New twist on an old tale

This week, Airbus held a seminar in London on the A340. Yes, the same A340 that went out of production two years ago. It seems Airbus is trying to reassure nervous stakeholders that there’s still life in this airplane.

What’s at stake for Airbus? Quite a bit. They’re trying to bolster the value of these airplanes since it’s speculated that Airbus has a potential liability on RVGs (Residual Value Guarantee) for the A340-500 and A340-600 that could total $2 billion USD.

I’ve seen a lot of coverage that came out of the Airbus seminar, mostly focused on the same old claims about the A340’s capabilities. The fact is, the A340 came to an early end because airlines didn’t want to buy it. It couldn’t compete with the 777 because it was inefficient (the 777-300ER proved to be 30+ percent more fuel efficient per seat than the A340-600), had high maintenance and operating costs, poor reliability, and offered a passenger experience that couldn’t compete with the 777.

One of the more interesting nuggets to emerge from that A340 seminar was the idea to reconfigure the airplane with narrow seats, narrow arm rests and narrow aisles to increase seat count. It’s what John Leahy called “revolutionizing A340 economics.”

But John apparently forgot what he was pushing just a few weeks ago—an industry-wide standard of 18-inch seats on long haul airplanes. So what would a seat look like on these revamped A340s? 16.7 inches… well short of Airbus’ own standard.

In our view, passenger experience isn’t just measured by the width of a seat. That’s why we continue to work with our customers to give them the flexibility to showcase their brand, provide a great overall passenger experience and provide the economics that work for them and their passengers. It’s hard to go wrong when you listen to the customer.

Comments (22)

James (Australia):

The seat width discourse was from the start a side-track. The area of comfort that concerns passengers far and away; is leg room (try getting up to stretch your legs on a long haul flight in economy class).

This falls on deaf ears; airline executives do not suffer the indignity.

V V (Montreal, Quebec):

The A340 production was discontinued in 2011, but in reality the order drought lasted already several years prior to the formal euthanasia.

I think they did the right thing because it is much better to stop the production of an aircraft that is not attracting customers anymore than to continue building white tails or to sell them at loss.

I discussed about it in my blog entry (Click here).

Rodney (Wellington, New Zealand):

The economy comfort issue would be resolved if executives from airlines, seat and aircraft manufacturers were forced to fly long-haul in economy.

It's not just seat width, nor is it just seat pitch.

It is ROOM. Most people could stretch their legs if the seats were redesigned specifically to enable that. If executives were forced to fly economy, there would be a solution market ready in 12 months. It probably wouldn't cost much more and would have great uptake amongst airlines.

As "James (Australia)" rightly says:

"This falls on deaf ears; airline executives do not suffer the indignity."


Another report I read was that the cost of maintenance for the 4 engines and other maintenance for just having those aircraft in your fleet was rather expensive as well compared to the 777-300ER.

It appears that Airbus needs to keep these aircraft around because their A350 answer to the 777X has fallen short. Although the 747-8 has not sold as well as all of us had hoped, the 777 is definitely in the running as a replacement for the aging 747-400's.

The other strange move by Airbus was to offer an A330 high capacity but short range and now 16.7 in wide seats... I think they are getting desperate.

Marc (Texas):

I'm in the air, on average, 6 times a month. I certainly care about leg room, but also seat width and shoulder width.

Typically, I prefer Boeing aircraft. Not long ago, I flew from DFW to ATL on a new Airbus 319 just to give it a try. The leg room and shoulder room in Economy were atrocious. Even old MD-80s are more comfortable in Economy than that 319. What I haven't decided is how much of that responsibility falls on the manufacturer and how much on the airline.

I figure manufacturers largely pay attention to their own customers (the airlines) in terms of how many seats they want on the aircraft. But if the airlines ever focus on what their own customers (passengers) want, they'll stop cramming people in like sardines. That's part of what makes some passengers feel like airlines don't care and causes them to have such low regard for the airline industry.

In the end, both airlines and manufacturers need to share the work-load of improving the overall experience of flying. A large part of that is seat comfort. It would be nice if BOTH Boeing & Airbus put some pressure/encouragement on airlines to accept better seat comfort standards to improve the perception of the industry as a whole. And once you settle on an encouraged standard, stick to it. Don't contradict yourself like Airbus apparently has.

Matt (London):

Randy, you are right with many things, but the passenger experience of an 8 abreast A340 is much better compared to the 777. However that's the point Airbus want to change now.

Paulo M (Johannesburg, RSA):

Well, it's unfortunate that the A340 was not designed to carry freight - as a freighter. It would have had a higher floor after-market value. It's unfortunate that most Airbus programs do not have much to offer beyond useful passenger service. So values really drop.

Todd (Philadelphia):

I just cant imagine any airline falling for this when there is so much more out there. Wouldn't a used 777 be a better way to go for an airline that cant afford new?

Cristiano Arruda Cruz (Campo Grande, MS):

When we get to the point of the narrower seats as they launched the A350-1000 project, so I see that there's some problem with Airbus on the A350-1000... It won't come as they want at the right time. So they want to sell some A340-600 which more competes with the 747-... 400ER.

Such dispair for what? New 747-8i orders in the horizon?



Scott Putnam (Redding, CA):

Funny on so many counts. First: What were you doing at John's seminar? Second: Despite the assertion you put limits on your clients' demands, have you so quickly forgotten RyanAir's request to get rid of bathrooms? I think not! :-> There's a fine line between a customer's economics and tarnishing the Boeing brand. If a customer makes a Boeing plane uncomfortable in the pursuit of economics, passengers will come to associate Boeing with an unpleasant experience. If passengers avoid Boeing planes because they are uncomfortable, then airlines will not buy them - even though it is the airlines causing this unpleasantness. This is why demanding minimum "comfort" thresholds in purchase contracts (i.e., bathrooms) is important. You protect Boeing, and in some respects, the customer, from their own short-sighted economic needs.

Garry (Australia):

Nice try Randy - airbus might be trying to blow some life into the A340-600 but you guys are still keeping the old dog 747 running - an airframe 40 odd years old!

O530PT2013 (Lisbon, Portugal):

Nice try Airbus - But failed. Why? Because I've made this fact-checking on this ridiculous A340 proposal and everything they propose is nonsense, like trying to put 9 abreast in that narrower fuselage with the required seat width and will kill the freighter conversion chances to this aircraft:
At least the 747, ended up with a use, as freighter that is designed to end up in the beginning, when the 2707 has been planned to start, but didn't start, and that fact kept the 747 in service to 40 years. And is still running, now mostly as a freighter, unlike A380, that has the future undecided.

Nick Johnson (Orcas, WA):

Different topic. I've been watching 787 flights for awhile on flight tracker, and almost all 787 flights are cruising at 39,000 to 41,000 feet, where few other models operate. This has in effect opened up new airspace capacity on busy routes, and frees the 787 from any traffic interference in cruise. I haven't seen this aspect of the 787 commented on elsewhere. It should be another selling point for the 787.

James Baloun (Palo Alto, California):

Looking forward, I like the other 'new twist on an old -tail-' that is in the news. Boeing's wind tunnel test of an old 757 tail to bring Active Flow Control technology into production. The vertical fin is a logical first application given that it operates in a more symmetrical flow field than horizontal surfaces. Maybe the 'sweeping jet' technology can be used on other control surfaces and even non-control surfaces that need flow control like a fairing, pylon, or tail-cone? Maybe on an un-piloted vehicle the 'sweeping jet' could replace the moving control surface to simplify the wing or fin structure?

Norman (Long Beach, CA):

I think the problem with the A340-600 is that Airbus did not anticipate my hypothesis anyway that the 777-300ER would not be successful, even knowing that the 77W would be more efficient they may have thought that airlines and passengers would not want to fly on a 775,000 lb twin-jet over the Pacific.

Another problem was the A340-600 was very heavy, 820,000 lbs vs. 775,000 lbs for the 77W. Range was an issue too.

Regardless of how one feels about the A340-600, its days are numbered as Lufthansa orders the 777-9.

Steve (Siggenthal Station, Switzerland):

Well the A340 Airframe fuselage design is basically the same as the original A300 which dates back to 1970-74, so it ain't much younger then the 747! All the present Airbus A300 wide body varients share the same basic 5.64meter fuselage design from that time. In contrast the 767 fuselage design is from 1978-82 and the 777 is from 1991-95. And the 787 design is less then 10 years old. The only more recently new wide-body Airframe design that Airbus has in the air (in Airline use) at the moment is the A380. So, if you want to talk about which manufacturer actually has more planes in the air with "more modern" Airframe designs the numbers are well on Boeings side.

stretchmark (michigan):

I used to be in quality mgmt., when I first saw that AB wanted to increase the capacity of the a340. I was shocked by their lack of understanding of the issue; the max capacity of an aircraft is determined by the available exits, not the seat width, if they wanted to certify the aircaft for more pax, they will have to justify the increase or add exits,

Andrew P Boydston (Boise, ID USA):


Any Standardization by airplane manufacturers should be limited to a pitch rectangle outlined on the floor. Fitting an advanced technology seat into a space or rectanglar demenision where the seat makes the room for passenger.JetStar recently placed 335 seats on a 787-8.

To do this they went to the Recarro seat, which creates more room for the passenger withing its seat frame space (rectangle seat area mentioned above), by its using advanced design and materials to do so. The passenger has a thinner and more comfortable seat back. The design ergonomically pitches the passenger in a comfortable sitting position without using up more space but giving the passenger more space. Innovation should come within some standardize foot printwith assigned standards for Premium, Economy and other classes. The secret is in the the seat itself. Even though there is only so much an airline customer (Jetstar) can do to cram its passengers in comfortably, The airlines need allow for its business to expand in an alloted pitch space before it carries a name of economy or premium.

Minimum area for a premium economy should be 17.75" and higher by 34" and so forth. Where an Economy space is left to the airline, to name its own poison while calling it economy. The manufacturer imput of seat space standards should ad words that advertise premium and higher unless it meets a standard benchmark contained in that rectangle area. Airbus would like to force a standard seat to sell A340 airplanes conflicts with the other side of its mouth.

Zhong Liang Ong (Singapore):

Airbus claims that the A343 is more fuel economical to Mexico City than a 77W (and claims Lufthansa backs them on that statement). How would that be possible? I'm interested to find out. So far I haven't found anything more substantial after a few rounds of googling.

So far the only times when I've heard the A34x having an edge over the B77x is when ferrying with a disabled engine, and for Singapore Airline's trans-polar flights (something about it being able to continue the flight if an engine goes out), as it can keep flying at 31000 ft while a B77x would be forced to fly at 20,000 ft and hence not make it to its destination.

Jeffrey Magnet (Newton, MA USA):

Airbus is working hard to sell pre-owned A340s because they are getting a number of them back from Emirates in exchange for A350s and A380s. What are they going to do with them. The A340, B747 and A380 all have hit snags because of their being four engine
aircaft. The B748i, though sales now close to 100 (?), will prosper when the air freight industry picks up. Even yesterday, the day before Christmas, did UPS's system overload. People are buying more online then ever before.

AerospaceNation (Bristol, UK):

The die was cast for the A340-500/600 when they designed the wing for the A340-200/300.

Airbus' approach has always been to design the wing for the aircraft you're launching NOW. Boeing's approach (which I regretfully agree is the better one) is to design the wing for all the aircraft that might be operating 10-20 years from now.

Hence when the time came 15 years ago to stretch the A340, Airbus was stuck with a wing they had no hope of optimizing.

Trying to breath new life into a programme by squeezing more seats in . . . . . ? Barn door. Horse. Bolted.

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