Earlier this week, Breeze rolled out its first A220-300. With all the speculation about flat beds and what else might be on the airplane, the reality feels pretty tame. There is, however, one thing that stands out. There are a LOT of premium seats on this airplane. Let’s do the math to see if this makes sense. (Spoiler alert: It does not.)
The A220-300 is roughly a 737-700 sized aircraft. Delta, for example, puts 12 First Class, 30 Comfort+, and 88 coach seats onboard for a total of 130 seats. Without extra legroom seating, Air Canada fits 137 seats onboard with 12 of those in First Class. Korean has 140 with no true First Class onboard, and airBaltic puts 145. With that context, it’s somewhat surprising to hear that Breeze will have less density than all of them with only 126 seats onboard.
The breakdown is very, very premium-heavy. There are a whopping 36 “Nicest” seats — which look a lot like domestic First Class — filling up the entire cabin in front of the wing with 39 inches of pitch in each row. There are then 10 “Nicer” seats spread over two rows at the overwing exit. Those have 33 inches of pitch, though it looks like one row has more than that. Then in the back, there are 80 “Nice” seats with the first row at 31 inches of pitch and the remaining 15 at 30 inches.
This all feels very standard behind the wing, but up front, it’s pretty shocking. Can they really justify having 36 First Class-style seats? Let’s do some math.
Here’s a look at the actual layout and then a proposed alternative.
The front half of the airplane has nine rows with four abreast at 39 inches of pitch. In theory, that means it could instead have 10 rows with 32 inch pitch and 1 row with 31 inch pitch instead. With a normal five abreast configuration, that means instead of 36 seats, it could have 55 seats, an increase of 19 making for a total onboard of 145.
Breeze needs those 36 Nicest seats to generate the same amount of revenue that 55 Nice seats would generate. That means requiring a more than 50 percent premium over the regular Nice fare to breakeven, and that seems highly unlikely.
Of course, that configuration may not be realistic. Airlines have been bullish on extra legroom seating, so maybe Breeze feels that calling as well. Let’s say it opts for 10 rows of Nicer seating with 35 inch pitch. That means there are 50 seats instead of the 36 Nicest seats, and that means there’s a necessary 39 percent premium over the Nice fare to justify this. Again, that’s a lot, though it would be a lot worse on a 737 or A320 where you’d need to drop from six to four abreast instead of the more favorable five to four abreast on this airplane.
Not all of these seats will be filled; we know that. So that further brings down the premium required if you just assume that you don’t need that many seats on an airplane. Exactly what that looks like is hard to know in advance, but it would have some impact. Maybe Breeze just assumes it can’t fill 145 seats, so it might as well go low and gain range so it can connect some of these far-flung destinations that CEO David Neeleman likes to talk about. But that still requires fares to be high enough.
The thing is, the big issue here isn’t around the number of extra legroom seats onboard but rather the percentage of total seats that require an upsell. On the surface, it may not sound crazy. After all, look at the Breeze layout compared to a United 737-700.
The percentage of premium seats is virtually the same, but this is a very, very different story. First and most glaring is the difference in extra legroom seats vs First Class-style seats. Breeze has 28.6 percent of seats in First Class while United has 9.3 percent. Extra legroom seats take up far less space and require a much smaller upsell. But beyond that, United uses its extra legroom seats as a giveaway for its elite members, so there is added value outside of a pure transaction. Breeze does not have that.
A better comparison here is JetBlue which happens to fly the exact same aircraft type.
JetBlue has no First Class (er, Mint) on these airplanes, and only a fifth of the seats are extra legroom upsells. JetBlue does give free upgrades to Mosaic elites on the day of travel only, so that helps give an nice perk which also fills the seats if they can’t be sold, but ultimately it’s not a huge number of extra legroom seats anyway as a percent of total. Breeze is in a totally different world on this.
On this airplane, JetBlue has 4 rows of 35 inch pitch and 7 rows of 32 inch pitch. If they wanted to add another row, they’d have to go down to 30 inch pitch and that would still only gain 5 more seats while compromising the airline’s core product. Having extra legroom options make perfect sense here, and it doesn’t sacrifice much.
For Breeze, it’s different, so you’d think the airline would need a much higher upsell to justify the configuration. That, however, seems to be the opposite of what David said at the rollout, suggesting that people will pay an extra $50 or so to sit up front. That math doesn’t make sense.
Yes, these airplanes will focus on longer haul/transcon flights, but we don’t know routes yet. And sure, there is more demand for upgraded seats on a longer flight, and the fact that Breeze won’t install AC power outlets in the cheap seats might be incentive enough — it will have USB power, but that doesn’t help my laptop — but I don’t see how the $50 upsell works financially. For $50 to be a worthwhile upsell, Breeze would have to have low standard fares of around $100 or a bit higher, and that isn’t sustainable for a long-haul anyway.
Breeze did tell reporters that it can convert configurations if it wants to replace Nicest with Nice/Nicer seats, but this is no quick change. It takes a day or two to do it, and that’s a lot of time for that airplane not to be flying. Remember, unlike the Embraers, the A220s are not cheap to acquire. Those things need to be in the air often and they can’t be changed frequently. Think once or twice a year as opposed to once or twice a week, if the configurations change at all.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a nice-looking product will that blue mood lighting that seems like a nod to David’s blue past lives. There will be demand to buy-up, but when you have more than a third of your aircraft requiring people to pay more, you run into trouble unless you’re flying a super premium route like NYC-LA or London. And in those cases, the product is woefully inadequate compared to the flat beds that ply the skies. It’s also not the airline’s stated mission.
I am never willing to count a David Neeleman airline out, but on this decision, I just don’t see how it makes sense. The good news is… when it doesn’t work, the airline can easily reconfigure the airplane with fewer Nicest seats.