Premium puts the squeeze on cheap seats

Even as airlines like Etihad unveil even more luxurious seating and sleeping options on their big jets, the outlook has never been bleaker space-wise for those hoping to fly at restricted "headline" fare rates.

Three weeks ago, Traveller's Check detailed how US domestic "low-cost" carrier JetBlue has built a transcontinental empire offering the most spacious economy seating in the American skies.

And in Japan, the No.3 airline behind Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways (ANA), Skymark, faced with renewed competition from low-cost airlines, has taken a gamble on part of its fleet – A330s and A380 super-jumbos – replacing economy seating with either premium economy or business class only.

But these are isolated exceptions to the dominant airline trend that has been getting progressively worse for the past 20 years: there is a carefully calculated floorspace for each chair in each class and, as competition for those willing to pay a premium intensifies, the space being allocated to the cheapest seats is shrinking.

For example, while Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi this morning rolls out its seating options in the A380 super-jumbos it will be operating from December, Airbus is simultaneously talking to A380 customers like Etihad about a super-squeezy new 11-abreast economy class which it has on the drawing board.

The manufacturer reckons it can cram in an extra 35 to 40 economy seats per aircraft by raising the floor underneath the main cabin and therefore enable operators to use 11-abreast seating instead of 10-abreast.

Along with Gulf neighbour Emirates Airline, Eithad was an early adopter of 10-abreast economy seating instead of the nine-abreast intended by the manufacturer aboard the Boeing 777-300ER.

And Eithad's new Boeing 787 Dreamliners will have the maximum nine-abreast seating instead of the manufacturer's intended eight-abreast, although Jetstar's new 787s are setting the record for the most seats crammed into the Dreamliner space.

Contrast Jetstar's 335-seat two-class layout with ANA's version of the same plane which seats just 158 passengers.

But many more short-haul travellers are likely to be affected over the next few years by concessions made by Airbus to operators of its A320 planes.

In order to reduce the fractional advantage enjoyed by competitor Boeing's 189-seat 737-800, the French manufacturer has worked out a way to jam six more seats into the A320, to take the maximum from 180 seats – the configuration used by Jetstar and Tigerair – to 186 seats.

US magazine Aviation Week says Airbus has been trying to score a deal for up to 200 A320 sales to International Airlines Group, which includes British Airways, Spanish flag carrier Iberia and Barcelona-based LCC Vueling.

"According to industry sources, one key element for Airbus to be able to win the Vueling order was the promise to be able to fit 186 seats in the cabin," Aviation Week reports. "Airbus has done some significant interior redesign work and has more in the works. Many airlines have either already installed or are in the process of installing slim backrest seats that allow the airlines to reduce pitch and gain space for several more seat rows.

"Airlines can opt to move the rear lavatories to immediately in front of the rear pressure bulkhead if they accept a smaller [food] galley at the same time. That way, another row of seats can be added.

"The move to 186 seats is likely to trigger other changes, too. Airbus is looking at installing moveable bins that would be aimed at increasing overhead storage space."

The forward space per economy seat row is already as little as 73-76 centimetres (29-30 inches) in the A320 and the 737 operated by Virgin Australia, Tigerair, Qantas and Jetstar.

That compares with the "old" economy standard of 81 centimetres (32 inches) and the new 86-centimetre standard pioneered in the US by low-cost carrier JetBlue, as Traveller's Check reported on April 14.

Meanwhile, as reported this morning, for an early guestimate of around $80,000 return from Sydney to London, Etihad will shortly be offering a three-room first-class "residence" – a cut-price product designed to attract executives who would otherwise use private jet charter.

If you're prepared to fly to the Etihad schedule and forego the flexibility of a bizjet that leaves when you're ready, eighty grand is a steal when private jet charter quotes start at around $350,000.

It's all about market "segments". And bargain-hunters paying for their own ticket are at the bottom of the pile.

In your experience, which airline has the worst economy seating? If you're paying for your own ticket, have you upgraded to premium economy to escape sardine class? Leave a comment below.