* Airbus and Boeing in dispute over seat width
* Seating lay-out is crucial to performance claims
* Passengers have got bigger but seats not much changed
By Tim Hepher
PARIS, Nov 1 A row has flared up between leading
planemakers over the width of tourist-class seats on
long-distance flights, setting the tone for a bitter
confrontation at this month's Dubai Airshow.
The dispute focuses on the width of seats provided on
long-haul flights for economy passengers - not always the ones
most courted by airlines, but whose allocated space holds the
key to efficiency claims for the latest jets offered by Airbus
Airbus this week called for an industry standard
that would provide for a seat at least 18 inches (46 cm) wide in
economy cabins, but its U.S. arch-rival Boeing says it
should be for airlines to decide.
The dispute comes as planemakers vie to sell ever-larger
versions of their twin-engined long-distance aircraft, with
potentially record orders expected at the Nov. 17-21 event.
How the back of the plane is laid out - particularly whether
seating is 9 or 10 abreast - is central to the economic
performance claims being made for new 'mini-jumbo' jet designs.
Boeing says its revamped "777X" will hold 406 people based
on economy seats over 17 inches wide and set out 10 in each row.
Airbus says the competing version of its A350 will carry 350
people in 18-inch-wide economy seat laid out 9 abreast.
Plane giants often trade blows on technical matters through
advertising in the trade press. Now, Airbus is appealing
directly to the public ahead of the Dubai Airshow, where the
777X is expected to dominate with over 100 orders.
It recently previewed what may be the start of a new ad war
by showing financiers a slide illustrating three people squashed
together at a restaurant, titled "Would You Accept This?"
"Boeing is proposing long-distance flying in seats narrower
than regional turbo-props," said Airbus sales chief John Leahy.
As diets change, people get bigger but plane seating has not
Between the early 1970s, when the Boeing 747 jumbo defined
modern long-haul travel, and the turn of the century, the weight
of the average American 40- to 49-year-old male increased by 10
percent, according to U.S. Health Department Data.
The waist of the average 21st-century American male is 39.7
inches, according to U.S. health statistics, which equates to a
diameter of 12.6 inches. This leaves 2 inches either side in
many plane seats, which are narrower than at an average cinema.
Airbus says that is not enough for long-haul travel and says
its rival is sticking to a seat concept from the 1950s, when the
average girth of the newly christened 'jet set' was narrower.
Airbus says it has commissioned research suggesting an extra
inch in seat width improves sleep quality by 53 percent.
Boeing disputes Airbus's figures on seat measurements and
says it is not up to manufacturers to step into decisions on
how airlines balance fares and facilities. It also says research
shows cabin experience depends on more than the width of a seat.
"It really comes down to providing flexibility to airlines
and allowing them to do the things that they believe they need
to do to be successful," said Boeing cabins expert Kent Craver.
"They don't want us to dictate to them what makes them
profitable. They know their business better than anyone else."
For flyers it is about more elbow room, but for suppliers it
is increasingly an issue that could affect earnings.
Behind the dispute is a race for plane orders with at least
$700 billion of estimated business at list prices in coming
decades, enough to tip the scales of U.S. and European exports.
As Reuters first reported in July, seat layout is exactly
what drives the battle between the latest jets.
Both Airbus and Boeing claim 20 percent better efficiency
per seat in their latest twin-engined long-haul designs than the
market leader in that segment, the 365-seat Boeing 777-300ER.
Boeing's performance claims depend in part on comparing the
10-abreast 777X with an original 9-abreast 777 design. The gain
in unit costs is blunted compared with 10-abreast now in use.
"The reason Boeing are doing this is to cram more seats in
to make their plane more competitive with our products," said
Kevin Keniston, head of passenger comfort at Europe's Airbus.
On the other hand, analysts say full 10-seat-per-row cabins
for existing 777s suggest many passengers are voting for the
denser layout, which may go hand in hand with cheaper fares.
"18 inches in seat width would be great for passengers, but
the reality is that from a business point of the Airbus proposal
is driven by the threat of the 777," said cabin interiors expert
Mary Kirby, founder and editor of the Runway Girl Network.
Airbus and Boeing do not supply seats but offer a catalogue
of suppliers for airlines to choose from. Globe-trotting jet
sellers even carry tape measures to check on competing layouts.
While boasting comfort, all builders also offer jets with
high-density layouts for low-cost airlines and regional travel.
Airbus offers a 10-abreast A350 but says it has not yet sold it.
Until recently, Airbus was stressing the need for more cabin
customisation by offering wider aisle seats on some of its jets.
Without the support of the only other maker of large modern
jets, experts say its call for a new industry standard is
unlikely to fly, but could distract from a wave of 777X sales.