18 Feb 2020 17:57 IST

Boeing 787 and Airbus 350 are great for airlines, not for passengers

Planes are designed with such abysmally low comfort levels that the journey is no longer enjoyable

In the last few weeks, I travelled on an Airbus 350, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and a Boeing 777. For all the hype of the first two models, I enjoyed my experience a lot more on the 777, a plane built over 25 years ago and one that remains the most popular wide-body aircraft in service.

The newer Airbus and Boeing models are great bargains for the airlines that operate them. They are both relatively smaller in size, with seat capacities of 220-280 passengers based on configuration, so airlines can more quickly sell seats out. They have admirable ranges. A recent ultra-long-haul 17-hour test flight of a Dreamliner for Qantas took researchers from New York’s JFK non-stop to Sydney so that they could study the effects of time zone differences and jet lag on both passengers and crew.

The Airbus 350 and the Dreamliner are highly automated in the cockpit with capabilities to practically fly themselves from takeoff to landing, so airlines have to spend less on pilot recruitment, training, and deployment. Both models have their bodies made out of advanced carbon fibre composite so that the overall weight is significantly reduced.

With massive twin jet engines that merely sip fuel, as against hungry, guzzling giants like the four-engine Boeing 747 or the Airbus-340, the fuel economies of the newer models are impressive, allowing airlines to pass savings on to customers by keeping airfares low during off-peak travel seasons. This makes the airlines manage load factors better so that planes practically fly full year-round. The same strategy for low fares does not apply during peak seasons, however, as airlines jack prices up substantially to rake in huge profits.

One positive, many negatives

For passengers, the only advantage of these new models is that the airlines are offering point-to-point flights rather than forcing passengers to connect through a hub. Previously, if you had to travel from Bengaluru to Munich, you had to connect via Frankfurt. Now, Lufthansa has announced a direct flight between the two cities.

But every other aspect of the flying experience is abysmal unless travellers pay extra to fly premium economy or business class. Four class configurations (to include first class) are rare on the Dreamliner and the A-350 because the planes aren’t that big, to begin with. The seats are so cramped in economy that the legroom of a similar seat on a 777 or a 747 feels like a business-class seat. Intelligent engineering allows for seat-backs to recline but to compensate, the seat bottom lunges forward — thereby only providing an illusion of a recline.

The aisles are so narrow that a standard-size carry-on bag scrapes every seat row while you pull it towards your designated row. Gone are the 2-3-2 seat configurations on a Boeing-767 or the Airbus A-330. Now, it’s a 3-4-3 configuration with airlines gaining three cramped seats for each row. The toilets are incredibly small, about that of an Airbus-320 which is typically used for short-haul flights. The number is fewer too, so it is common to see travellers gathering around the toilets eager for the first light on the door to turn green. The “bells and whistles” improvements, such as ergonomic lighting and extra-large window shades that can turn several shades of grey rather than a binary system of shut or open, hardly compensate.

Using big data

For nearly 70 years, air travel was the exclusive domain of the elite and the big full-service airlines, like Pan American World Airways (PanAm) and Trans World Airlines (TWA), tried to out-compete everyone else to offer a memorable experience to the paying customer. Passengers in the upper classes were whisked into exclusive lounges in limousines where they could enjoy a drink before take-off. Once in the air, passengers would be wined and dined, and always with a smile.

The commoditisation of air travel began, strangely, with advances in big data. Using petabytes of information from prior years, airlines were able to better predict demand on routes, switching aircraft to larger or smaller sizes to adjust load factors. Understanding that the value of an unsold seat diminishes to zero once the aircraft door is closed, airlines began to sell inventory to aggregator sites, including innovators such as Priceline, where travellers could bid for the lowest fare acceptable to the airline. The industry saw a sea change in the underlying business model as the focus moved from service and comfort to price. Today, airfares on the big airlines change multiple times an hour and in some cases, every few minutes.

When price became the holy grail, airlines began to think of ingenious ways of offering transportation at the lowest price. The model, which has survived and thrived to this day, is to strip air travel into its component parts. Beginning with seat selection, each value chain element of air travel is now separately priced and sold, as options.

Ordering a meal, printing a boarding pass at the airport, boarding the plane early, carrying on a cabin bag, checking bags in — each is considered a value-add activity and costs extra. Ryanair, Europe’s largest discount operator, became famous for offering £9 fares for flights from London to Paris. Of course, at this price point, all you would get from the airline is transportation. The airline’s chairman, David Bonderman, famously pondered on a TV show if it would make sense to charge customers to use toilets because he saw that as an extra service.

Deteriorating quality

Customers began to respond in kind. Why pay for meals on board when you can bring your own from an airport outlet for much less? This way, you could eat your meal whenever you wanted without waiting for meal service. Better yet, why spend even at the pricey airport outlet? Why not buy your packaged meal from your favourite restaurant en route to the airport? Or even cook a meal at home and bring it with you? Water from airport water fountains is still free, so all you have to do is to bring an empty bottle with you.

What about your checked bags? Customers saw that they could ship their bags to their destination via FedEx or UPS at a cost lower than the airline’s outrageous baggage fees. A benefit here was that you didn’t have to wait for your bags at baggage claim or lug them with you. You could save extra by taking public transportation on arrival, saving money on an expensive taxi ride.

A system based only on price forces everyone to push the limits and go even lower. The large airlines are guilty of working with Boeing and Airbus to design planes that have lowered comfort to such an annoyingly low level that air travel is no longer enjoyable.

Planes have extremely long operational lives — upwards of 30 years — so, this downward spiral is unfortunately here to stay.