British Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner - Photo: Martin Hartland | Flickr CC

British Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner – Photo: Martin Hartland | Flickr CC

People who love to fly don’t fly economy.

For the past several months, my husband has pitched the idea of AirlineReporter readers likely being interested in a trip report written by a “normal person” like me. In this case, “normal” is defined as someone who doesn’t choose flights based on the aircraft model, or speak in cabin class codes (e.g. Y, J, M, F). I am not an AvGeek and I am sort of proud of it (although I still love you all).

My husband and I fly together several times a year and, when we do, I am able to piggyback off of his status and occasionally get a free upgrade to business/first for domestic flights. However, the “opportunity” for me to fly long-haul economy eventually arose when I needed to fly from Seattle to Hyderabad, India for work.

CLICK FOR LARGER: British Airways Boeing 747-400 seen at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on 3/14/13. AirlineReporter.com writer Ben will be writing a story on his flight to London. Photo by Ben Whalen.

British Airways  747 seen at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport flying to London – Photo: Benjamin Whalen | AirlineReporter

To establish some context, I consider myself to be an experienced economy flier. Before meeting my husband and learning of the world of mileage runners and aviation geekdom, I had several flights between the US and Europe to visit distant relatives, as well as a semester studying abroad where I tried to fly to another city every other weekend. In all of these cases, I only ever flew economy, and have fond memories of being nestled under a blanket and binge-watching in-flight entertainment on a few good-length flights. Even though I didn’t pay much attention to the seat dimensions, I enjoyed flying and viewed it as a chance for peace, quiet, and self-reflection.

However, my flight to and from India was going to be much more rigorous than my previous travels. I had two back-to-back ten-hour flights in British Airways’ economy class, traveling from SEA>LHR>HYD. To top it off, I needed to do the reciprocal leg within five days of my arrival.

Inside the economy cabin (aka World Traveller) of a British Airways' Boeing 787 Dreamliner - Photo: BA

Inside the economy cabin (aka World Traveller) of a British Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner – Photo: BA

On my flight out, I sat next to my coworker, which made it much less awkward to manage the logistics, such as rummaging under the seat in front of you, getting things opportunistically from the overhead bin, arranging trips to the lavatory, and trading off the window seat.  By the time I had to fly back, I had already watched and/or slept through six movies on the IFE, I was flying alone, and I was starting coming down with a cold. The outlook was grim before I had even gotten to my seat.

Living with an AvGeek, you start to understand obscure terms such as “three-four-three y” (which is an economy class with three seats next to the windows and four seats in the middle), and understand that a 787 is newer than a 767 and usually has newer seats. To me, newer seats tend to be a good sign, since it increases the likelihood of in-seat power and tends to have nicer video screens.

In the weeks before my flight, I read a rant about the decreasing quality of economy class in favor of increasing the number of seats you can cram in a plane. The author had a background in the aviation business but tends to only fly first or business, so their understanding of a 17” seat pitch is purely theoretical. I’d only paid passing attention to it, since I had never really had a seat which was uncomfortable enough to consider it a memorable experience. I attributed this to being a relatively average sized person—I am a 5’6” female who wears size 8 jeans.

Nose of a British Airways' 787 - Photo: Nick Morrish | BA

Nose of a British Airways 787 – Photo: Nick Morrish | British Airways

And so, with the odds ever in my favor, I used my modicum of status (Ruby) to wind up being the first person in my row. I shoved my rollaboard in the overhead bin, tossed my messenger bag in the general vicinity of my window seat, noted the nice seat tech (USB power! An outlet!), sat down…. and immediately saw my problem.

My messenger bag would not fit under the seat in front of me. Since this a bag that I travel with heavily on domestic economy, the notion that it would not fit under the seat in front of me on a 10-hour international flight never crossed my mind. However, not matter how I tried to squeeze or rotate my bag, I wasn’t able to wedge it into the gap. Ducking my head down to investigate, I discovered that the under-seat space in front of me was reallocated for two large metal compartments on either side, with a life vest along the top of the compartment.

Trying to make the best of it, I quickly started to rummage through my bag to try to grab any of the necessities I expected to need on my flight, and crammed everything that would fit into the net on the seat back in front of me. My laptop, book, and chargers would not fit so they went back in the bag which I speedily stowed away in the overhead bin.

Prepared for the next ten hours, I decided to test whether I could use the space in front of me for my feet. When I crossed my ankles, my feet shoved up against the life jacket. When I uncrossed them, my feet had about an inch of space on either side.

It was this moment that I decided that it should be a requirement for airline executives to have to test their economy class seats on a fully booked long-haul flight before being allowed to downgrade their seating. My seat had just enough space when I sat perfectly still, but the dimensions were such that I couldn’t really cross my legs with invading the personal space of the passenger next to me.

World Traveller section of a BA 787 - Photo: David Jones | Flickr CC

World Traveller section of a BA 787 – Photo: David Jones | Flickr CC

I took a quick photo of my seat pitch as the other passengers started filing in, which probably earned me the first impression of a crazy person. As the plane door closed, my husband texted me that he envied my opportunity for content creation, and then the small child behind me started enthusiastically kicking the metal compartment on the back of my seat. Sigh.

Advil. I had forgotten my Advil. It was still stowed in my messenger bag. I started weighing the likelihood of the flight attendants having bottles of wine (a key substitute for Advil) on their meal carts against the certainty of disgruntling my seat companions by immediately needing to get something out of my bag.

Unfortunately, morning flights turn out not to have tiny wine bottles on the meal cart. Instead, I tried to coordinate everything I needed to with regards to my seat configuration (shoes off, blanket on, tablet away) before they foisted a serving of scrambled eggs and chicken sausage on me. I needed to unfold my tray table and, even then, the food barely fit on my tray table and kept sliding towards me as a result of the passenger in front of me reclining their seat which had slightly angled my tray. In my mind, I added another argument for forcing airline executives or, well, anyone who designed the cabin to have to test fly their creation.

The different shades of the 787 windows shown in this ANA version - Photo David Parker Brown

The different shades of the 787 windows shown in this ANA version – Photo: David Parker Brown

It is a bad sign when you interpret the person in front of you reclining their seat feels like an act of aggression. It is a worse sign when a flight attendant tells passengers to return their seats to the upright position so that the trays stop sliding and that people can successfully eat.

Shortly after breakfast, the video screens went out and the babies on the plane started a call and response of hysterically crying. In my aspirational airline executive test flight, I decided that the test flight would definitely need crying children. Several crying children.

I decided that sleep would be the best option and I tried to close my window, only to discover my window did not have a screen. Instead, there was a small pair of buttons that tinted my screen various shades of blue. Unfortunately, anxiously pressing these buttons never actually entirely shut the window. I made a mental note to ask my husband what possible advantage that could provide, particularly on long flights where at least someone would be trying to sleep. Turns out — he doesn’t like them either.

British Airways' first Boeing 787 Dreamliner arrives at London Heathrow on 27 June 2013 - Photo: Jeff Garrish | BA

British Airways’ first Boeing 787 Dreamliner arrives at London Heathrow on 27 June 2013 – Photo: Jeff Garrish | BA

Instead, I wound up trying to settle in and move as little as possible for the several hours, with only occasional misadventures in awkwardly scraping the backs of my thighs on the knees of the other people in my row to queue up for the lav. I couldn’t manage to rotate in a way that made sleeping comfortable, so I wound up watching movies and trying not to shift into my neighbor’s personal space until I stumbled out into Heathrow airport and felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that my next flight wasn’t on quite as new of a plane.

In closing, this won’t be my last economy flight. However, as long-haul economy starts to get more cramped than domestic economy, I’ve found that I’ve become a much warier long-haul solo traveler. I’ve started paying a lot more attention to seat pitch, in-flight entertainment, and the number of seats per row as opposed to just the departure time, number of layovers, and arrival time.

Also, you might noticed that there are none of photos that I personally took. My apologies. Like I said, I do not take photos of airplanes and I guess the ones that I took were not up to standard. Oh well. Maybe next time.

This article was written by the wife of an AvGeek for AirlineReporter. She’d prefer to remain anonymous.

From time-to-time we will share contributions from others on AirlineReporter. If you have strong writing skills, a passion for aviation and a story to tell, then learn about potentially sharing your story and then contact us. guest@airlinereporter.com

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26 Comments
Michel Loutchaninoff

I’m also a regular global traveler and grew up flying (my father was a pilot and executive at Air France from 1959-1996). I fly at least 5 times per month and take long haul trips at least once a month to Europe and Asia consistently.
That said we took a holiday trip from Austin,Tx to London over the Xmas holiday – the big news was it was going to be our first flight on the BA787 on the daily AUS/LHR flight.
In a nutshell – what a huge disappointment!!!! Cramped seats, little recline and yes I reclined my seat and almost crushed the laptop of the person behind me.
I did not find any of the so called “fresher” air circulation Boeing touts on the 787! Also talking to the crew to a man/woman they stated how unimpressed the 787 was set up on BA.
The large windows are nice and we did find the dimming feature worked well and helps keep the cabin felling less claustrophobic then the regular shades.
In the end I would NEVER fly the 787 long haul in coach again.

I think that sounds more like a British Airways problem than a 787 problem. They take from economy to make the long haul first class better.

Michel Loutchaninof

Not really just a BA problem….just about every airline is going to use the 3/4/3 configuration and 38+ rows on the 787. And I didntceven mention the tiny lavatorys – I’ve seen 737 lavs just as large – I take the Singapore Air A340 from LAX/SIN and the lavs are huge.

Sorry but for passengers the 787 is purely MEH……..all the fuel economy and flight efficiencies in the world don’t make a bit of difference with small bins and cramped seating.

Michel Loutchaninof

Oops typo….. I ment 3/3/3 config in the BA787

I was going to say, if it’s 3-4-3, no wonder its cramped. I will say, I think Airbus certainly does a better job about making their planes more comfortable. But it must be said, I think a lot of airlines known for passenger comfort use a lot of airbus planes. Personally, I’m curious to see how the Qatar Airways 787 compares to the A350. Same airline, known for being comfortable… and how will it be different?

My family and I took a US Airways A330 flight from PHL to Tel Aviv a couple of years ago. That is USA’s longest flight. I was prepared for an awful experience in Economy and must say that the 330 was excellent. Even with a 5 hour SEA-PHL leg on either side, I was very impressed. Not sure what the A350 is like, but I’d definitely fly that route on that aircraft with that carrier again.

Plane-Crazy Joe

Brian, was it rather a 321 from SEA>PHL>SEA? To my knowledge, US Air never flew 330s to SEA – on scheduled flights. Maybe you logged the reggies of the aircraft you flew; which you could further research. They didn’t even fly them to LAX.

Plane-Crazy Joe

Michel, SQ removed 345s from their fleet several months ago! They fly 380s to LAX. Their EWR service was discontinued.

I’m flying their 380 from LAX to NRT in early April.

Awesome, my wife would likely echo many of those sentiments, esp about being married to an avgeek!

Those windows on the 787 suck when the sun shines directly on them, we recently took our 4 (nearly 5) month old to visit rellies in the UK and thankfully even though the cabin was lit up like a brothel she managed to sleep through it, thanks in part to she shade provided by her car seat.

JL Johnson

Howdy, anonymous!

I came to your post ready to tell you all about how I’m an AvGeek and my preferred airline only offers economy… Then I read your piece. Seems you’ve got a compelling argument. And since I have zero experience on long haul international flights I’ll have to defer to yours. I will say it’s discouraging to hear you were uncomfortable given your dimensions. I’m 6’1″ and by all accounts “fat.” If your PaxEx was bad, I can only imagine how horrid mine would be. All too often we AvGeeks allow our love for the industry to cloud our judgement. It’s refreshing to have an outsider give us a nudge to try and wake us up.

Thanks for the great post, and for the differing opinion.

JL, AirlineReporter

I rather like non-avgeek flight reviews. Like this, they tend to focus more on the actual experience and less on jargon and really, really nitpicky observations about the business class wine selection.

It definitely sounds like the BA 787 isn’t as nice as the ANA or even United Dreamliners. I didn’t have any problem with seat dimensions of either (6’2, 205 for the record!). And those were long flights – San Jose to Tokyo and Shangai to LA.

Xaver Schmid

Being an avgeek myself, I always feel annoyed about people boasting how often and far they travel(led) by air. No word about how egoistic frequent flying is towards the more reasonable people in the world who either can’t use air travel or abstain from taking airplanes more often than absolutely necessary (which is ‘never!’, in most cases, if we’re honest to ourselves). Civil aviation is one of the biggest environment polluters in the world! It’s also ridiculous complaining about lacking comfort aboard, considering that fares nowadays are so low and usually don’t compensate ANY of the negative external costs the trip causes.
As an avgeek I feel deeply ashamed about this and such people. And no, your job isn’t an excuse either. Nobody forces you to choose this job.

Xaver Schmid

And just to make that clear: I also don’t understand the passenger benefit of the modern IFEs. They usually just use up the last bit of leg room we’ve got left in the cattle class (the big metal box under the front seat the author mentions). IFEs are designed to trigger consumption habits in passengers (onboard shopping, poker games, movies for purchase, alcoholic beverages for purchase, advertisements, phone calls etc.), hereby maximizing returns for the airline that has to deal with lower and lower ticket fares.

Passengers are more nervous than ever, constantly fiddling with their IFE displays. There’s several centimeters less space and air to breath in front of me. Passengers are disturbing other passengers’ peace with unnecessary inflight phone calls, insufficiently isolating headphones, tapping on the display behind my head. There have even been deadly airplane accidents caused solely by malfunctioning IFEs.

I remember the times when the IFE consisted of a big movie screen in the center of every cabin divider. People watched a movie together in total relaxation. It was a happening, not just a one of too many entertainment options giving people a hard time to decide what they actually like or not. If you didn’t bother about the movie you could simply book a seat far away enough from the screen. Nobody felt the urge to make a phone call to the puppy at home as it simply wasn’t possible. In “emergencies”, one could still make prohibitively expensive calls in a couple of dedicated zones on the plane. Business people highly enjoyed not being reachable by bosses or clients for the duration of the flight, instead of being expected to finish some nonsense presentation slides and send them off by e-mail before arrival like today.

I’d really welcome a “back to the basics” movement in modern civil aviation. No more silly and nervous IFEs, more space even at the same pitch, more relaxation and serenity, no flight attendants running around selling watches or glasses of whiskey, a feeling of travelling again instead of constant distractions for 300 entertainment junkies on an 10-hour turkey. No feeling of missing some random news (that you’ll have forgotten in the next minute again anyway).

Those that really need to do work can still use their own iPad or notebook. A power plug at seats in dedicated work zones in the plane is sufficient for that, nobody needs constant Internet access (you’ll even be more productive without it during the flight, as then you’ll do actual work instead of searching for the F/A’s profile on Facebook).

G J Gálik

Interesting set of comments – regarding the B787 … the airplane today for me irrelevant! All I look for in long int’l flight is seat guru for analysis by airline of who offers 18″ seat with 32-34″ pitch and that’s it! Everything else perfunctory (think bland chicken dinner), and IFE’s ? Well partake at your own risk. I’m not winning the lottery anytime soon and lost all hope to be a world traveller or flying first class anytime soon. I think it would disappoint as well.

In reference to your flying experience before you met your husband, I too remember feeling sufficiently comfortable flying in coach class in my younger days. I think that in addition to today’s more cramped seating conditions, age is also a factor. I’m sure that as we all get older we want more comfort – I know that in my 40’s, I’m less able to tolerate the rigors of travelling than when I was in my 20’s. So I think this also colors our perception of the flying experience.

This article describes economy experience pretty well.
With 3-3-3 in 787 (designed to be 2-4-2) and 3-4-3 in 777 (used to be 3-3-3) economy became commonly accepted nightmare. Also I don’t see economy much cheaper than before. Especially considering oil prices these days.
I guess greedy airlines found weak spots in clients behavior to (ab)use them on 200%

RyeGuyLA

Great article & glad you listened to your wife. This point of view is great for all us (even ones who travel in Business a lot). Keep up the good work!

Ms. Anonymous, Size 8,
Thanks for the great post, wonderfully written and from the perspective of a non-geek. It sounds like you have Cattle-Class travel nailed, cope well with nearly anything and generally enjoy flying to and fro. Personally, I’ve have some trouble with B-T-B ten-hour flights in “Y,” needing a layover or an upgrade at the halfway point. Congratulations; ypu’ll be a geek before you know it. And again, the clear, concise writing (not common in these parts) is sincerely appreciated. -C.

Plane-Crazy Joe

Miss Anonymous, I’ve had two Long Haul segments on UA 7-Late-7s. I sat in Cattle Class, which has 3X3X3 seating, on both. My seats were similar to those I’ve had on other Types. Both flights had high Load Factors; which always impacts my mobility around the cabin. The darkening window was a ROYAL PAIN – labor intensive!! On my first segment, it continually darkened – UNCOMMANDED by me!? The flight was entirely during daytime. Frankly, after reading all the ” hype ” about the 7-LATE-7, I found it to be just another cattle hauler! Ok, the automatic toilet seat and flush was a novelty! But on my first segment it didn’t flush properly!

Since I’m plane-crazy, I do find it’s a gorgeous airplane to photograph; that is, it’s exterior.

Btw, I too have suffered from a brat continually kicking my seatback for SEVERAL hours; and the pax in front of me lowering his seatback to within inches of my face, for several hours. The parent of the kicking brat did NOTHING to control her offspring!? And then there have been the little brats who’ve screamed and / or cried for HOURS! Again, the parents did NOTHINGH!? Apathetic Cabin Crew did little to resolve the issues! Then there was the Indian National, in the adjoining aisle seat, who coughed and hacked for the ENTIRE FLIGHT from NRT to SFO – never once blocking his mouth of the germs he spewed! I was sick for TWO weeks as a consequence! ( Rarely am I ill or sick – not even with a headache )!!

Finally, I DO NOT recommend United – I’ve had enough of their CRAP ” service “. It has only worsened in recent years!

RSMflyer

I haven’t read through all the comments listed here but enough that I felt I could shed some light. I do not work for either of the aircraft manufacturers or any of the airlines but being in a connected area I am very familiar with both.

Seat pitch (the spacing between seats), seat width, cushioning, cover materials and seating layout (3-3-3, 3-4-3, 2-4-2, etc.) are all decided by the airlines. The same goes for the sizes, locations and quantity of lavatories, galleys, etc.

IFE systems vary greatly depending on the manufacturer and these are selected by the airlines as well, often strictly based on cost with less regard for passenger comfort.

The installation of the IFE system is BEST-CASE a well coordinated effort between the manufacturer of the seat and the IFE manufacturer and you can really tell the difference since everything looks better integrated and takes up much less space than any older system and much less than newer but “cheap” systems.

On the best and most modern systems the underseat boxes for in-seat power and to run the IFE equipment take up very little room and often are undetectable. Even on the best systems though the airlines pick and choose options to save money that can negatively impact the passenger:

Here is a good “for instance”…
a major US legacy carrier has domestic planes with a great IFE system but because they opted for NO handset, passengers must use the touchscreen itself to adjust everything including changing channels, changing volume and PLAYING GAMES, so what you get is a restless kid behind you poking YOUR head rapidly for 3 hours playing tetris while Mommy naps.

So most of the discomfort and inconvenience you experience is totally caused by that airline and their questionable choices.

I have flown 787 with 9 across seating (3-3-3) transatlantic a few times now and I really enjoyed it. I was not nearly as “dried out” as usual and the plane was very comfortable and quiet as well. The huge windows are great and the colorful lighting does help you deal with the time changes better. I have mixed emotions about the electronic tinting too though.

Location on the plane can make a big difference too with the rear of the plane being noisier and bumpier, sometimes even smellier too on older planes. Sitting in the far aft of an older 747 can be quite a ride in rough air as the plane will flex side to side looking like a shark swimming. Look down the aisles and you can watch…fascinating.

All the various aircraft have their plusses and minuses but within the widebody category (777, 747, 787, 767, A330, A340, A380) I have found preferences but again it really varies from one airline to another for the reasons stated above. I have not flown an A350 yet so I can’t comment on that one.

The same can be said for the narrowbody category (737, 757, A319, A320, A321). While the Airbus planes have a nominally wider cabin they also are much noisier during taxiing, at take-off and especially during landing than the Boeing planes.

Ok so that’s all about planes…

As mentioned numerous times above I can’t stand having a screaming child or even one who has no sense of any manners at all (kicking the seat, pushing the seat, spilling food everywhere, etc.).

Obviously parenting skills need to be worked on people! I am not your nanny either so don’t stick me with the little one to entertain while you sit calmly with your spouse!

Finally, it used to be that if you took a red-eye flight you could avoid the children, drunks and most inconsiderate people but that appears no longer to be the case.

WHEN can we fly and avoid all this non-sense? Do we need to establish no-cry zones? Child-free zones? Singles only zones? Seriously what can we demand?

Does anyone remember when air travel was special? Service was king, planes generally were on time, security was polite and reasonable? I don’t think I’m all THAT old, but that’s the way it used to be. Airlines were more concerned with their public image than shareholders.

This BA flight sounds dreadful. As in dreadful enough to make me see what other airlines have to offer. BA, are you listening? Hopefully Virgin still does it right.

In all honesty, I am surprised about the experiences of the author on that flight. I myself fly longhaul about three times a year and have never had a more spacious seat in economy than the one on the BA B787 except when I was seated in an exit row.
I am 5’11” and usually the tip of my knees touch the seatback pocket of the seat in front of me when the seat isn’t reclined, not so on this flight though- there were a few centimeters to spare.
What I did however find annoying was that the electronics of the in flight entertainment system is still mounted in a metal box underneath the front seat, while clearly this would fit into the screen itself (looking at all the tablets on the market now.)
The cabin humidity was a pleasant surprise, I had no feeling of constantly having to down a cup of water. I also liked that the B787 can keep a cabin pressure of a lower altitude than most previous airliners;- no discomfort on the descent at all.
(All of the above in comparison to the economy on A330,A340, A380, B747, B777 of Emirates, Qatar, Turkish, Asiana, United, US Airways, Lufthansa)

Can anyone help me with a question? I have already bought tickets for three on an AUS-LHR flight but did not read reviews before doing so. Now I am regretting my choice, but anyway…… I am now going to buy three seats together, and so far we have a lot of seat choices still available. My question is: which seats would you buy? The three in the middle? In the 20’s or further toward the back? I am assuming that the seats next to a bathroom would have reclining issues, and if the people in front of us recline, we would be miserable. Just looking for some suggestions since we are stuck with this flight. Thank you in advance!

Hey Donna,

You might want to take a look at http://www.seatguru.com to help you decide which seats to pick.

David | AirlineReporter

Yeah – I looked there, but I didn’t see any “good” reviews on any particular seats or rows. 🙁 Looks like they are all equally bad. I just hoped to find something positive about one area. I was hoping they would switch the route to another type of plane, but that is probably just wishful thinking. Thanks for the reply though….

Yea… that happens. That is when I sit as close to the front as possible so I can get off first :).

David | AirlineReporter

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