Why Boeing and Airbus are fighting over seat sizes

Should they be 17 inches or 18 inches wide? The companies are squabbling over the right number as the Dubai Air Show kicks off, and experts say an inch does make a difference.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 19, 2013 1:48PM

Woman using computer on airplane © Compassionate Eye Foundation, Lifesize, Getty ImagesBy Kiran Moodley, CNBC

In the seemingly never-ending rivalry between Boeing (BA) and Airbus, no stone is left unturned -- and that includes the upholstery.

Not content with the battle between their respective aircraft, most notably the Dreamliner versus A350, the American and European manufacturers have argued over the size of economy seats on their aircraft ahead of the Dubai Air Show, which runs this week.

Airbus is arguing that the air transport sector needs to adopt a standard seat-width size of 18 inches for long-haul aircraft. Boeing said that such a seat size request was "arbitrary."

This is not a mere sideshow in the Airbus-Boeing battle, but a real fight for customers.

Lots of airlines request that Boeing use 17-inch seats in its 777-300ER aircraft, as this means the economy section can seat 10 chairs across, and more paying customers per plane is a definite plus for airlines. Airbus uses nine-abreast on the A350 and eight-abreast on the A330.

The U.K.'s London Sleep Center, in conjunction with Airbus, recorded the sleep measurements of six healthy adults in both 17- and 18-inch seats. This involved monitoring brainwaves, eye, abdominal, chest and hip leg movement. The conclusion was that "a minimum seat width of 18 inches improved passenger sleep quality by 53 percent when compared to the 1950s 17-inch standard.

Kevin Keniston, Airbus' Head of Passenger Comfort, said following the research, "Not only does seat width make a dramatic impact on passenger comfort but there is now a growing cohort of discerning economy passengers who are not prepared to accept long haul 17-inch crusher seats and instead will choose airlines that offer better seat comfort, often turning to social media or specialist websites to determine true seat value."

Seat width is an increasingly hot topic when it comes to long-haul air travel given the changing shape of the average flyer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) are obese, and there has been a dramatic increase in obesity across the world in the last 30 years. 

Seat structure

While the argument between Boeing and Airbus revolves around seat width, many commentators argue that seat pitch (legroom) is a more important determining factor when it comes to passenger comfort.

The AP reported that U.S. airlines such as Southwest (LUV), Alaska Airlines (LCC) and United Airlines (UAL) had all introduced new seas that place the magazine pocket above the tray table, away from the passenger's knees, and they use lighter-weight frames and padding that allow for more seats across the width of the plane.

This development began in 2010 when Lufthansa began using Recaro seats on its aircraft, notably the Basic Line 3520 seat, which used lighter material to reduce the weight of each seat to less than 11 kilograms, which was around 30 percent lighter than previous chair models. Thus, the BL3520's minimal weight allows airlines to lower costs by reducing fuel consumption. It also allows for more passengers on the plane, not width-wise, but length-wise.

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Nov 19, 2013 2:59PM
HERE WE GO: VOTE   >>>>>>> Thumb-up for 18 inches & Thumb-Down for 17 inches

Nov 19, 2013 2:25PM
I have a very high respect for Boeing, but I have to agree with Airbus on this.  I believe "passenger comfort" is going to make a difference in the not too distant future.  Especially when one considers the economic impact, as people are going to look at less expensive options when traveling, down to, and including, longer time frames, by traveling via surface vessels/vehicles, rather than the more expensive airlines. It was time and economy that was the downfall of the rail lines, as people started to get a more reasonable "expendable" wage, and could afford flights.  I can see the same thing happening to airlines as they literally price themselves out of everything.
Nov 19, 2013 3:13PM
They will continue to reduce the size of the seats and then force normal sized people to buy two claiming they are obese and cannot fit in one.  If it's no more than one days drive, I always take the car.

Just stand the passengers upright and stuff them in like sardines


Provide holes in the floor for toilets and you can do away with the aisles adding what like three times 100 or 200 more passengers per plane.


Heck just lay the passengers on top of each other probably get 4 times as many in the plane.


besides this article does not mention the fact that with first class going to huge seats that folder flat for sleeping that extra space needs to be made up by sardining the economy passengers.


Heck you don't have to worry about fuel economy when you sell $3,000 a seat tickets to the first class people.


I say forget about trying to get 20 people in economy at $300 a seat --


upgrade first class with a jacuzzi and bed (companion extra??) as well as a seat and charge $50,000 a spot. That is the way to make money. After all the people who travel first class hire minimum wagers so they can get $250,000 profit out of each minimum wager. The airlines hitting them up for $50,000 a ticket seems cheap.

Nov 19, 2013 3:41PM
Too me if it is a 17" or 18" width seat doesn't matter, however seat pitch is the difference between being able to comfortably walk after a 4 hour flight and hobbling off in pain and aching knees for another day.
Nov 19, 2013 3:26PM
On all my flights of more than 1 1/2 hours I fly the widest seat....17" is sardine territory and should be abolished...19" should be the standard...we are humans with different sizes, and most by far in the portly category....17" is sheer agony
Nov 19, 2013 2:28PM
How about Ryanair trying to introduce economy class seats that are only 15 inches wide with a pitch of 29 inches. Talk about squeezing everyone in.
Nov 19, 2013 3:02PM

My butt is at least 20 inches wide.

Nov 19, 2013 2:29PM
Flying in the lower 48 is generally a 5.5 hour or less flight. Most flights are under 3 hours. Time for a coffee, soda, alcohol or munchies. The biggest problem is not seat size for 99% of us, it is the baggage fees. Just charge more for the fare and no EXTRA fees. It is like buying a new car and being charged extra for the spare tire. Speaking of EXTRA fees, most new cars come with free oil changes for an amount of mileage. Are the changes free? Of course not they are in the cost of the car up front.
Nov 19, 2013 3:49PM
Sounds like greed in the extreme considering the newer aircraft get such an increase in mileage.
Nov 19, 2013 3:25PM
Wasn't RyanAir one for airline tyring to eliminate seats altogether with the idea of a standing position harness? Considering short flights are at least an hour in the plane with taxiing and flight I opt for an interior that doesn't make me feel like a fish in a can to be removed at destination.
Nov 19, 2013 6:44PM
An 18 inch wide seat is bad, 17 inches is even worse.  I vote two thumbs down.   If I'm not the pilot, I don't fly any more.   If I ever go overseas again, it will be by boat.  They can take there skinny butt seats and shove them up where the sun don't shine!
Nov 19, 2013 8:47PM

Who do they think they are kidding??

This is NOT about the passenger's comfort, it is about adding an additional seat per row and the additional revenue that extra seat will generate.

They can talk about passenger comfort until they are blue in the face, but it still boils down to the bottom line....

Mo' money - Mo' money - Mo' money, honey

is all that matters to them.

Once you have your ticket they could care less about your comfort ON ANY LEVEL..........

Nov 23, 2013 11:13AM
I do everything possible to avoid flying.  Drive, take the train... anything but fly, if I have any choice in the matter.
Nov 19, 2013 6:00PM
Just ask any woman: an extra inch is always better.
Nov 19, 2013 3:31PM
for US carriers 19" seat widths would almost be adequate, all other carriers the 17" width will do
Nov 23, 2013 2:50PM
I am an average sized male, 6'-0", 195 lbs.  None of the economy seats on current planes are comfortable unless I am sitting next to a very small person.  Seating needs to be based on average size of people, not sleep studies and other non-relevant criteria.  Average shoulder width would be a better guide for seat width.
Nov 19, 2013 5:35PM
People will pay what they can afford. The airfare will determine what people want
Nov 19, 2013 4:44PM
Looks like the Europeans haven't invented the 17" airline seat yet...
Nov 23, 2013 11:35AM
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