In October 2015, it appeared that Cathay Pacific was ‘flirting’ with the idea of changing its long-haul 777 economy class from a 9-abreast to a 10-abreast cabin. This appears to be correct, since Cathay Pacific gauged the responses of some of its most loyal Marco Polo customers in a recent survey to see whether they would accept a 3-4-3 configuration on their long-haul 777 aircraft.
“To understand the needs of our customers as well as the trend and development of the airline industry, Cathay Pacific periodically conducts research on different aspects of our offerings so as to continuously improve on our passenger services,” Julie Jarratt, Cathay Pacific Communications Manager explained to AirlineReporter. “Cathay Pacific, at this stage, has no decision to change the seat width and seat pitch of our 777 fleet.”
From an airline’s perspective, the rationale for a 10-abreast cabin is quite obvious. Not only does it provide a higher profit margin, by lowering its cost per seat mile, but it (theoretically) allows these savings to be put into other benefits for travelers in the form of cheaper airfares or enhanced services. In this sense, a denser cabin allows airlines to move greater numbers of passenger on fewer flights, which leads to fuel efficiency in the form of equated fuel burn reduction savings. I wanted to take a closer look at which airlines are taking delivery of the higher-density 777s, as that configuration is becoming more and more popular.
Sure, an increase in the number of seats will translate into reduced passenger comfort and access (e.g. longer boarding times if bags do not fit the aisles), but the airline business model assumes that passengers are willing to make sacrifices for lower fares. If you want more space and comfort, passengers can upgrade to premium economy, business class, or first class, right?
Fifteen years ago, only 5% of 777 deliveries were equipped with 10-abreast economy. Things have surely changed since then; today over 50% of airlines take the more dense option.
Boeing works with airlines to make sure they are providing the products that will allow them to operate most effectively. “Boeing is in constant conversation with our customers about what they want and what they need,” Elizabeth Fischtziur, Boeing 777 Program Communications, told AirlineReporter. “That has helped us create a family of long-range twin-aisle airplanes that are the most preferred by both airlines and their passengers.”
“In contrast to the competitor’s products, the 777 has a wider fuselage that allows for more seats in each row while providing good passenger experience,” Fishtziur continued. “Airline acceptance of the 777 at 10-abreast has continued to grow over the years, now accounting for over 50 percent of recent 777 deliveries. Meanwhile, the 777 continues to win passenger preference awards year after year.”
However, a look at the top ten 777 operators (based on total orders and deliveries) would suggest that many operators have remained firm on a 3-3-3 economy configuration. In this sense, premium airlines like Singapore Airlines and Korean Air have remained competitive by thriving on differentiation. Even British Airways reverted back to 3-3-3 after trialing a 3-4-3 configuration in its World Traveller cabin and receiving significant criticism in the late 1990s.
Although Boeing deliveries for 10-abreast cabins may be increasing, the better view would suggest that Boeing is delivering the 10-abreast 777 deliveries to the same customers, but in greater quantities.
From a global perspective, the 10-abreast cabin does appear to be a growing trend, especially among European and Middle Eastern carriers. To my surprise, Qatar Airways has also started to introduce the 10-abreast cabin.
“Due to ever-increasing passenger demand across a range of Qatar Airways routes coupled with new developments in slim-line seating, Qatar Airways will feature 10 seats abreast in Economy on all its new B777 aircraft,” Qatar said in a statement emailed to AirlineReporter.
“The current Qatar Airways fleet of 9 Boeing 777-200 aircraft, with a capacity of 259 seats, 42 business class and 217 economy class, will remain in a 3-3-3 configuration across in its economy class section, with a 32 inch seat pitch and 18.2 inch seat width,” the airline continued. “All future Boeing 777-300 aircraft deliveries will maintain an economy class seat pitch of 32 inches, with a width of 17 inches in a 3-4-3 configuration. And, as part of the retrofitting and updating of our existing Boeing 777-300 fleet, the current 28 B777-300 aircraft will also mirror this updated configuration when retrofitted by the end of 2016.”
Airlines with 777 10-abreast configuration
Aeroflot, Air Austral, Air Canada, Air France, Air New Zealand, American Airlines, Austrian Airlines, China Airlines, China Eastern, Emirates, Etihad, Jet Airways, KLM, Kuwait Airways, LATAM, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Scoot, TAAG Angola
Airlines with 777 9-abreast configuration
Nevertheless, the 9-abreast cabin remains the most popular choice for airlines.
Air China, Air India, ANA, Asiana Airlines, Biman Bangladesh, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Ceiba Intercontinental, China Southern, Delta, Egyptair, El Al, Ethiopian Airlines, Eva Air, Garuda Indonesia, Kenya Airways, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways*, Singapore Airlines, Pakistan International, Thai, THY Turkish, Turkmenistan, United Airlines*, Vietnam Airlines, Virgin Australia
**Note: Qatar Airways has announced plans to retrofit their 777-300ERs to 10-abreast. United Airlines is reported to take their new 777-300ERs with a 10-abreast setup in economy.
With the three Gulf mega-carriers (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar) luring many travelers away from other airlines, it is no surprise that they are often seen as the benchmark in commercial aviation. In many respects, they have become the catalyst for airlines to adopt a 10-abreast cabin. Is that a good thing?
For costs, probably. But for overall comfort, probably not. As AvGeeks, we are likely to know what airline is flying which configuration, but the big question remains; will most passengers tell the difference or will they choose one airline because of 9-abreast seating? It seems most do not.
This story was written by Matthew Tsai for AirlineReporter. He works in the legal sector and has a strong interest in international air law and aerospace human factors.