carry on their A380s. Unsurprisingly, squeezing in more seats has rewarded Air Canada with a jump in profits.

One wonders how the airlines can get away with offering passengers such declining levels of comfort. No other transport mode behaves like this. Car manufacturers have had to provide more space, partly because of safety requirements, but also because people are getting larger and heavier.

When there’s a delay, for whatever reason, tight seating becomes unbearable. Last December, a United B787 flight from San Francisco to Sydney (about a 15-hour trip) was unable to land because of debris on the runway and was diverted to Canberra. As there were no customs or immigration staff on duty and the pilots had clocked up too many hours to fly on to Sydney once it was cleared for landing, the aircraft had to stay on the ground at Canberra until fresh crew arrived. Passengers were so distressed by the prospect of an eight-hour wait after such a long flight that they had to be let out of the aircraft just to stand on the tarmac.

Clearly, today’s Economy class comes with less space than ever before. But a consolation is the provision of personal in-flight entertainment screens and power points. After all, the average modern passenger would easily get bored irrespective of the amount of space offered. In truth, it costs the airlines less to offer these goodies than simply to provide roomier surroundings.

So what about Premium Economy? Strangely enough, this resembles what passengers were promised in standard Economy back in the wide-body age of 1970. It is true that, where offered (and the Gulf carriers continue to remain aloof from the product), Premium Economy does provide proper, civilised standards of space. The downside, of course, is that you have to pay for it.