The Financial Pinch of that Extra Inch

Photo by Simon A. Eugster used under Creative Commons Licence Source: Wikimedia Commons

We’d all like more space in our seats, especially when travelling long distances, but it’s not as simple as saying give us more room.

We need to consider the processes would we have to undergo as an industry to make that possible and what the cost impact would be to the passenger of such a change.

Airlines have many valid reasons why they structure the cabin the way they do.

Aircraft OEMs and OEMs of cabin components, have significant limitations on what they can do with cabin space in general, including the width of the seats, which they work optimise every year.

On the other hand…

“The customer is the boss of the business.”  The owner of the aircraft interiors manufacturing company I worked for used to say this to me all the time.  He was right.  Businesses must be driven by customer preferences.

About a month ago I started the Flight Chic Airline Passenger Inflight Experience Survey.  While responses are still accumulating, and I’ll want to have much more data before I publish my report in 2014, there are some surprising trends.

There are elements of the cabin experience which passengers find more important than we might think, and things we pay careful attention to when we design aircraft interiors which do not matter to passengers as much as we expect.

I’m going to wait until next year, when I’ve gathered more data before I make any grand statements.  I can see that I should expect the unexpected from this survey, and I don’t want to say anything which might impact responses in future.

I do feel safe saying that seat comfort is a big factor.  I think most of us already know that, but not just pitch, seat width too.

Airlines are businesses, and they consider the preferences of their passengers very carefully when designing their cabins and selecting their seat structures.  Because they are businesses, though, they must also keep in mind their overall cost-structure, their competitive positioning in the market, and how their selection of cabin configuration fits their brand.

This October Airbus took a stand for wider seat widths in the cabin, proposing a minimum width of 18″ (or 46 cm).  That was and remains big news.  Boeing’s stance is that seat widths should be up to the individual airline to select.  

There are issues involved which go beyond the relative size of each OEM’s fuselage, or the revenue benefit to airlines of having nine abreast vs ten abreast seating configurations.

Those two alone are major considerations, but there is also the matter of existing inventory, which no one (to my knowledge) has mentioned.

There are thousands of aircraft seats in service dedicated to long-haul flights.  Having to retrofit all those seats to meet a new 18″ (46 cm) standard would probably be one of the most expensive fleet modification programs airlines have ever undertaken, even if it is limited to their long-haul routes.

While airlines may choose to equip their new aircraft with 18″ (46 cm) seats on certain premium aircraft offerings, I don’t believe the airlines would welcome such a standard as a mandate.  Especially not if it required them to retrofit their existing long-haul aircraft.

I believe that Boeing understands this and that’s why they are so  careful about leaving the word “standard” out of it and stating that it should be up to the airline to decide what seat widths best serve their needs.

The problem is really one of the choice of words used by Airbus.  In our industry the word standard has certain significant technical implications.  Standards are enforced by regulations, otherwise they aren’t really standards.

This reminds me of the adoption of 16G seat certification requirements when I started in the industry in the 1990s.

Though the regulation requiring 16G testing of aircraft seats was already in place (actually dating back to 1988), the majority of aircraft in service were built prior to 1988 and they were “grandfathered in.”  There were still plenty of 9G seats flying.  The same economic factors were considered.  It would have been cost prohibitive for the airlines to retrofit their entire fleet with 16G seats at once.

As a result, the regulation did not actually come into full effect until 2005 when the FAA said that any seating for aircraft built after 2009 for 121 operators would have to comply.  Even then, it left a reasonable time frame for completion of new seating installations.

By that point, though, 16G seats HAD become the standard.  Airlines had long been expecting that they would need to install 16G seats throughout their fleet and most of them did so before the 2005 update to the regulation.  They purchased seats which tested and certified to that standard and installed them on their older aircraft at the same time as they introduced new aircraft interiors programs.

If I had to guess, any regulated standardisation of aircraft seat width (which arguably could also be a safety issue when you consider cabin evacuation), would take a long while before it became mandatory.

Let me be clear.  Airbus is NOT saying that 18″ seats should be a regulatory requirement.  Not really.  After all, trying to change those standards via formal industry regulations is a complex bureaucratic process which would take years to finalise.  Airbus proposes that this be an industry standard for long-haul flights, but they are very careful not to say exactly how it would become standard.

When you think about it in this manner, the way Airbus have worded their proposal, the net effect is voluntary compliance–just as Boeing proposes.  The word standard is a bit vague in this case.  Airbus leaves us with a grey area.

I do not understand how the standard they propose could become a standard without going through the regulatory change to mandate it, but I suspect Airbus’ goal in this announcement is not necessarily to change industry standards but rather to make a point.

Airbus demonstrates that they take factors of passenger comfort seriously.  They prove that they conduct serious studies on the passenger experience in the cabin, and that they plan for necessary changes in advance.  They openly declare that they want be the ones to set a new trend.

Airbus Video. Cabin Comfort: 18 inch width long-haul seat standard.

If you pay careful attention to the video, you will note that Kevin Keniston, Head of Passenger Comfort at Airbus, says that they are “encouraging all airlines to look at [their] research and consider changing the size of their seats.”  While that is laudable, it really isn’t any different from what Boeing are saying.  Airlines would still decide which direction they want to go.

Airbus points out that the time is critical now to adopt these standards to avoid “risk[ing] passenger comfort into 2040 and beyond.”  Very true, when you consider the length of time it will take to implement such a standard.

The Airbus sponsored study by the London Sleep Centre at the very least gets the conversation rolling.  Airbus is right when they say that 17″ width seat standards have been around since the 1950s.  They are also right in saying that competitive factors have pushed some seat widths as low as 16″.

It probably is time to reconsider those measurements.  Especially as Airbus point out, when we consider the increase from long-haul flights to “longer-haul” flights.

But how do we implement a standard without regulatory intervention?  Or at the very least the threat of it.

If the ESA and/or FAA said that they would give this issue significant consideration and evaluate whether the seat manufacturing TSOs (Technical Standard Orders) should be updated to require an 18″ width on aircraft flying over “X” amount of hours, everyone in the industry would raise their eyebrows, break into lively argument, and give it some very serious thought.

Without that, the only possible driver would be airline strategies for differentiating their cabin offerings.  That may be enough to tip the scales in favour of an 18″ seat, or it may not.

There are some considerations which I haven’t heard mentioned, though I suppose the sleep study addresses one of them–at least on the surface.

The primary consideration is cabin safety.  You could argue that tighter seats, where people are wedged together, makes egress difficult in case of a cabin emergency.  That would be one foundation for the Regulatory Authorities to have a closer look at Airbus’ proposal and consider whether they should at least issue a memorandum on this proposed standard.  Mind you, seat pitch is as much a factor in evacuation as seat width, probably more, and a revision to cabin standards of the two measurements combined might be more than the industry can afford.

You can also argue that this issue touches on passenger health concerns, which is what the Sleep Study basically comes down to.  Years ago, the risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis from sitting in the cabin for too long in cramped conditions became a top concern for passenger well-being.  As a result, many airlines began encouraging in-flight exercise routines to reduce the risk to passengers, but no major structural changes to the cabin (allowing greater mobility) followed.

No regulation.  No significant change.

I know that pointing this out might make me very unpopular.  The very word regulation is enough to raise the hairs on the back of our collective necks.  But we must admit that, as an industry, regulatory policies drive our actions and the lack of them are often the reason for our inaction.

In addition to the 16G seating change, this issue of seat width reminds me of the more recent policy changes on the use of WiFi, PEDs, and Cell-Phones inside the cabin.  Completely different matters, I agree.  Yet, they have for a time caused a variance between what is standard in European and other International airlines and what is standard for US Carriers.

Again, these services were long desired by passengers, and it took a while for the industry to catch up.  (Perhaps this does not apply to the phone call service as that debate is ongoing in US markets, and both airlines and passengers are clearly divided on this.  But it is certainly true of the use of WiFi and PEDs).

Because of the use of the word “standard,” the seat-width debate is headed in the same direction.

A better gauge of whether an 18″ seat-width standard will actually become a standard would be natural market forces.  This would also avoid the sticky regulatory issue.

Airbus can go ahead with their plans to standardise 18″ seats on their long-haul aircraft and Boeing can leave the option open to the airlines, and we can see who sells more aircraft for long-haul destinations as a result.  No one regulates anything.  No “formal” new standards are written.  Passengers vote when they book their flights based on the various airline seat offerings.

This isn’t really setting a standard per-se, but raising the bar.  It’s still a good thing.

Passengers might consider their choice of airline more carefully.  They might let their wallets prove who’s right on this point.  Passengers could choose to pay more for wider seats (and/or increased pitch) on long-haul destinations.  Or they may prove to value low airfares over comfort.

What we didn’t have in the 1950s (what we didn’t even have in the 1990s) were services like seatguru.com.  With specific measurements of cabin seating options classified by aircraft model and cabin section, grouped by airline and route, Seat Guru makes it possible for passengers to scrutinise an airline’s cabin offerings in ways they never could before.

It’s a service to watch, and I’ll be following up with Seat Guru for details on how passengers use their metrics in 2014.  You’ll hear all about it.

It comes down to this: if we do need wider seats then aircraft capacities will change, passenger loads will be reduced, and fares will rise as a result.

I can’t see anyway around it.  New seating is a significant investment for the airlines.  Coupled with fewer passengers on each aircraft (an even greater cost-burden), there is no way for the airlines to maintain current low-fares while accommodating wider seat standards.  

None of us want to pay higher fares, but if we want more seat comfort we might have to.  Airlines cannot afford to carry the burden alone.

Feel free to argue.  I like comments.  Tell me I’m wrong and tell just me how very wrong I am.

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