Does size matter? (when it comes to aircraft!)
Updated: Dec 1, 2019
As with most things, that depends.
As you will see, type and size do matter for overall travel comfort but what can matter more is who operates the aircraft!
Of the 49 airlines that operate from Sydney, 14 carry nearly 75% of all departing passengers. (*Source: bitre.gov.au) Those airlines are:
Airline % share of seats* Economy Seat Pitch Economy Seat Width
Zealand 6 31-32 17.2-17.8
Air Asia X 2.3 32 16.5
Cathay Pacific 4 32 18-18.2
China Eastern 2.6 30 17-18
China Southern 2.6 29-30 17.2-18
Emirates 7.3 32-34 17-18
Etihad 3.2 32 17.5
Jetstar 5.2 29-30 17
Qantas 24.5 31 17.5
Qatar 2.2 31-32 17-18.5
Airlines 5.6 32 17-19
Thai Airways 2.0 31 17-18
United Airlines 2.1 31 17.3
Virgin Australia 4.4 32 18.5
Between them, these airlines operate the following wide-bodied aircraft:
Airbus A380 A350 A330
Boeing B747 B777 B787
Wide-bodied or twin aisle aircraft are the “norm” for extended international flights.
The Airbus A380 and Boeing B747 are four-engined, multi-decked “jumbo” jets carrying between 416 & 484 passengers whilst the remaining aircraft are twin-engined, single-deck aircraft carrying between 290 & 360 passengers. Two of them, the Airbus A350 and Boeing B787, are “new’ in that a significant portion of the aircraft is made of composite material (carbon fibre) which is lighter and stronger than the aluminium traditionally used.
Lighter and stronger translates to more fuel-efficient (keeping airfares in check) but the “composite” aircraft have the added benefit of being able to fly with a higher cabin pressure which equates to a person being at an altitude of 1800m instead of 2400m and higher humidity, making for more comfortable travel. The humidity of the air in a traditional, aluminium aircraft is @12% whereas the composite aircraft are @20% (your home is usually 30%+). This is because metal corrosion is not such an issue but also because of technology advancements that circulate dry air between the outer skin of the aircraft and the cabin lining.
Further, the newer types of aircraft take advantage of improvements in aerodynamics and engine technology for a quieter and smoother ride. Notwithstanding this, the Airbus A380 in many respects is still the benchmark for a smooth, quiet and comfortable ride even though if can feel like you are not in a plane at all. The take-off in an A380 is a revelation - something thing big does not feel like it is moving but it hits the skies @ 320km/h!
So, the type and size of aircraft does matter but so does who the operator is and, in this regard, it is important to keep an eye on seat pitch (the difference between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front and is different to leg room) and seat width.
Seat width varies between 17.5 & 19 inches or 44.5-48cm (these are still measured in inches due to American airlines dominating the market in the early days). Check the chart above and also SeatGuru’s Long-Haul Economy Comparison data.
The final factor about the operator is how they choose to configure their aircraft. Take the Boeing 787, for example. Boeing’s newest, composite aircraft was designed for seating in a 2-4-2 arrangement ie 2 seats beside the window, aisle, 4 seats in the middle, aisle and then two seats beside the other window. Japan Airlines is the only airline of 47 operators who operate in this configuration. All of the others fit another seat in each row for a 3-3-3- configuration. This impacts significantly on seat and aisle width and the overall amenity of the cabin. Despite the B787 offering a quiet, higher humidity environment, some travellers are actively avoiding them as they are just too tight for comfort.
Another consideration with the configuration is who you are travelling with. If you are travelling as a couple, it is very convenient to grab the 2 seats together on the side of an aircraft. On aircraft with a 3-4-3 configuration, you might be better if you both choose aisle seats so you have good access but then you have to worry about 1 or 2 others getting over you to access the aisle. A somewhat risky strategy can be to choose the window & aisle seats in a block of 3 and hope that another passenger doesn’t choose the dreaded middle seat but airlines will probably assign it anyway. Or, as a couple choose an aisle and middle seat in the centre section and plan on the occupant of the other middle going the other way.
So, what to look for and how?
Size – to a degree, bigger is better.
Type – newer can offer a more comfortable environment and is are more efficient
Operator – does depend largely on where you want to go and how much you want to pay.
Configuration – be aware of the seating. Use SeatGuru to get a good idea of good seats.
Time - daytime or nighttime flight? Again, there are a number of strategies here. Daytime flight (8-10 hours) means that you can arrive and pretty much still be on your bodyclock. Nighttime flight - some will advocate for a "red-eye" flight on the basis that it may be less popular and there may be rows of vacant seats to stretch out on. Really a matter of personal preference.
When you are looking at flights, make a note of the flight number ie QF7 or the type of aircraft ie A388.
Use SeatGuru to check out the typically configured aircraft used for that flight.
Make a note of “green” or good seats (avoiding the “red” one unless you liked to be bumped in the night or near the toilets/gallery).
Book your flights and choose your seats – do note, however, that some airlines charge extra for the convenience of booking particular seats.
What do I look for?
Having travelled on all wide-body aircraft with the exception of the Boeing 787, my go-to aircraft was the Airbus A330 – 2-4-2 seating, not too many passengers and a reasonably quiet and comfortable ride. Nowadays the A380, being the game-changer for passengers if not the arilines, is the preferred option for most travellers if they have a choice.
There are two other options that can be used to counter any avoid having to work out the best combination of aircraft, operators, configuration etc
1) pick the worst flight of the day in terms of departure time, arrival time, connections etc and hope that it will not be very full. You may be able to grab a row of seats and lie down most of the way, or
2) go with the moment and choose an airline that suits your personal travel preferences and remind yourself, after all, you will be in a form of commercial jet transportation that barely existed 70 years ago, travelling at 900+km/h, 10,000 metres up at a cost that is getting progressively cheaper and your biggest decisions are whether to have the chicken or the beef for dinner! First world problem.