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Today, Qantas released the details on the newest member of its international fleet – the B787-9 “Dreamliner”. For Qantas, the B787 represents a potentially game-changing opportunity given its identity as a long-haul carrier. By design, the B787 opens up “long and thin” routes – ultra-long-haul routes with daily passenger numbers that don’t demand the use of the massive A380 or B747 typically deployed over such distances. Qantas is introducing the B787 to do just that.
This is exciting, and I hardly have to go into much detail why. Foremost, it is reducing the time to destination by eliminating the (sometimes) cumbersome and fatigue-inducing stopovers, and is opening up a myriad more destinations within a single stop that have been, until now, economically unfeasible. It does, however, raise very important questions regarding passenger experience that are going to be all the more explicit because of the ultra-long-haul distances this plane is designed to fly. Questions that, if I’m being straight, airlines and especially Qantas in particular have danced around, ignored and disregarded over the past decade. The most important, at least in my opinion, is what degree of comfort is owed to the Economy class customer?
The most important question posed by the B787 is what degree of comfort is owed to the Economy class customer?
First class (although not featured on the Qantas B787), Business class and to a large extent Premium Economy are more or less well catered to on such long-haul routes – almost all innovations related to customer comfort in recent years have focused exclusively on the pointy end of the aircraft. The Qantas PR machine has been touting the B787 as ostensibly designed specifically for ultra long-haul operations, and their Business configuration certainly fits this description. Premium Economy, and its incarnation on the B787, is yet to be formally released, however we can assume at a 2-3-2 layout that it will be a fairly spacious and forgiving over such distances. Economy class, at 9-abreast, does not appear fit for purpose. For this reason, I have chosen to keep this analysis focused on where the majority of derrière’s will be parked on these excursions – in Economy.
9-abreast in Economy class on a B787 has thus far proven itself as not the passenger’s first choice when given one.
I can hear the rebuttal now, so I’ll get there before anyone else does: I dispute the “you get what you pay for” default argument – whilst it may certainly hold true on short-haul flights, it is cognitively dishonest to apply similar logic to ultra-long-haul routes. Its apples and oranges.
The difference in reported passenger comfort on www.flightmaestro.net between the 9-abreast and 8-abreast layouts on this aircraft is gulf-like. For the (very) limited number of airlines touting the 8-abreast Economy class layout on the B787, passenger feedback is stellar: 79.7% satisfaction. That’s big – significantly higher than equivalent scores on the A380, the traditional flag bearer of excellent passenger comfort. Add an extra seat in there and this satisfaction number plummets substantially to 59.2%.
The seat width, at 17.4″, is the same as its low-cost-carrier Jetstar’s.
In the interest of objectivity, Qantas should be commended for the increase in seat pitch relative to its mainline fleet, although a somewhat moot point, given the remainder of its fleet employs below-industry average knee room. But this isn’t revolutionary, and simply brings Qantas in line with its competitors. The seat pitch of 32″ is no larger than the industry standard on medium- and long-haul routes, and 1″ larger than Economy class on its long-haul A380 and B747 aircraft. For seat width, Qantas has announced 17.4″. That is tiny, and the same as its low-cost-carrier partner JetStar, and smaller than the average seat width employed on domestic, short-haul A320s (17.8″).
Current theory suggests passengers preference greater seat pitch over seat width. Whilst this does hold true for a certain range of widths and pitch (namely, so long as width is above roughly 18″, increasing pitch offers greater marginal return for passenger comfort than increasing width), however this relationship does not hold for widths below 18″. That is, no amount of increased knee room will alleviate cross-shoulder pressures experienced by the passenger, and passenger perception of available space will not be greatly improved through such knee-room improvements.
Qantas, ultimately, has released a disappointing Economy Class layout for its passengers, yet its offered increase (however slightly) in legroom for Economy passengers is pleasing in the context of an industry that seems to be gleefully decimating passenger comfort. The new IFE system at 12″ and HD is a great development, as is the innovative creation of storage space for each passenger. I’m not convinced this will make up for the exceedingly low width. I do, however, look forward to seeing the Paxex results of this somewhat reversal in Qantas’ standard pitch and their approach to high-density layouts. For now, it is still safe to assume that no matter how you dress it up, 9-abreast in Economy class on a B787 has thus far proven itself to be bone-crushingly uncomfortable, and not the passenger’s first choice when given one.