Reflections on Flying Around the World in Coach (Sponsored Post)

Airbus has been focusing a lot lately on the issue of seat width and is even pushing for an 18 inch minimum width standard for full-service long-haul. As part of their efforts, they came to Cranky to get a real world example. We sent Nate (who you might remember from his Emirates series) around the world in coach courtesy of Airbus in order to try out various seat widths. Airbus has sponsored three posts talking about his trip. This is the third. The first half of the trip report ran Tuesday while the second half ran yesterday.

Disclosure: This journey was sponsored by Airbus, but the views and content are the author’s own.


This trip was quite the learning experience. For starters, I realized I don’t really spill over that bad compared to people who are “larger” – thankfully my waistline isn’t horrible and I fit in every seat without an extension, however each airline was different. Comfort depends on a wide range of actors such as seat quality and aisle width – I had a significantly better experience on the 747 than I did the 777. But the most comfortable flights were definitely those with 18″ wide seats.

There’s a lot of talk of 10-abreast seating, accompanied by the razzle-dazzle of inflight entertainment and food so you won’t even notice that your thighs are numb. I’m sorry – but as someone that just flew around the world on multiple aircraft types, I did notice and I promise you that I will avoid flying in a 10-abreast Boeing 777.

777-200LR Panorama

I make a decent living, but not enough to afford $8,000 roundtrip in a premium cabin. I am starting to feel like I must advocate for those of us that are not 5’8″ and 150 pounds – anyone larger will be highly uncomfortable and will not only blame the airline but also the aircraft manufacturer. I was glad to not be the only one complaining about the 787, and I heard a few grumbles on my flight to Tokyo.

But it was still disappointing that airline configurations are being designed and implemented by CPAs and NOT real humans. I say this with confidence because anyone who isn’t on the petite side would notice how uncomfortable the cabin is with that extra seat. People are flying longer lengths as nonstop flights become the norm. Even in Japan, the airlines used very cramped seating for shorter domestic flights and then had much more comfortable & roomier cabins for the longer flights.

I noticed that on the 787 and 777 flights, more customers were up walking around than on my A330 and 747 flights, which both scored much higher in my seat comfort matrix. While the 747 had the same size seat as the 777, it had more room between seats and much wider aisles. Those 2 things do make a difference, as some of us American have wide shoulders and often sizeable waistlines. I guess this is why Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are known for amazing soccer matches and not American football. What works in one region of the world may not work on long-haul international and I hope, no pray, that airlines take this into consideration.

There are plenty of stories talking about seat width and seat comfort – but as an elite frequent flyer and an airline geek with hundreds of thousands of miles logged – I think I’m the only travel writer who has recently flown on multiple aircraft types in one single trip. I can tell you in confidence that seat width and comfort IS noticeable. I felt different after my flights than those with more space. When I landed in Honolulu, I expected to return home on the Big Island and sleep for days – instead I was rested to the point I went to my office in Kona and worked until 5pm and went to bed at 10pm. Landing in Tokyo after the cramped flight from Dubai had me sleeping until noon the next day. I was a walking zombie in London during my 6 hour layover.

There is more to travel than paying the lowest fare… travelers MUST do their research and put a better value on comfort. If you can fly on a plane with slightly wider seats/aisles/legroom, that is worth time and money. Check SeatGuru, FlyerTalk, TripAdvisor, and other message boards for comments on seats… while your wallet may hurt a bit, your bum certainly won’t once you arrive.


The first half of Nate’s trip report from Honolulu to Dubai via LA, Boston, Toronto, and London was posted Tuesday. The second half from Dubai to Tokyo and back to Honolulu ran yesterday.

22 Responses to Reflections on Flying Around the World in Coach (Sponsored Post)

  1. Kevin B says:

    I think a lot of the issues that people had with all these posts related to an apples to oranges comparison. I know this series was sponsored by Airbus so they have some say into what gets written, but you seem to be comparing high density layouts to designed layouts. The 787 is designed for 8 across economy seating (your flight was 9 across), the 777 is designed for 9 across economy seating (your flight was 10 across). Those are both high density designs. On your A330 and A380 flights though, you were in normal density layouts. A330s can have 9 across high density seating (although its not recommended and generally not used by big name carriers). And I have heard grumblings about potentially putting 11 across (3-5-3) seating in a high density A380 layout. That is why so many people described your series as a hit piece. It would be like comparing an economy plus section to regular economy seat without noting that one seat is designed (and supposed) to be significantly better.
    I think this story would have a lot more credibility if you compared a normal density 787 (8 across) with a normal density 330 (8 across) layout. Likewise, a 9-across 777 with a 10 across B747 and A380.
    Just my two cents.

    • RAW says:

      The story is relevant as written, as the majority of B777s and B787s deployed are today in the high density configuration (the B777s fleet tipped only recently with many airlines (AA, etc) reconfiguring to the denser layout). Boeing actively pushes high density configurations as a means to improve comparable aircraft performance (it’s a selling point for them!).
      While an A330 could, theoretically, fly in a high density layout, it is an awkward configuration; that aircraft was not meant to have it, and consequently no airline has forced a high density configuration into an A330.
      So, from a passenger perspective, I am very much in support of giving immense pushback to what Boeing and the airlines are perpetuating on their paying customers in the back of their planes. The selling point of the B787 initially was a very long distance liner with great customer comfort (i.e., the “Dreamliner”). In the currently prevailing actual configuration, that aircraft is an absolute Nightmare Liner from a consumer perspective. I detest United (and AA, etc) for treating their customers to this.
      I dread, dread (!) the time I may be forced to sit in the back of that plane in United’s cattle configuration for a 12+ hours trip. No thank you! No thank you very much.
      And thank you Airbus for reminding us that that manufacturer still sell their aircraft on a standard 18′ seat width business case! If they feel a need to sponsor a world trip to bring that point across, more power to them.

      • bill says:

        The 9 across a330 is becoming more and more common. It is not just AirAsiaX anymore. BTW that airline and others are configuring 10 across in the a350. In the a350, A330 and neo a

        • bill says:

          Contd. The a330 and a350 have 16.4″ seats in 9 and 10 abreastrespectively. Meanwhile Boeing released a 10 abreastconfiguration with 18″ wide seats on the new 777xw

      • bill says:

        In the 777X, Boeing has now released a 10 abreast economy configuration with 18″ wide seats. The A350xwb only 16.4″ seats at 10 abreast.
        Thea330 allows only16.4″ seat width at 9 across. AirAsia X and others have ordered these layouts on the airbus as have others. Looks like the 777-X was made for a comfortable 10 across after all.

  2. Jamzz says:

    I appreciate the comparison of the different configurations, but take issue with a few things:

    1) Flying back-to-back flights in economy around the world is naturally going to be difficult. I think any perceived discomfort will be reduced if somebody flies the more typical single long-haul flight at a time with some rest in between.

    2) Nico Buccholz, VP of Fleet Management at Lufthansa gave a fleet presentation that is posted on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBTwo2oKRfE). He was asked his thoughts on seat width and responded that people don’t tend to move side to side in the seat when they want to stretch out. What they value more is seat pitch. They have done testing to prove it.

    3) It is rather disingenuous for Airbus to sponsor an 18″ seat posting when they are now pitching the A380 with 11 abreast seating. That economy seat will be under 17″ wide – worse than the 787 and 777-300ER.

    4) The airlines have zero incentive to worry about 17″ vs 18″ seats in economy for two reasons. a) People flying economy won’t pay more for a wider seat. For those that want more space in economy, upgrades to Economy Plus/Comfort/Extra are available. The fact that those sections are often last to fill up demonstrate that when it comes down to paying for extra room, most won’t do it. b) the airline’s investors (represented by Wall Street analysts) are focused on CASM. With a marginal increase in trip cost, you reduce CASM by having more seats on the airplane.

  3. I’m sure the average traveler or semi-first time travelers all think everything is the same on an airplane when it comes to seating. They think every airline flying the same type aircraft will be the same inside.

    A good point was made to do your research before hand. Sitting in a narrow seat with no legroom for a flight up to a few hours is no big deal. But on long haul flights it will made a difference and seating should play an important part of your trip planning.

    Do people really want their ‘trip of a life time’ ruin because at the end of the trip they now have to sit in a horrible seat for 16 hours. They’ll talk more to family and friends how terrible XYZ Airline was and less on the wonderful land part of their holiday.

    Kind of funny how movie theaters and amusement park rides have better seating then aircraft/airlines flying long haul flights.

    • haolenate says:

      In one of our first submissions to our client for the story, I start out by measuring the seat in the waiting area of the Dubai airport… it clocked in at 24 inches! I also used my flight benefits to get to and from Honolulu, our starting point and the Canadair Regional Jet seats were 17.5 inches wide.. just something to chew on.

      This was a fun trip, albeit a killer on my circadium rhythm. But it was very interesting to fly all of these aircraft types back-to-back. The 777-200LR wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought – although landing at midnight in Tokyo wasn’t fun.

  4. MeanMeosh says:

    “There is more to travel than paying the lowest fare… travelers MUST do their research and put a better value on comfort. If you can fly on a plane with slightly wider seats/aisles/legroom, that is worth time and money.”

    You’ve pretty much addressed the underlying issue right there. Time and time again, the average traveler has shown that they’re NOT willing to pay more for comfort. Price is king. As long as that remains the case, you are unfortunately only going to see more “enhancements” such as 10-abreast seating in a 777 or 11-abreast in an A380.

  5. “I guess this is why Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are known for amazing soccer matches and not American football.”

    OR the rest of the world doesn’t enjoy sitting around watching three hours of advertisements for a one hour game. Which may also help to explain the larger waistlines of American football fans.

    BTW soccer in Asia and the Middle East is actually a few levels below the US in both quality and attendance (maybe with the exception of Japan).

  6. If people vote with their derrières and not only their wallets, more airlines will pay attention to the seats, and comfort in general.

  7. Tim says:

    First, kudos for an insightful and informative series of articles. I only wish I knew which carriers you used, so I could see how they stack up price-wise against the US flag carriers I usually have to fly with. I wonder how much attention most US carriers to issues of comfort at this point. With United/Continental still flying half their transatlantic routes with 757s…I really wonder??!!

  8. Greg says:

    Interesting article, but I had a bit of a negative reaction that blogger was sponsored by Airbus and, low and behold, Airbus aircraft scored higher than Boeing aircraft. Perception is important.

  9. Todd says:

    Shorter summary: I like it when a company gives me things for free, and in return I’ll say nice things about that company and disparage it’s competitors.

  10. Sue says:

    Even for someone who is petite or 5’8″ and 150 pounds, the seats can still be uncomfortable when someone who is slightly larger sits next to you and encroaches your space!

  11. Liz says:

    \”disappointing that airline configurations are being designed and implemented by CPAs and NOT real humans\”. Please retract. Or should we all get to make negative blanket generalizations about travel bloggers?

  12. speaketh says:

    So I think everyone agrees this articles are different than the usual on CF. Since the articles were presented with a *very* obvious upfront message that the trip and report was sponsored, I’m not too disturbed about any bias in the write-ups about the flights. I’m not paying to read the blog, so I don’t really have a problem with being advertised to, from time to time.

    I do think that this final segment could have been better if it had addressed some questions:
    – The flights flown were a small sampling. In the global widebody fleet, what percentage of aircraft are configured in the way that Nate flew them? e.g. are 80% of 787s 3-3-3, are 80% of A330’s 2-4-2? Since the reviews identified the aircraft but not the operator, this would be a way for the reader to understand if Nate flew a “typical” configuration of that aircraft.
    – Why is Airbus pushing to standardize to 18″ seat width? Do their cabin widths not work well with both low and high density configurations, as Boeing’s apparently do? How does this mesh with the commenter-reported introduction of high density A380 seating?
    – Fare/Cost analysis. Are there some identical routes that run both high density and low density configurations on the same aircraft (perhaps different carriers?)? Can we get an idea of if the wider seat is commanding any price premium, or if buyers are oblivious, don’t care, etc?

    Maybe a non-sponsored post in the near future can look into overall industry trends on coach seat widths, providing more typically awesome CF analysis to go with the data from this series. As a side note, is the use of high density economy and low density premium economy on the same aircraft turning premium economy further into the new business class?

  13. sjc user says:

    I would never buy a ticket in Y for a long haul flight in the first place because I don’t want to be uncomfortable for hours on end. However, there is no way I would pay for even a short flight on a 10 abreast 777 or a 9 abreast 787. Not only are the seats extra narrow, the aisle is as well.

  14. Jason says:

    The seats are not that comfortable for someone who is average/small if the person next to them is a giant!!!
    They should make exceptions for the larger traveller, they are still paying customers!!!

  15. Ivan B Zhabin says:

    The 9-abreast 777 is actually my most preferred airplane type for longhaul economy! Of course once you fly overnight, try to stretch out and bump across the surprisingly sharp corner of IFE box under the seat (I am looking at you BA), then all bets on expectation of comfort are off. 10-abreast is a travesty for longhaul.

    9-abreast 787 has narrow seat and narrow aisle, which is an underappreciated issue. I flew about half a dozen times (UA domestic shorthaul) and was able to select the exit row half the time (the seat is regular economy as your legs bump against the door but it still ways better than in a ‘regular’ economy row).

  16. We get experience from everywhere in everyplace.Comfort actually depend’s on seat quality.Last time I have made a flights with 18? wide seats.It was so comfortable.I don’t like gathering.

  17. RAW says:

    It’s unfortunate that with the wide adoption of web comment boards, no basic rules of etiquette developed alongside the technological capability. Comment sections give rise to the most rude and obnoxious remarks. I must assume it is by posters who have limited social interaction IRL, because none of that conduct would be acceptable face-to-face (or, you’d end up with very few people willing to hold a conversation with you). Postings may also often be spur of the moment decisions, that people can come to regret once cooler heads prevail. I bet CosFlyer would want his comment back by now…

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