Profits Ain’t Peanuts (Part 4.3: Nutty Seating, Sittin’ Pretty)

The Time-Warp, The Wizards, and the Measuring Tape
Ultra Economy Cabin

Wizard’s Low-Cost Travel:  The Ultra Economy Cabin—Bring your own sandbags. Image from Tom Margie, used under creative commons licence.

The Time-Warp

Sometimes, when we feel change has happened overnight, it’s because we’ve been asleep.  The most dramatic changes happen so slowly that they are imperceptible until something happens which suddenly makes you aware of the everything you’ve missed while looking for it.  Then change strikes you as a bolt from the sky.  Start to look at when the change happened, and you often find out it’s been there all along.

Ageing is like that, and some of the preconceptions I’ve had about the aircraft cabin have aged.

Often, the more we believe we understand a topic, the more we miss.  I’ve observed this over the years, facts becoming concepts becoming notions becoming meaningless.  Without a concerted effort to stay up to date and keep an open mind, the knowledge we once had can turn to ignorance.

Many of the facts which I learned about aircraft interiors in when I started working in aviation in 1994 are laughable today.  All for the good.

As I’ve covered the topic of ‘nutty’ seating, over the past two chunks of what would have been a terribly long post, I’ve done the research to bring myself up-to-date.  I’ve tried to focus on the facts as they are, not as they were.

The new reality of aircraft interiors may still be based on the sound economic principles the industry began adopting after deregulation and privatisation, but that’s old news.  The materials testing and integrity limitations I knew before are not as limiting as they once were.

New materials developments have been underway and the physics of aviation are no longer what they were.  I explained current regulations and their impact to design in Profits Ain’t Peanuts: Nutty Seating 4.2, but engineers don’t always get enough credit for their resourcefulness and creativity.  They’re raising the bar.  A new reality is dawning.  Plagued by insatiable curiosity since childhood, I’m learning all about it.

If your profession revolves around the aviation industry, we’ll keep an eye on the magic being worked behind the curtain through the Flight Chic Weekly News Wrap. You can always feel free to share your thoughts and product updates. Honest, I want to know. 

For now, I want to share some highlights of how the Wizards of nutty seating have re-defined the game.

Why, bowl me over and pass the sassafras! 
Do you ever find yourself reading the news and saying: “Whoa?  What?  Did I read that right?”

That just happened to me when I read a post by Barbara Peterson of Condé Nast’s The Daily Traveler about American Airlines’ New planes.  The title of the post made me turn my head so hard I nearly broke my neck.  “American Airlines’ New Planes: How Do They Compare to JetBlue’s?”

How do the seats on the aircraft of American Airlines (now the world’s biggest airline) compare to JetBlue a recent entry in the aviation market and a prominent Low-Cost Carrier???  As Tevye said, “Unheard of!  Absurd!”

Not so much.  Increasingly, Low-Cost no longer means no-frills.  Now, no-frills airlines fit a sub-strata of aviation known as the Ultra-Low Cost Carriers.  Many Low-Cost Carriers are even charging higher airfares, in exchange for premium services.  My immediate reactions were: Where are my peanuts?  Who took my ball?  Where are the oxygen masks?  Where is the EXIT sign?

Then I laughed.  As much at myself as at the situation.

Yes, the Low-Cost model is changing, becoming something else entirely and splintering the industry.  The early participants in the Peanut Uprising, and even some of the late entries, are taking their own approach.  It’s not personal, it’s business.  Good business.  Smart business.

Need a refresher?  Have a mint!

Even as American Airlines is reorganising and reinventing itself with well-designed interiors, and a new tail, the Peanuts are out to eat their lunch.

Jaunted is over the moon after their ride on JetBlue’s Premium ‘Suite’ Seats, and understandably so.  They feature unparalleled comfort, never-before-seen in a Low-Cost Carrier (including lie-flat seating, and all sorts of practical bells and whistles for the business traveller).  And have a look at the full package—the perks are amazing!

I’m excited because it motivates other carriers to improve.  Sure, the economics will still dominate, and safety considerations will always be foremost in design.  Looking to make a buck is no sin.  Failure to ensure safety in the cabin is the worst of sins.

But who says we can’t have our cake?

Some airlines, in all market sectors, are already flying us like it’s our birthday.  In fact, we’re spoiled for choice in the Economy Cabin.  I’m referring to trend-setters like Etihad, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Turkish Airlines, Air New Zealand, Virgin in all markets, ANA, Korean Air, Thai Airways, and many others.  If I haven’t mentioned your airline, my apologies.  There are definitely others in this top category.  We’re comfortable because they provide the whole package, not because of the seats.

Metrics on SeatGuru.com reveal that most of these airlines provide Economy Seating comparable to competitors with crowded-in reputations.  Some of these leading airlines are in Asian markets, though not all.  You could argue that the passenger numbers in the Asian market yield more revenue, but that revenue is capitalised on with full cabins.  These airlines maintain full cabins by ensuring their customers enjoy the whole experience and in doing so, they build brand loyalty.

Some Low-Cost Carriers compete with these industry-leaders (many of which are Traditional Airlines) through one-upmanship.  JetBlue is one example, but Virgin America also qualifies. We’ll call these airlines Low-Cost LUX. They bridge the gap between pure budget carriers and the flagship premium experience.

Competition favours improvement under these market conditions, and barring any unforeseeable factors this dynamic of change for the better will continue.

The Grumpalumps

I’m one.  I hate being crowded in the cabin.  I suffer from claustrophobia (ironic for a frequent flyer) though I’ve learned to manage it over the years.  In bad flight conditions, when it seems like all other passengers are right on top of me, when I can hardly breathe, I curse myself for not paying the extra fare for Business or First.  Whenever budget allows, I do buy my ticket as First Class, or Business Class, even Premium Economy.  But budget does not always allow.

I’ve already shared with you in Profits Ain’t Peanuts Part Two: Nuts for Business, that I like Ryanair.  Yes.  I like Ryanair.  They’re honest.  They set the right expectations.  I don’t have to fly long-haul with them, just long enough to get to where I’m going.  Sure, with my condition, I do better when I fly with someone else.  But I get what I pay for; what I pay for is all that I want for that particular flight.

The news is full of articles focused on why seats are tighter, narrower, more crowded, and airplanes more packed-in.

Read these well written articles by The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and this excellent post from Aviación y Turismo in Spanish.  They all have good points to make.  I agree with all or most of what they say, especially from the perspective of a member of the travelling public.  But as the Wall Street Journal explains, economic realities make some of brightest ideas for space accommodation impractical.  I stand by what I said in The Financial Pinch of that Extra Inch.  Airlines must be profitable.  Current industry-average profit margins must rise, in order to accommodate further improvements for all airlines and ensure the availability of service.  New aircraft seats aren’t a silver bullet.  You can’t fit the heavy burden of customer comfort on a single seat frame—there’s no where to put it.  Airlines will have to resort to providing the “whole package” to ensure the pinch doesn’t pinch so much.

That’s it for nutty seating, at least for now.  This Friday, I’ll present the last of this post-series—Profits Ain’t Peanuts Part Five: The Seeds of Tomorrow.  If you’re in my time zone, it will be the wee hours of Saturday morning, by the time you get it.  I’m working to improve that.  Most of you dear readers are in the US, so you have nothing to worry about.  You’ll see this final chapter in the Peanuts Saga on Friday afternoon or evening, depending on your particular region.  

But is it the end of the Peanuts, after this Friday?  Will you never be served Peanuts again?  Only time will tell.

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