Missed opportunity: Why the B787 fails the comfort test in economy

11 Dec 2013 by BusinessTraveller
BA Dreamliner

Veteran cabin crew member Jacob Cooper on why economy seating is proving unpopular on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

The B787 Dreamliner is now in service with some 14 airlines. The promise of this aircraft was twofold — it would bring enhanced comfort for passengers and operational benefits for airlines.

Boeing designed and marketed it as a roomy long range aircraft with a spacious eight abreast seating in economy class. Unfortunately, economics got in the way.

As Business Traveller has reported, of the 14 airlines that operate the B787 only one (Japan Airlines) has the original Boeing layout of eight seats abreast in economy.

While rival All Nippon Airways has also launched the aircraft with eight across in economy, it has now begun to follow what every other airline operating the 787 has done — opt for the high density version of nine seats across. (Read our B787 Dreamliner: How The Airlines Compare feature for more information.)

I work on the B787 for one of these airlines and can vouch that passengers in economy are very unhappy with the seating. Not only are they squeezed sideways but also in terms of leg room.

To give one example, I have learned that although the seat pitch was supposed to be 31 inches for economy class seats on the B787 (in line with the rest of their long-haul fleet), BA has now conceded that the six rear-most rows of the economy cabin do in fact only have 30-inches of legroom.

And that’s not all. For many seats on the airlines which fly the B787, you will find the legroom impeded by boxes that power the enhanced IFE (InFlight Entertainment) system on board.

BA apparently contracted a market researcher to travel on board the B787 and interview passengers about their thoughts about flying on the aircraft. The results of that are, of course, confidential.

But the semi-public BA News reported: “The Dreamliner has generally been well received. Club World customers were particularly impressed with the cabin environment, although seat comfort in World Traveller is creating a slightly negative theme.”

The question for passengers then becomes, “Is the mood lighting, enhanced IFE and electric dimmable blinds a big enough trade-off for diminished personal space?”

I want to be clear — BA is not alone in this. Feedback on this nine-across seating on the B787 is fairly consistent in its negativity and Business Traveller has been reporting on this since early 2012 (You need to be a subscriber to read this detailed piece from May 2012 on seating, configuration and seat measurements).

Five-star Qatar Airways was the first airline to chose the high-density seating. There are rumours of regular passengers actively avoiding the B787 on the Doha to London route, instead choosing other aircraft types if flying in economy.

United, LAN, LOT Polish a, Air India nd Air Canada are but a few of the airlines that operate the B787. ANA launched its B787 with a total of 158 seats on their internationally configured B787s (although this will rise as they adopt the nine-across seating).

BA and United have 214 and 219 seats respectively. Qatar and Air India have 254/256 seats, Air Canada has 251, while Australia’s Jetstar has managed to squeeze in a whopping 335 seats — more than BA has on its 747s!

Could a compromise be made? Well, it seems one airline has done so. Thomson, which was the first UK airline to launch the B787, has also adopted the 3-3-3 seating. But as a trade-off it increased legroom to 33 inches. So at least there is an increase in personal space overall.

It’s a little like what Emirates did when they became the first airline to install ten-abreast seating on the 777 – squeeze them width-wards but give them a little more legroom.

What is yet to be seen is how the B787 will fare on long-range routes with its narrow seating — compounded by most of the airlines by small seat pitch.

Most airlines are still “breaking in” their new toys and flying them on shorter longhaul routes. BA, for example, currently only operates the 787 from London to the US east coast for flights of around seven hours. And people are getting pretty uncomfortable on those flights.

Soon, BA’s 787s will operate the 11hr 20min haul from Chengdu to London. Air Canada will use it on the Toronto-Tokyo Haneda route from July 2014, a 13-hour flight. Air Canada’s seat pitch is 31 inches. What will be the reaction then?

Thankfully, most B787 operators have only taken delivery of the first few aircraft of larger orders. For example, BA has so far received a total of four out of an order of forty.

We can but hope that the seating issues will be taken “on board” when it comes to configuring the new deliveries. And to its credit, BA has acknowledged that there are issues.

World Traveller seating on BA's B787 aircraft

Despite this, personally I don’t think we will see another airline fly the B787 with the original design of eight abreast. It seems nine has now become the norm. Which begs the question — is the Dreamliner (which is 20 per cent more fuel efficient than other similarly sized aircraft) more a dream for the airlines than their passengers?

Making passengers TOO comfortable in economy has never been the priority of the airlines. But they are not to be ignored either. They are the driver behind frequencies for the large network airlines and also generate a large portion of the revenue.

Not all economy passengers list price as their number one factor when choosing a carrier for a long-haul flight either. For many, they will still choose a more expensive airline for enhanced comfort. And with various forums and blogs available on the internet economy passengers have never had so much information available at their fingertips.
Read our contributor biography of Jacob Cooper.

Note: when the B787-9 was introduced by British Airways, the economy seat pitch was altered.

British Airways B787-9 to offer wider economy seat

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