Airbus has unveiled a choice of three different economy class concepts — Premium, Comfort and Budget.

Premium will be similar to today’s premium economy product, which comes with a 19-inch width, and is aimed at business and wealthy leisure travellers.

Comfort will be roughly akin to today’s standard economy product, and will have an 18-inch wide seat and is for cost-conscious passengers.

Budget, or “economy minus” as some cynics describe it, will on Airbus’ upcoming 11-across A380 also have an 18-inch wide seat but narrower armrests. On other plane types the seat might be slimmer still.

Airbus announced the new products at an aviation trade show in Hamburg today. No information on seat pitch was given as this will likely be set by each airline.

Airbus 11-across seating

Some years away: A380 11-across seating

Another display showed the 11-across A380 economy class configuration, which was first revealed a year ago (see news, March 2014).

Eighteen months ago, in an attempt to score points over rival Boeing, Airbus called for the airline industry to adopt a minimum 18-inch seat width in economy class (see news, October 2013).

Airbus’ intentions may have been good but, at the end of the day, the airlines (the ones who determine the seating layouts) are the customers and Airbus must dance to their tune.

And so that is how it has turned out. With today’s hugely varying marketplaces, fares and yields, no single carrier can afford to offer more comfort than another.

It appears that Airbus now accepts this fact. Right now, most Airbus planes offer better comfort than those manufactured by Boeing.

But things are set to change in future years. Increasing numbers of airlines are squeezing in more and more passengers to drive “yield” or revenue per seat.

The revenue gains are significant. Taking a four-class A380 with 11-across economy seating, the extra revenue per airline would be US$20 million per aircraft per year, according to Airbus.

But the 11-across A380 is some years away. Right now, most carriers are moving to ten-across layouts on their Boeing B777s while almost all carriers retain eight-across seating on their Airbus A330s and A340s (the equivalent Airbus products).

So, advantage Airbus. But although all carriers have gone nine-across on their new B787s and A350s, chances are that some will move to ten-across seating on the latter in future years. (Budget carrier Air AsiaX has already said it will go 10-across on its A350s.)

However, ten-across seating will not be possible on the B787 on account of its slimmer cabin.

Those few carriers, like Air AsiaX, Cebu Pacific and PAL, who have moved to nine-across on their A330s are mainly based in Asia. In that region, price tends to matter more than comfort and where a new generation of travellers is taking to the air for the first time.

It is becoming clear that in future there will be no single economy class. The standard product as we know it today is on the way out.

In future, travellers will have a choice of products each with its own price point, so better comfort will be available but expect to pay for it.

  • Subscribers can read our Feel the Squeeze feature on long-haul economy in the March issue of Business Traveller. Also, look out for a premium economy feature in the forthcoming June issue.