Airlines aim to put the squeeze on seats in long-haul flights

The airline industry continues to search for a way to make long-haul low-cost services work in spite of the brick wall the idea seems to have hit in the past five years.

The latest spark has come from Europe, where German mega-carrier Lufthansa said last week it would launch low-cost services to Asia next year.

"In the dynamic and highly price-sensitive market segments, our current platforms only enable us to exploit the growth potential to a limited extent, in view of their sometimes over-rigid cost structure," Lufthansa's new chief executive Carsten Spohr says in the airline industry's almost impenetrable techno-speak. "That's why we are now seeking to tap new growth areas."

Translated into lay language, he's talking about packing extra seats into some of Lufthansa's widebodies, like the venerable Airbus A340-300, and flying them to key Asian destinations where Lufthansa currently does not fly to or where it sees potential to develop leisure markets with a "product" that has lower seat costs and therefore lower fares.

One of the options is to expand the joint venture Lufthansa already has with Turkish airlines short-haul leisure subsidiary Sun Express.

Lufthansa is still at the stage of exploring thought bubbles, so it won't talk about destinations, but there are some observers who have advanced the idea it could revive the idea of a long-haul low cost carrier stretching all the way from Europe to Australia, via Asia.

There is still some residual loyalty to that idea, at least at the Australian end, after Air Asia X's short-lived services to Paris and London, which ended in 2012 because they were losing money.

Even though Air Asia X is in position to reopen those routes after the launch of services last month from Bangkok, which is within range of Western Europe with its Airbus A330-300s, the airline insists that it won't be happening anytime soon.

Qantas subsidiary Jetstar, meanwhile, has gone cold on the idea it floated around 2005 of using its Boeing 787 Dreamliners to link south European former Qantas destinations, Athens and Rome, to Australia via Singapore.


Jetstar so far has ordered only the smaller 787-8 Dreamliner, which wouldn't be able to reach Europe from Singapore with the squeezy nine-abreast 335-seat layout it eventually opted for.

To reach Europe, Jetstar would have to order the larger 787-9 recently delivered to Air New Zealand and America's United Airlines for its new Melbourne-Los Angeles non-stops from October, which will go daily next year.

There's an elephant in the room, however,that could blow everyone else out of the water in the value-for-money stakes.

What if the new Middle East carriers started using their A380 super-jumbos in a high-density arrangement with up to 800 seats, which is already technically possible?

Carriers like Emirates have always favoured value-adding their low-cost base with a full-service offering. That has made them reluctant to join in fare-discounting between Australia and Europe, with fares rarely dropping below $1800 return.  

China's biggest airline, China Southern, has had no such qualms, discounting Australia-Europe tickets below $1500 return at some times of the year.

But that is a quantum leap away from the sub-$1000 return fares that were once offered by Air Asia X and would again be on the table if someone went the super-jumbo LCC route.

An interesting footnote is that Emirates has shelved the idea of buying a super-squeezy 11-abreast version of the A380 to jam in even more people, as it has been doing with its 10-abreast Boeing 777-300s.

The super-jumbo is ideally suited to the Emirates hub-and-spoke system and has been popular. Deciding to jam more seats in simply to increase revenue would risk a customer backlash, as this blog has already detected with squeezy versions of the 777 flown by Emirates, Etihad and others.

Are you international flying hopes being held back by the price? What sort of price offer would you need to make you buy a seat to Europe?