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The last several years have been something of a roller-coaster. So much promised from the airframe manufacturers (in this case, Airbus and Boeing) only for it to be somewhat bottled by the airlines buying the aircraft. See the B787 and, more recently, refurbished B777s.

And those same few years, and the next few to come, have been and are remarkably exciting times in the aviation industry: almost every mainline carrier, from the unfairly tagged pantomime villains in North America, to the PaxEx stalwarts in South East Asia, are busily replacing their fleets and refreshing their cabins. Product launches are becoming routine, and journalists are running out of superlatives to describe the new products.

Now airlines appear to be weighing up the respective qualities and charms of the new-age Boeing B777-X and the popular A350, two aircraft likely to form the back-bone of many airline’s medium and long haul routes. For us passengers, our choice should be very clear.

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Boeing’s planned B777-X. Credit: Boeing

In the interest of full disclosure: I do love the B777. I love Boeings in general – the way they look and the way the noise reminds you precisely of where you are. But before you dash, fearing another biased column cloaked in a thin veneer of objectivity, I’ll add that I’m at pains to have reached the conclusion I have.

Airbus has made boring planes until recently. Nothing says “pragmatism” more eloquently than the blunt-nosed A320, or the big-boned A380 – the sort of plane you’d describe as “having a good personality, though”. They’re just… sterile. Aesthetic gripes aside, Airbus’ newest aircraft (the A350) has an intrinsic safeguard bolted into its airframes upon which the economy class passenger and their hips can happily rely – its cabin is narrower than Boeing’s B777.

Yes, in these days of callous width reductions and “innovative” seat modifications, narrower cabins will be the saviour of the Economy class passenger.

Boeing, on the whole, does design and build comfortable planes. The B767, whilst now showing it’s age, is spacious down the back with its standard 2-3-2 layout – 86% of seats are of the desirable window or aisle type. The B777, with its intended 3-3-3 layout, is as good as it gets for Economy class passengers, and the B787 was designed with 2-4-2 in mind, only for it to be effectively vandalised by purchasing airlines. With their cabins at 4.72m, 5.84m and 5.49m respectively, each provides ample seat width in Economy. Therein lay Boeing’s problem.

JAL 787 LN 33 Interior Photography

JAL is one of the last operators using the planned 8-abreast Economy layout on the B787. Credit: Boeing

At such cabin widths Boeing, perhaps through commercial diligence, effectively creates planes it can market to incumbent, full-service carriers wanting to tout comfort, as well as their low-cost (LCC) competitors who have a preference for density. Put another way: they deliver just enough cabin width to whet the full-service carrier’s bean-counter’s lips, who begin toying with the idea of crowbarring in an extra seat.

Although previously the province of the LCC, these jets have encouraged previously quality airlines to take the axe to the economy class experience. Produce planes just wide enough, and it proves irresistible to airlines wishing to squeeze in the extra seat, without risking catastrophic brand-damage amongst uninformed travellers. Not yet, anyway.

Boeing’s newest addition to the family, the B777-X, is an immensely exciting prospect, even if it is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of the B747. Technology from the B787 will be incorporated, the wings will fold, and previously uneconomical routes will become economical. Interestingly, advances have also been made in the fuselage, delivering a valuable 5 extra inches between the interior walls.

Because of this, I’m calling it now: the new B777-X, with its ostensible 5 extra inches in interior cabin width, will prove just enough to entice the last remaining airlines stoically sticking to 9-abreast in Economy Class to make the shift to 10-abreast. This will end the passenger-friendly 3-3-3 layout, decrease the seat width and place window-seat customers awkwardly under the curvature of the cabin walls, whilst simultaneously obstructing the foot-wells. Anyone having spent greater than the time it takes to taxi to the runway delicately wedged in a 10-abreast B777 will understand.

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Airbus’ A350-900. Credit: Singapore Airlines

Airbus offers no such incentive. Somewhat counter-intuitively, through their relatively less generous cabins aboard the A350, Airbus has effectively placed a floor on just how narrow seats can go, without being narrow themselves. They’ve found some magical middle ground, wide enough to be objectively comfortable, and narrow enough to dissuade even the most ardent of penny-pinchers (Read: BA) from installing 10-abreast, lest they risk terminal brand-damage. What’s more, the 3-3-3 layout is retained on the A350, maximising “attractive” seats.

Time will tell how long the A350, A330NEO and A380 can hold this line (the A380 is currently being touted to airlines with 11-abreast layouts) but for now, begrudgingly, I’m putting my faith in the A350, and you should too.

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Posted by Tom

Tom is a consultant and founder of FlightMaestro.net, the online travel tool that rates, ranks and dissects every facet of in-flight passenger experience. All views expressed are his own.

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