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

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.

BA economy B787

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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  • This article is spot on, I go out of my way to make sure I am not flying on a 787 in economy, even if it means travelling on another airline – cash before comfort for the airlines and I hope they heed this article on future new planes and make them 8 wide

  • I completely agree with the above article. I have just returned from a four hour flight from Auckland NZ to Melbourne AUST and although the aircraft was well, just like any new aircraft – I was very underwhelmed by the 9 abreast seating, It was noticeably more narrow than the A320 that we have been on some 5 days earlier.

    I understand airlines are trying to make extra $ by squeezing extra passengers in but they are making the flying experience down right uncomfortable.

    I am NOT looking forward to my upcoming 14 hour flight with UNITED in November this year when they start flying the new 787 from MELB to LAX. Me thinks I should have booked with Qantas on the a380 or Air NZ on the 777.

    That will teach me for trying to save money – and I was so looking forward to this flight as well.

    Disappointed.

  • Just flown doha to edinburgh on a Qatar 787. Most uncomfortable economy trip I can remember in years. Back to Ek for me.

  • This article sure is accurate. I just flew, very uncomfortably from London to Toronto on BA’s 787. Hardly a dream. And it’s not only the narrowness. I had a window seat with the sun shining in for the entire flight. The dimmable window blocks sufficient light, but not the heat! Adding to that, there are no individual overhead vents to direct some extra cool air. I was very excited to try the 787, but what a disappointment.

  • I have just sent a message to the Qatar Airways Complaints Department declaring that I will NEVER fly on a Qatar 787 in economy and that I have just purchased abandoned a ticket purchase with them in favour of another airline after discovering that the flight would be on one of their 787s. I have made a similar complaint to BA. It is very important that we travellers provide feedback to the airlines, but more importantly vote with our feet.

    Qatar was not even the cheapest airline on the route I was booking. Air China was cheaper with more seat pitch and wider seats.

  • Strange, I had the most comfortable flight on board Royal Brunei’s ‘Betterfly’ 787 from Heathrow to Dubai International.

  • Strange, I had the most comfortable flight on board Royal Brunei’s ‘Betterfly’ 787 from Heathrow to Dubai International.

  • Absolutely agree. I actively avoid the 787 in Economy on AA, BA, and LA, which requires that I fly less-desirable routes and connect through less-desirable airports, but that’s a small inconvenience compared to 10+ hours in Economy on this aircraft. It’s too bad, such an opportunity wasted.

  • Absolutely agree. I actively avoid the 787 in Economy on AA, BA, and LA, which requires that I fly less-desirable routes and connect through less-desirable airports, but that’s a small inconvenience compared to 10+ hours in Economy on this aircraft. It’s too bad, such an opportunity wasted.

  • The airlines are to blame for the low comfort on board – and not the Dreamliner itself. I flew the 787 with QR in Business but surely not eager to try in Economy.

    A 10-abreast configuration in the 777´s Economy Class is pretty much industry standard now, even it was not originally planned by Boeing.Nevertheless the 777 is the lomnghaul work horse of may airlines.

    From my experience the Dreamliner is only third choice for longhaul flights, beaten by A350 and A380.

  • The airlines are to blame for the low comfort on board – and not the Dreamliner itself. I had a decent impression travelling 787 in Business (QR and HU) but surely not tempted to try in Economy. Personally the Dreamliner is only my third choice for longhaul flights, beaten by A350 and A380.

    Jumping to the bigger brother 777: a 10-abreast configuration in its Economy Class was not originally planned by Boeing either but it is pretty much industry standard by now. Nevertheless the 777 has become the unrivaled longhaul work horse of many airlines.

    The airlines are the winners and customers are the loosers: those density issues have only resulted in the birth of the Premium Economy product.

  • I’m myself avoid the B787 in Y whenever I fly ! too many horrors stories ! Boeing has failed in term of confort with the 10 across on the 777 and now with their “helliner” !

  • I’m myself avoid the B787 in Y whenever I fly ! too many horrors stories ! Boeing has failed in term of confort with the 10 across on the 777 and now with their “helliner” !

  • Not the 787 or Boeing in general failed but the airlines ordering a tight seating configuration! The topic was discussed earlier with the 777. And the reaction of the airlines? They invented a new product for the ululating crowd: premium economy.

  • Not the 787 or Boeing in general failed but the airlines ordering a tight seating configuration! The topic was discussed earlier with the 777. And the reaction of the airlines? They invented a new product for the ululating crowd: premium economy.

  • My flight from London Heathrow to Philadelphia on a British Airways Dreamliner was possibly the best flying experiences I ever had.

    No complaints from this flier.

  • My flight from London Heathrow to Philadelphia on a British Airways Dreamliner was possibly the best flying experiences I ever had.

    No complaints from this flier.

  • I flew on a Virgin Atlantic 787 from Heathrow to Newark last year in Economy with extra legroom, and I was very disappointed with the space. Firstly, the seats are narrower, probably narrower than a standard Easyjet plane, and secondly because the footwell has the in-flight entertainment box (about the size of a Nintendo Wii) in it, so you end up sat at an angle. This doesn’t bode well for comfort.

    Next time I fly long haul I will look long and hard at which type of plane it is, because USB charging, mood lighting and large windows aside, I wasn’t especially impressed with the Dreamliner.

  • I flew on a Virgin Atlantic 787 from Heathrow to Newark last year in Economy with extra legroom, and I was very disappointed with the space. Firstly, the seats are narrower, probably narrower than a standard Easyjet plane, and secondly because the footwell has the in-flight entertainment box (about the size of a Nintendo Wii) in it, so you end up sat at an angle. This doesn’t bode well for comfort.

    Next time I fly long haul I will look long and hard at which type of plane it is, because USB charging, mood lighting and large windows aside, I wasn’t especially impressed with the Dreamliner.

  • I flew with BA from Newark to London Heathrow in a 787 in economy, the room width wise was a joke, it was also very uncomfortable once the passenger in front had reclined their seat. BA are very steadily scaling down their renown service, and it is becoming very apparent now.

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