AIRBUS HAS FOUND a way to make flying economy even worse. That’s quite a feat, given how crummy the experience is these days. The trick, it turns out, is eliminating one the few remaining saving graces of air travel: better than even odds you won’t be squeezed into a middle seat. Generally, you’ve got a two in three chance of landing an aisle or a window.
But now, airlines flying the Airbus A380, the largest commercial jet on the planet, can reduce those odds. The European plane maker announced this week that it will offer a 3-5-3 cabin configuration, creating rows with 11 seats.
Naturally, Airbus spins this as great news for everyone, especially airlines. It’s an “innovative seating concept” that, thanks to the massive size of the plane, maintains a moderately humane seat width of 18 inches (Ryanair, for example, offers “up to 17 inches”). We’re not fooled. One more inch of space or no, 30 more seats per plane means longer lavatory lines, less overhead space for our stuff, and a 45 percent chance of being stuck in a middle seat.
Of course, Airbus insists this is all about choice. (Why is it that any time a business invokes “choice,” so many of those choices are horrible?) The A380 can now support a four-section configuration, with first, business, premium economy, and “budget economy” classes.
The reasoning behind a seating density that could shock even the Animal Legal Defense Fund is simple, says Scott Hamilton, managing director of aerospace consulting firm Leeham Company. A380 sales have been abysmal–Airbus didn’t sell a single one last year—and the company desperately needs to lower the seat-mile cost (what it costs to move one passenger one mile) to match that of the Boeing 777 and upcoming Airbus A350. Those newer jets carry fewer people, but also burn less fuel (largely through the use of lightweight composite materials), making them a more attractive choice to airlines.
There are technical ways to lower operating costs, Hamilton says, like more efficient engines, winglets on the wing tips, and cutting weight. But those can’t be delivered as quickly or cheaply as simply cramming more people onto the plane, which is exactly what new seating configurations do.
Salt in the wound: The A380 can also be customized for extreme luxury, like this first class space offered by Etihad—just one part of a three-room suite. AIRBUS
The huge growth of the airline industry—a recent forecast predicts a 31 percent jump in passenger demand from 2012 to 2017—means the A380 has an important role to play in years to come, Hamilton says. Major airports like London Heathrow and New York’s JFK already are operating near capacity, and aren’t adding new runways anytime soon. So the natural way to meet demand is with planes that hold more passengers. And because “airlines don’t give a crap about our comfort”—amen!—they’ll happily shove more of us into the back of the cabin.
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