Economy Passengers Can’t Tell If Seats Are Comfortable

Filed Under: Qatar

At least that’s the claim by Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways’ CEO.

It’s no secret that Al Baker says some whacky things. If the whole airline CEO thing doesn’t work out for him, he could star in a reality TV show.

Qatar Airways just launched flights between Doha and Los Angeles, and some interesting discussions apparently came up at the press conference in Los Angeles, which I was pointed to through John Walton at Runway Girl Network.

As I wrote about last August, Qatar Airways is in the process of increasing the number of seats they have in economy on their 777s. They’re going from nine seats per row to 10 seats per row, which has more or less become the industry standard. You can hardly blame him for wanting to squeeze more seats on a plane, though there’s no denying that sacrifices passenger comfort… unless you’re Al Baker, in which case you do deny it. Narrower seats aren’t even less comfortable… and you won’t even notice… and if you do notice, it doesn’t matter, because the airline is out there to make money.


AirlineReporter asked Al Baker about squeezing more seats into the 777 at their LAX launch:

In regards to the economy seats, AirlineReporter elicited the first known comments from Al Baker regarding his airline’s decision to follow many other carriers in installing 10-abreast seating on its 777s.

He replied that the carrier’s own studies showed that there was a lot of wasted space on the 777, especially in the aisles, and that he would never compromise passenger comfort.

Okay, so it’s one thing to say “we’re making a business decision to add more seats, because passengers aren’t willing to pay a premium for more spacious seats.” But to claim that he would never compromise passenger comfort?

When pressed on this topic, he continued by claiming that only aviation journalists would notice the difference, and also that the airline is in the business of making money:

He claimed that a general passenger who is “not a journalist in aviation” would not notice the difference in width and comfort, but that ultimately the airline was “in the business of making money” by adding as many passengers as feasible.

Fair enough on the last part (though I’d argue they’re failing miserably if that’s their “goal,” given that the airline is known to be losing hundreds of millions of dollars), though to claim only aviation journalists notice the difference in seat comfort is curious.

He wants to have it both ways here, because every time he is asked about adding a premium economy product, he responds that Qatar’s economy product is already as good as premium economy on other airlines (which was never defensible, but is even less defensible now that the airline is switching to 10 seats per row in 777 economy).

But this raises an interesting question — does the average economy passenger notice reduced seat width/comfort? If they do, are they willing to pay a premium for more comfortable seats?

I’d argue that passengers absolutely notice, though it’s only one thing which factors into the overall experience.

But most passengers aren’t willing to pay a premium for more comfortable seats. Some passengers certainly are, and that’s why we’ve seen the introduction of extra legroom seating and premium economy cabins, because there’s a demand there. But most people aren’t willing to pay for it.


Bottom line

Al Baker has long been bashing the US airlines for providing an inferior product, and claimed they should focus on offering a better product rather than complaining. I think he realized his argument wasn’t adding up, which is why he went from saying that the seat is just as comfortable, to saying that people don’t notice, to saying that the airline is in the business of making money.

So if Qatar Airways is in the business of making money, does that mean Akbar Al Baker is finally conceding to Richard Anderson? Delta turned a ~$1.5 billion profit last quarter alone, so does that make Delta more successful than Qatar Airways in Al Baker’s eyes? 😉

What do you think — does the average passenger notice reduced seat comfort?

  1. Yes they do.
    Have several friends who booked Qartar or Emirates and Found seats Much more uncomfortable than expected. That goes especially Emirates 10 across in 777 and the A380 in general.

  2. Since he feels so confident in the new, more condensed seating, no doubt he’ll be availing himself of the chance to try it out personally on some super long haul flights in the very near future.

  3. When flying in coach, I do pick airlines on certainly routes that offer better coach seating. For example a route I fly a lot is LHR-LAX-LHR in each direction.

    I only normally go non-stop and have five airlines to choose from

    British Airways A380,B747,B777
    Virgin Atlantic A340, B787
    American Airlines B777
    United B777
    Air New Zealand B777

    I have a good loyalty to BA/AA and have Platinum status, but updates don’t seem to clear that much these days on the non-stops.

    When picking an airline that I know i’m normally going to have to spend 11 hours in coach, lately I have been picking Virgin Atlantic or BA on the A380.

    And my main reasons for picking them is on VS the A340 offers 2 – 4 – 2 in coach, and the upper deck of the A380 also has 2 – 4 – 2 which beats American’s, United’s and Air New Zealand’s 777 3 – 3 – 3 products.

    So in my view the seat width probably won’t bother me that much, its just the fact I will always feel like i’m on a 737 and there will be a middle seat.

    But….guess they will all be that way one day, so its a loosing battle.

  4. Wonder if passengers will be able tell the difference between QR’s promised new “super business class seat” (better than EY’s first apartment lol) and the current ones.

  5. Many coach passengers travel infrequently and come in with an expectation of “this is going to be uncomfortable,” so I would absolutely agree that they don’t realize if they are on a comparatively generous 3-3-3 777 or a tight 3-4-3 one; both seem like not enough to most people.

    Lucky, the way you rephrased the comment is more accurate, but what Al Baker said isn’t totally untrue.

    I am very curious though whether Qatar dropped their “the world’s 5-star airline” tagline since Skytrax supposedly will not give 5 stars to any airline that uses 3-4-3 777s, so in theory Qatar will be losing that 5-star rating soon. Of course, with Cathay also talking about going 3-4-3, Skytrax may eventually have to rethink their rules. Would be a shame if all of those gifts that airlines give Skytrax in exchange for their ratings were to dry up…

  6. I’ve now flown with Qatar on six flights in economy and will never fly them again. I initially chose them due to their marketing as a “5 star airline” and the additional leg room/width afforded in economy in a 9 across B777 layout. Adding 10 across and saying it won’t compromise on comfort is totally crap, especially when considering flights I’ve flown on Emirates with such a layout. The man is delusional.

  7. If the space comes from reduced seat width you’d have to think that some people would notice – the wider ones! Some people are small enough to fit into any sized seat so they are not likely to care.

    If the space comes from reduced aisle width then it’s unlikely most pax would notice.

  8. Wonder if QR will go the way of Al Jazeera America? Too costly to maintain as an ego trip for the emires do this dictatorship?

  9. I do.

    My long haul coach experience: Emirates A380 > TAP A330 > Emirates 777 > TAM 777.

    Al Baker, dear, please just stop.

  10. To be completely honest, reduced width and pitch does not necessarily equate to reduced comfort.

    Take AC’s high density 777-300ER in 3x4x3 compared to CX’s 777-300ER in 3x3x3 in Y class. AC has reduced width and pitch compared to CX but is much more comfortable than CX. Why? The seats are contoured better. Width and pitch isn’t the only thing for comfort.

  11. Qatar airways is a private company and therefore no one knows how much money they make. They can say whatever they want – whether they make millions or a huge loss, it doesn’t matter because we will never know the actual figure. So there is no point you, as a completely unqualified blogger, speculating about their earnings when you have just about as much information on the topic as my pet tortoise

  12. It costs a lot in bribes, err “superior transportation,” to maintain that five star rating from Skytrax. The fares from a few extra seats should lock it down just nicely.

    I’m not even sure why they’re so concerned — QR marketing, namely Al Baker, does a fantastic job of overrating the airline! 🙂

  13. *snort of disgust*
    Whatever planet you are living on, Mr CEO, I do not know. But it is not mine.
    I do happen to notice it when my knees are digging into the seat in front, my back is aching, and my rear end is being pinched by your seats.

  14. Trust me, most people don’t notice economy seating, whatever is cheapest works. Those who comment on your blog are among the select few who actually care about seat pitch and width (i.e. aviation journalists). Most people I know think I’m crazy for spending more on airlines that offer 1 additional inch of pitch or seat width, saying that as long as the entertainment, service and food is good, they are perfectly happy (for economy travelers at least). Just another reason why Air India has realized having 34 inch pitch doesn’t matter if service and entertainment sucks. AAB might be an ass, but he’s right on this one.

  15. Many passengers, not just aviation journalists, or bloggers, or denizens of, have over the past number of years noticed and do complain vociferously about the ever diminishing seat pitch and reclining seat backs that land in their laps. Seat width until very recently has remained relatively constant which I suspect explains fewer complaints on that front (side???) so far.
    My two cents

  16. People may or may not notice that the seats are less wide – but more importantly, very, very few check seatguru before booking and pay more to fly a 3-3-3 configuration! The majority of people will keep buying based on price – untill they have a horrible experience and exclude that carrier from further purchases… and therefore airlines will give them what they are willing to pay for: basic transportation for rock-bottom prices…
    And the few people who do care fly Premium Economy or Business or choose their carrier/plane more carefully..

  17. I don’t think economy passengers can’t tell whether a seat is comfortable (or not). I think it’s more along the lines of, economy passengers don’t really care as long as the price is right (i.e. cheap).

  18. I digress from the rest of the opinions:

    At a travel agency we say to our customers (for example) direct flights: the SQ flight AMS-SIN is a 777 configured 3-3-3 while the KL flight is also 777 but configured 3-4-3. You would be surprised how many would KL as family of 4 or rather SQ as travelling group of 3, pricing irrelevant aslong as one can sit together.

    Nextup in importance is luggage allowance, people think longhaul leisure has to be suitcases full of souvenirs, spare clothes and being prepared for apocolypse. allowance SQ: 30 KG in economy wins it mostly but there are big amount of people booking KL 20 kg because they won’t need much luggage so they perceive the price is lowered by X.

    And ofcourse we show the EK/EY/QR options via their hubs involving a middle in the night transfer, this is usally eagerly booked by those on a really skimpy budget but really deperatly want to go on a holiday: 400 eur to Asia that’s a bargain, my stay for two weeks will be less then 1000eur in expenditure how well money saved is that.

    Just telling you the mindset of the average traveller in South Holland, not judging but each has their own decission making variables.

  19. I am broad on the shoulders type guy and anytime I get booked for any job ( always in Econ ) the first thing I think to my self is please don’t let it be a 10 abreast 777. Long hauls on this are just CRUEL!!! Probably the number one reason I HATE AF and KLM Emirates added a second daily a while back to Barcelona with a 77L and it’s greatly reduced how much I enjoy Emirates. Qatar never had a good Y product to begin with anyways. They have twice daily to Barcelona both with A333 and it’s never a pleasant comfortable expierence. I don’t get where they get the 5 star rating and have yet to meet anyone who can say they’ve had the 5 star expierence. Anyways I’m bored in a Brussels lounge so I’m ranting.

  20. “Delta turned a ~$1.5 billion profit last quarter alone”

    And DL is sticking with 9-across in the 777. DL is actually very good about economy seating with the best E+ seat in the sky (5cm more recline!) and 7-across on the 767.

    You can get AA seats 9-across if you watch Seatguru carefully. And AA is profitable, too.

    SQ, CX, and JL seem serious about Y comfort also. The ME3 care about you only in premium cabins.

  21. The majority of economy passengers love to whine and comfort about comfort (or lack there of on flights) whether its a short hop from Chicago to St. Louis or a long haul from Doha to Los Angeles. The reality is, most of them are going to fly based on price, to a lesser extent schedule and to a much lesser extent, comfort.

    I randomly just went into kayak to price out a r/t flight from LAX to DOH. Prices ranged from $702 (Delta, with stops in DTW and AMS both ways) to $1,572 (Royal Jordanian with an AA flight to ORD then RJ to AMM then DOH) with Qatar’s non stop option at $1,295.

    I wont pretend RJ is a great airline, it’s probably worse than Delta. But lets take Cathay who is offering the trip at $1,513. If CX offers more comfortable seating in Y, are enough people really willing to pay the additional $809 to fly CX over DL? I highly doubt it. Sure, Lufthansa was $725, United was $707 and Etihad was $882. Could I see someone paying $23 more to take LH, absolutely. But the cost conscious economy traveler isn’t shelling out more than $100 in the name of ‘comfort’

  22. Having travelled with Qatar Airways recently from the UK to Thialand on three different aircraft A380,A330 and B 777 in economy there is a considerable difference in comfort between the A380 and the other aircraft in the economy seat. The A380 is very uncomfortable after just a couple of hours.
    We were lucky in that we had exit row seats on all flights but one, those seats on the A330 and B777 had leg and foot rests, far more padding in the seat,but the A 380 didn’t have any were near as much padding and was minus the leg and foot rests, clearly cost cutting.
    It’s unfortunate because the A380 is much quieter and they have spoilt the aircraft by using cheap uncomfortable seats in economy.
    The CEO of Qatar Airways should try his product he will soon realise his economy seats are nothing to shout about and economy passengers do know the difference.

  23. I thought the same when we booked mom a ticket with BA business to the US, “business is business she will not notice how narrow the seats are”. Well, the first thing she said as soon as she landed was “BAs seats are really narrow”.

    Rookie mistake, really.

  24. Of course I notice the seat comfort. I;m a big boy …. 6’2″ and 215#. Economy on a flight of more than 2-3 hours gets very uncomfortable.

    When I do not have the miles or money to fly C or F on longhaul (transcon or TALT flights), I will quit traveling.

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