Topic of the Week: A340s with Narrow Seats


Airbus is trying to breathe some life into the A340 program. While airplanes aren’t being made anymore, Airbus is scrambling to keep values of used airplanes up because it’s on the hook if the values fall too low. And that means finding a way to reduce costs to a competitive level. Part of this apparently involves Airbus going to certify the aircraft for more people onboard. One of those configurations would be 9 abreast with extremely tight seat width. This is meant for low cost carriers/charters, but doesn’t it still go against Airbus’s proposed 18 inch minimum width? The manufacturer says that only applies to “full service long haul” carriers and not low cost carriers/charters.

What do you think? Good plan? Will anyone differentiate between the different types of carriers when it comes to seat width? Does it matter?

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55 comments on “Topic of the Week: A340s with Narrow Seats

  1. If an airline splits economy into ‘economy+’ and ‘economy standard’ sections then you effectively have a long haul passenger who is very price sensitive. They’ll put up with narrow seats to save $100 or more

  2. About 15 years ago I was on a DC-10 charter where they stuffed far too many seats in the plane. It was a miserable 3 hour flight. In many ways the 340 seems like the modern DC-10, a perfectly capable aircraft that was eclipsed by technology. I think their best chance for soldiering on is with charters but you won’t catch me on one of those flights. And the 340 is one aircraft that I haven’t been on yet, but not worth it to get crammed into a narrow seat.

    1. My wife and I flew on an Air Tahiti Nui A340 from LAX to PPT in Economy class last year, and I was actually fairly pleased with that experience. I made sure to pick seats on the window side of the aisle, so with just the two of us on that side of the aisle we could have the arm rest up and that helped with seat width, plus access to the aisle and window without bothering a stranger. Stretching out wasn’t possible (but it’s economy, what do you expect) so a stroll around the cabin was in order a couple times, but every seat had IFE, the seats were decently comfortable, and I didn’t feel claustrophobic even when the person in front of me reclined. I was much more comfortable there than the usual domestic flying I do.

    2. I recall a similar DC-10 experience (albeit mine was more than 20 years ago).

      Martinair Holland used to feature 9 across (2-5-2) seating with one seat (the middle seat in the center section) narrower than the other seats.

      These seats were sold at a much lower price (LAX-AMS $99 in 1982).

      The net result is that my family sat in three separate rows on vacation that year.

  3. Cranky,

    My comment is there should be absolute minimum standards, of seat width, and seat pitch, for all commercial airplanes, with paying customers aboard.

    This should be established as part of the certification process, of an airplane model, the same way a maximum gross take off weight is established.

    This ‘standard’ should apply to all carriers, whether charter, or full service.

    1. Yes I agree with you that there should be a “standard” for comfort.

      But at the same time an airline should be allowed to do whatever they please to make a profit. It’s a tough industry and its called capitalism. If airline wants to make their a340’s 9 across then let them or their 777’s 10 across. Maybe they are stuck with 340s in their fleet for another 10 years and need to continue to have profitability by adding more seats.

      No one is making you fly that airline. Choose a different one that doesn’t have that standard. Maybe that means making an extra connection. Is that worth 1-2 inches of width?

        1. Precisely. Widespread consolidation is eroding the PX as airlines seek shareholder value at the expense of passenger experience.

    2. I’d like to see the seat width and pitch posted on the website at time of purchase. Just like “flight operated by…” and the on-time percentage. Full disclosure by the aircraft operator selling the tickets is more important to the end-user than Airbus or Boeing’s certification.

  4. Because it’s a long haul aircraft, cramming so many seats in that no one is happy for 13-14 hours wouldn’t go over very well. Even for charter service the price would have to be really low for people who couldn’t travel without the low price to be willing to packed like sardines for many hours.

    Couldn’t really see someone using that aircraft just to do short hops around a couple of hours where people wouldn’t mind so much being crammed in for a good ticket price.

    Is there value in turning the 340’s into just cargo planes due their long range?

    Personally I like the look of long haul 4-engine aircraft and long over water flights I would still feel better in one.

    1. There is very little need for ultra-long haul cargo planes – cargo (for the most part) doesn’t mind stopping 3 places before it gets to it’s destination. The advantage of larger planes is their larger physical capacity, but otherwise cost (fuel, maintenance, purchasing cost) is usually what makes a good cargo aircraft. Not saying that A340s would necessarily be unsuitable for cargo, but just there are no significant advantages over a 777 (more efficient, larger capacity) or a 747 (larger capacity) or even an A300.

      1. I’m not sure that that’s correct I know that FedEx has purchased passenger aircraft from airlines around the world and then converted them to all cargo planes. FedEx does a good deal of long-haul flying and their passengers (packages in containers as well as pallets) don’t mind being jammed into every possible space.

      2. Considering the burn of fuel at take-off, I’d be willing to bet that direct is far better than stops for the economics of the flight !…

        1. The problem with ultra-long haul flying is that the fuel you need to carry for ultra-long flights takes up weight that could be used for cargo (or passengers), and more importantly it is that much more expensive to do so. Of course flights stopping every 500 miles would be inefficient, but it’s a compromise – instead of flying cargo direct Bangkok-Los Angeles, flying BKK-NRT-ANC-LAX (for instance) is much better. And you don’t need an A340 for that.

        2. Not correct. If you design an airplane for 4000 miles range, it will be significantly (~10%) more efficient on a 2-hop longhaul (even if not in a straight line) vs airplane with the same technology and size designed and performing a nonstop 8000 mile flight. The additional takeoff and longer flight times are more than compensated for by efficiencies from lower gross operating weight due to lighter airframe and less fuel carried.

    2. I’m curious about all these DC10/MD11 freighter conversions: are these really better as freighters than other comparable aircraft, or are they just good because they’re unwanted as passenger aircraft, therefore cheap? If what makes a good freighter is being cheap to acquire, then that’s what will happen to the A340s once they go below a certain value.

    3. I don’t see freighter conversions for A330 and A340 being very popular. The planes don’t have a level deck angle, the nose is lower to the ground than the tail. This causes headaches for loading freight. The A330 freighter version has a redesigned taller nose landing gear to allow the cabin floor to be level; I don’t know if it would be easy or possible to retrofit this to existing A330/A340 passenger aircraft during freighter conversion.

  5. I have flown on charter DC-10s with 10-abreast seating and it was miserable.

    I flew once on an Emirates 777-300 (non-ER) with 10-abreast seating and it was very uncomfortable.

    I flew once on an Air France 777-200ER with 10-abreast seating and it was as tolerable as a 747. I do not know if AF uses narrower aisles and wider seats, or if it was because I had lost some weight.

    8-abreast on the A330/340 is better than 10-abreast on the 777, but worse than 9-abreast on the 777.

    I very much like 767s with 7-abreast, and 777s with 9-abreast, but I think the days of 777s with 9-abreast will go away with the 787s with 8-abreast (which will never see the light of day). The future will be a separate Premium Economy cabin and a very cramped regular economy cabin. 11-abreast economy is coming to the A380 sooner than you might think.

    1. not entirely true on the 787…all of ANA’s are 2-4-2…in economy. they could change but currently flying that way now.

  6. No problem. Use them for family charters from Europe and Latin America to MCO. Mix full size adult seats and smaller children seats and allow for family seat selection during booking.

    Kids don’t need a full size seat and those charter planes are often full of them (kids and seats).

  7. The manufacturers are transparent. Fewer seats means more airplanes sold, so both Boeing lost this argument with the 787, and Airbus with a quick flip-flop on the 340 when they see the direct cost to them of taking the airplanes back. We all want the lowest fare available, and are willing to pay for better seats if we can, so the market wins again.,

  8. Why hasn’t more study been done on horizontal stacking as opposed to the current vertical fetal position? I think they could get 5 stacked in the space of 2.5 in the current methodology. Perhaps it is an even lower cost “hammock class” and would enable an expansion of economy almost pleasant class. If the remove the overhead bins in hammock class, they might get 7 stacked in there … and drive up revenues in checked baggage. There could also be a couple of stand up pub tables for meal service bolted to the floor near the galley.

  9. I do find it somewhat amusing that Airbus now wants to do what they’ve been bashing Boeing about, and allowing their airplanes to be configured with an extra seat in each row. Ultimately, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before they relent and start configuring 9-across A340s or 11-across A380s for a major operator, especially if they start losing sales to Boeing (and I suspect it won’t be long before some major carriers start demanding these configurations from Airbus anyway). Money talks, after all. We can argue the merits of whether narrowing seat width to cram in an extra seat in each row is a good idea, but until passengers start voting with their wallets and rejecting these configurations, narrow seats is what we’re going to see more of.

    And for the record, I paid more to fly QR on my next trip to India, just to avoid the 10-abreast 777s on EK…

  10. Hmmmm. They could get even more people on board if they removed the seats in economy all together and installed poles and straps like on the subway and other trains and buses.

  11. Why not just rip out all the seats and pack the passengers in even tighter ? El Al set the world record by squeezing over 1,000 people once onto a 747. Maybe another carrier can improve on it… Imagine the competitive advantage a commercial carrier would have in being able to offer *really* low fares !

  12. Isn’t the problem with the 340 the cost structure of the four engines at that size can’t compete well with the cost structure of two engine planes on most routes? It seems to me that fuel would trump marginal capacity at current and expected fuel costs.

    1. It is no secret that the A340 is at a substantial operating cost disadvantage versus a 777-300ER. Reports vary. but the commonly quoted figure is about 15%. Unfortunately operating cost isn’t the only issue. The A340-500/600 is significantly overweight (tons, not pounds), so the aircraft probably never made guarantees. The situation was bad enough that EK actually canceled their A340-600 order. EK has subsequently deployed the A340-500 on missions far shorter that originally envisioned. The aircraft just doesn’t perform very well. That is the long and short of why so few A340-500/600’s were built, and why so many of them are available.

      Even SQ has stopped using the A340-500 for ultra long haul missions. The operating economics on these ultra long mission are tough, and on the A340, more seats means less range. It was no secret that the SQ RFQ that resulted in the order for the A340-500 required 200 seats against 90% winds on the LAX-SIN sector. SQ was never able to get to 200 seats, and for the last several years operated those flights 100 business class seats, period. I have long wondered just how much Airbus ended up paying SQ to fly the A340-500, because the aircraft never met contractual requirements, and had SQ walked away (which apparently they could have), it would have been a PR disaster for Airbus.

      What used to happen is old widebody aircraft became freighters after their passenger service days were over. Unfortunately when you work the numbers,you discover most Airbus airplanes don’t make good freighters. The economics on the A380-800F were truly awful, and if the package freight operators (DHL,UPS and Fedex) can’t make a profit, nobody can. So when Fedex walked away from the A380-800F the handwriting was on the wall.

      In freighters what you look at is how much deadweight airplane do you need to carry each pound (or Kg) of Cargo. The 747-8 is probably the most attractive. For reasons that are a little more complicated, both the D10 and MD11 make pretty attractive freights. A340’s of all models make terrible freighters. The are simply to heavy.

      Anyway a 15% operating cost disadvantage is tough to make up. Keep in mind that as you add seats, you need to add cabin staff, and carry more checked bags. There is a straight line relationship between weight and fuel burn. Unless RR and Airbus are prepared to take a significant beating on spares and service pricing, adding additional seats will make the problem better, but it certainly won’t make the operating cost problem go away.

  13. Given the increasing girth of many airline passengers, surely part of the process of re-certifying an airliner’s configuration of an increasing number of passengers should include ascertaining that at least 60% of passengers who participate in an exit test are overweight or obese. If the plane can still be emptied within the required time, certification can be justified.

    A seond revenue alternative would be to sell these seats as “economy minus,” place them in certain designated rows–not all rows, and limit their sale to people under a certain weight.

    Passengers would submit weight and height at the time of ticketing. This would be verified at check-in (with data visible only to airline personnel). Persons exceeding weight requirements would not be eligible for the smaller seats.

  14. In the past, I have had a personal preference for the Airbus coach seats over the Boeing coach seats (slim with long legs). They seemed more comfortable particularly when I put the seat down to snooze. However, it looks like Airbus is making seats which we should avoid. Especially true if they adopt them on all “economy minus” aircraft.

    When I was a kid on Long Island, NY, during World War II, the local buses had what were called “sit-stands” These were plywood boards you could lean against during the ride so they could get more people on buses since they couldn’t build new ones during the war. I am waiting for the airline industry to add “sit-stands” on short haul routes.

  15. I used to fly lot on THAI AIRLINES from 2003 to 2009. Initially THAI were using old MD11’s and they were awful, and one even refused to start on the ground at Bangkok . Then THAI introduced A340-600s for the flights from Melbourne,Australia to Bangkok.

    The A340-600 was a great improvement on the MD11, except that the A340 has low overhead lockers and I would always bash my head on the locker when I stood up.

    After a few years,THAI eventually replaced the A340-600 with Boeing B777-200ER…. Perfect.:-)
    The flying time between Bangkok and Australia was actually shorter as the B777 was a faster plane.

    I could actually stand up without hitting my head on the lockers, as the Boeing B777 has a much better interior design in the cabin. Y class was a 3 x 3 x 3 configuration.

    I did a trip to USA on United, and they had a 2 x 5 x 2 configuration…. Fortunately, I was in # 2 seat. Imagine being stuck in the middle of that row of 5 ?

    1. Been in that middle seat on a transpac. Best solution is to have a very stiff drink and knock yourself out for as long as possible…

      1. weren’t most L10s 2-5-2 config?

        that was awesome back in the days when nobody took the redeyes so they were nearly always empty in the back. i’m 6’2 and i could fully stretch out across an entire row of 5 seats!

  16. No matter what fluff AB tries to inject into the A340 program, I’m thinking lipstick on a pig. It is a fine airplane, but also a fuel hog and that just cannot be changed. In time, AB is just going to eat a few more of them under that minimum value program.

  17. The 340 is the same width as the 330, right? So if the 340 can go 9-abreast, we should expect the 330 to follow.

    1. I just flew in an IBERIA A330 MAD – JFK last Thur. It was a fairly new aircraft, but I noticed three issues which bothered me enough to make a mental note: 1) The seating area is really tight so that you get “pinned” to your seat when the guy in front decides to recline. Difficult to read a magazine, let alone a newspaper! Only at meal time do flight attendents make the passengers sit upright in order to let the passenger behind pull out the tray to eat. 2) The new seat cusions were very hard for a long trip (think bus bench). Do harder seat cusions save money by lasting longer? Between the small seating area and the hard seat cusions the trip was closer to torture than comfort. And lastly 3) the over head bins are not deep enough to put in your carry-on wheels first. You must put your carry-on side ways which takes more limited space and limits the ability to easily access the luggage during flight.

      This uncomfortable passenger situation is opposite of what Cranky has reported in a previous blog regarding the Airbus “policy” for traveler seating norms. What gives?? This trip was a rude awakening to the “new” Airbus policy for minimum creature comfort in the main cabin.

      It appears that todays passengers are being PUNISHED for flying main cabin. For us senior travelers it seriously forces us to consider cutting out long flights years sooner than planned. Uncomfortably long international flights can really exhaust you and definitely takes away the fun of a trip.

    1. The A340-200/300 is the A330-200/300 with 4 engines instead of two. Wings and fuselage are identical. While Airbus claimed considerably commonality, the A340-500/600 are really substantially different beasts, and it came as a pretty unpleasant surprise to those who bought the A340-500/600. Airbus changed several key suppliers between the 200/300 and 500/600 programs, and as result a number of the problems that plagued the early 200’s and 300’s came back years later on the -500/600. It wasn’t pretty.

  18. I would love to see the FAA come us with a minimum seat width/pitch to be called Economy. Anything less would be called Economy Minus. Hopefully, businesses and the government would allow their employees to fly avoid Economy Minus. Hopefully, there would be weight and height limits to people booking economy minus. Then we could let the market place decide.

  19. Flew on an Air Asia X A330 3-3-3 Across and was very tight and uncomfortable for 8 hours comparison to Jetstar’s 2-4-2 on their A330’s.

  20. The airline’s pitch is also determined by their regular customer. In the Philippines, many pax are small in stature, thus seat pitch is smaller on their short haul planes. This allows them to put more seats in the smaller planes.

  21. Are you kidding me?

    Virgin’s A340’s are already THE most uncomfortable planes I’ve ever had the displeasure of flying in. The few times I got stuck flying LHR/LGW to EWR in these torture-chambers-on-wings, I felt like I was literally kicked in the back by an angry mule.

    I have happily flown Northwest’s A320’s multiple times, and found them to be just fine. Anybody know what the deal is with Virgin’s A340’s or is it just me???

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