Will Qantas’s 787-9 improve the passenger experience?

written by John Walton | August 21, 2015
suite seats
It seems a good bet Qantas will fit the 787 with the Business Suite now being installed on its A330s. (Qantas)

As more details emerge about Qantas’s selection of Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners for its future fleet, the passenger experience implications are fascinating, even given the background of the continued focus on costs and profitability within Qantas International.

“We are halfway through the biggest and fastest transformation in our history. Without that transformation, we would not be reporting this strong profit, recommencing shareholder returns, or announcing our ultra-efficient Dreamliner fleet for Qantas International,” Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce told reporters in Sydney on Thursday when presenting the company’s 2014/15 results.

Boeing now lists the 787-9 as capable of flying 7,635nm with 290 passengers in a two-class format. Joyce said on Thursday Qantas would fit the aircraft with about 250 seats across a three-cabin configuration that included business, premium economy and economy.

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“We have looked closely at every aspect of the Dreamliner and it’s the right aircraft for Qantas’s future. The key reason we chose this particular aircraft is its incredible efficiency. Its new technology will reduce fuel burn, cut heavy maintenance requirements and open up new destinations around the globe. Because the 787 is smaller than the jumbos it will gradually replace, it gives us the flexibility of having more aircraft without significantly changing our overall capacity,” Joyce said.

“New aircraft types have always unlocked opportunities for Qantas. When our red-tail Dreamliners start arriving in two years’ time, their incredible range and fuel-efficiency will create new possibilities for our network. For customers, the Qantas Dreamliner’s improved cabin pressure, larger windows and technology to reduce turbulence will deliver the world’s best travel experience.”

And, indeed, if early indications pan out, everything is pointing to Qantas’s 787-9 Dreamliners being among the most spacious in the sky. The airline said that it would “work with its team of internal experts and external designers to develop world-leading cabin interiors for the new Dreamliner”.

The 250 seats that Qantas plans to configure its 787-9s is significantly fewer than on many other airlines’ -9 model Dreamliners, and a light load would also potentially extend the range of the aircraft.

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While Qantas could try to claim a significant passenger experience advantage with an eight-abreast economy cabin, Joyce has hinted a nine-abreast configuration was the most likely option.

“Nine-abreast is the standard,” Joyce told Fairfax Media.

Nine-abreast economy on the 787 is more cramped than the 10-abreast economy on the 747-400 aircraft which it will replace.

In terms of range, given Qantas’s existing long-range Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-400ER aircraft it is not clear that there are all that many new nonstop flights that open up with the Dreamliner’s range – despite the airline releasing a thought-provoking range map labelled “new opportunities for destinations”, where New York remains tantalisingly just out of reach.

Potential destinations within the range of Qantas's Boeing 787-9. (Qantas)

But the 787’s lower seat count and generational advance in operating economics will certainly allow new city pairs or increased frequencies on existing routes not viable with the bigger quad-jets. Joyce has offered Melbourne-Dallas Fort Worth as one potential option – which at 7,815nm is 180nm further than Boeing’s brochure range figure for the aircraft, which gives an indication of the extra range fewer seats might yield. And taking the soon-to-resume Sydney-San Francisco service to daily seems another logical 787-9 opportunity.

The real question for economy passengers, even more importantly given the prospect of a 16 hour Dallas flight, is whether the faint hope of an eight-abreast 2-4-2 layout on a 787 (currently only JAL has stumped for the extra space) might materialise on a Qantas 787-9.

By comparison among three-class -9 Dreamliners, Air New Zealand’s 787-9s seat 302 passengers in a leisure-heavy configuration, with 18 business seats ahead of doors 2, 21 premium economy seats and 263 nine-abreast economy seats that start at 31in (but are pitched at 33in in the six to eight rows of Skycouch ‘cuddle class’ seating). Air Canada’s seat 298 (30 business, 21 premium economy, 247 nine-abreast economy starting at 31in).

Virgin Atlantic’s focus on premium economy (with five rows rather than the more usual three) may be the most similar if Qantas decides on a high-premium economy layout, with a 264-seater -9 Dreamliner comprising 31 in business, 35 in premium economy, and 198 nine-abreast economy seats at 31in pitch.

ANA’s 787-9 Dreamliner is the least dense, seating 215 over 48 business class seats stretching for half the aircraft, 21 premium economy seats and just 146 nine-abreast economy passengers.

From an efficiency and accounting perspective, it’s hard to argue with the 12.5 per cent additional available seats that a nine-abreast 787-9 gives compared with an eight-abreast version of the same aircraft. But if there are other reasons for Qantas to be interested in packing fewer passengers on the aircraft, it might just be enough to create the second Dreamliner savvy economy passengers might actually want to fly in.

Offering a premium economy cabin seems likely too. If Qantas can point to a seven-abreast Dreamliner premium economy cabin as an option for passengers who want or need more space, it goes a small way towards mollifying the critics of nine-abreast.

Then up front, Qantas’s business offering on the 787-9 is likely to be based on the new A330-outfitted Business Suite, a Marc Newson-designed implementation of the Thompson Vantage XL staggered seat, which is also used by Aer Lingus and SAS. (The stagger comes from the feet of each passenger sliding forwards into an enclosed foot cubby under the side-table of the passenger in front.)

The Dreamliner’s cabin is 21cm wider than the A330’s (5.49m vs 5.28m), and Thompson advertises several options for seating density on the 787: eight, nine or ten seats per staggered pair of rows.

A selection of the eight seats per two rows option – which the 787-9’s planned 250-seat count suggests – would show Qantas still views itself as able to command a premium in the market, and is dedicated to ensuring its business class has direct aisle access for every passenger.

Read John Walton’s indepth analysis of Qantas 787 cabin fitout considerations in the August issue of Australian Aviation, currently on sale.

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21 Comments

  • Craigy

    says:

    This is all speculation and in reality a waste of time. I am sure Qantas have run the numbers and the configuration will be announced in about 18 months time when they have designed the cabin. I will wait for Qantas to announce what they are doing rather than waste my time with speculation

  • Bill

    says:

    For the love of God, Allah, Neptune and whoever else, please go 8 abreast down the back!

    But in this age of bean counters, all my prayers are very likely to go unanswered

  • jason

    says:

    and with a slightly reduced payload or an Extended Range Version, direct PTH / LHR is now in the relm of possibility. At least now PTH is accessible direct to the whole of Asia with a via aircraft of suitable size; and most of Europe direct is definitely on the cards, especially in servicing the European communities of WA – namely the Greeks and Italians suggesting direct Athens and Rome are well an truly available.

  • George

    says:

    If you have an associated LCC which can take goats and pack them into a crate to ship overseas, why would you stick a goat-crate on the back of your bentley to go on holiday?

    It seems to me the bean counters (sorry goat-packers) have over-modelled the profit margins. Make money on the 787 LCC form factor at 10 abreast, and make money on the FCC model at 8 abreast, and at a slight premium in the marketplace you are going to be doing just fine. 9 Abreast has the additional problem of 12.5% more people and luggage weight. Do you really want to do that to yourself on an ETOPS leg to Santiago? Or the potential future direct to Istanbul, or Paris, or wherever the outer margins of that range graphic takes you?

    Goats make money, its true. But so does kidskin gloves and fancy goat-horn decor on a nice expensive seat.

    BMW engines are under cheap cars and expensive cars. I think you find that expensive cars still exist and still sell. Expensive Rolls Royce cars.

    Silver Goat anyone?

  • Ryan

    says:

    Sounds like we should all be flying Japan Airlines and ANA

  • Just an FYI – ANA does have some 2-4-2 787-8s. I flew on one from San Jose, Calif. to Tokyo. I also flew a 3-3-3 United 787-8 from Shanghai to LAX. As a 6’2 200 pound passenger, neither was bad at all.

  • Jason

    says:

    Craigy – I think you’ll find John Walton’s informed words are more than mere “speculation”

  • Chris GG

    says:

    Wandering Justin, That’s okay for ~91kg of Self Loading Baggage. Together with the 40kg of hold baggage you are allowed ex/infiltrating the USA by air, averaging near the 130kg typically factored. What about Pacific Islanders or Sumo Wrestlers 1.5-2 or more times heavier? Not so squeezy!

    The USA has amongst the highest proportion of obese (Bariatric =>130kg) residents on earth. Lap sash extension needed by anyone in W or Y class?

    Says I over my Buddha Belly.

  • Derrick

    says:

    When will airlines stop wasting money on first and business class and spend money on the economy class. Don’t they know that economy pays for everything. I would pay extra for larger economy seats than business class, its the same for companies looking to save money.

  • Ron Hall

    says:

    Singapore London return instead of via Dubai for those of us wanting to fly from Europe via the East instead of the Middle East.

  • John

    says:

    premium economy might be 8 abreast with down the back 9 abreast. Can’t see that being that difficult to produce.

  • Dave

    says:

    JAL 8-abreast was comfortable but 9 would be tight I think. They actually had really comfy seats, but still had the entertainment box underneath so opportunity lost there I think.

    The West Australian (Geoffrey Thomas) is reporting PER-LHR direct of course, but even that is a stretch I guess. On the return there’s no decent alternate so they have to be able to make ADL, which is way over range.

    Ron Hall, I think SIN-LHR is long gone mate. If Changi is that good for you maybe choose Singapore Airlines or BA.

  • Craigy

    says:

    @Jason. I have read both the online and hardcopy articles and it is all still speculation. I accept Mr Walton may have an insight but until the airline signs off on the config, it is all still speculation.

  • Charles Falkiner

    says:

    I hope somehow the flap motor scream prior to takeoff and before landing is somehow muffled. Really assaulted the ears on UAL LAX MEL. Consider the 787 just another big Boeing and not a game changer as it has been implied. The lower cabin altitude DOES help jet lag. Looking forward to flying the 380 from DFW to SYD for comparison.

  • Chris GG

    says:

    Dave what about Learmonth? Closer than ADL and within range. Been used before.

  • Jim Thorn

    says:

    Have recently flown on a Jetstar 787 Cairns-Tokyo, daytime flight and LHS of aircraft so had the sun in my eyes the whole six hours. Wonderful. Tinting windows are a waste of time while the larger window is factored in the part above your eyeline which is pointless as pax look out or down, not up. Give me old fashioned pull down blinds any day.

    Toilet seats also need to be held up with one hand when toilet is used while my wife had it digging into her back. Not all cultures appreciate vigorously washing their hands after using the loo so, as I have seen on cruise ships, the potential for bacterial infection is huge. The FA’s told me these two issues were complained about on almost every flight.

    Also, not once did I see the aircraft exceed 850kmh on the flight map, and this was going north/south. I thought this thing was meant to be much faster.

    Can say though that Jetstar business class is excellent and better than the QF premium economy we experienced the year before on a Sydney-Santiago 747.

    If QF go for nine abreast in economy then what is the point in buying this thing, they would be better off leaving that market to JS, but then again, what would I know?

  • Dave

    says:

    Good point Chris GG, you could divert there I guess and you’re right its been done before. However, most times when PER is closed for fog (usually) planes from Asia seem to divert to ADL (I’ve heard EK carries fuel for ADL when flying to PER).
    The other disadvantage with Learmonth is that you couldn’t transfer passengers onto the domestic network from there and they’d all have to continue to PER, and then on to wherever. Not a showstopper but something they’d consider im sure.
    Maybe upgrade the PER runway to CATIII and that would solve the majority of the issue.

    I also wonder what the economics of PER-LHR would be…you’re carrying fuel to carry fuel to carry fuel. At some point that becomes uneconomic even with a long range aircraft. We’ll see I guess.

  • Myles Dobinson

    says:

    My wife and I have flown Qantas, Emirates, Cathay and Singapore Airlines from Brisbane to Europe and we won’t fly QANTAS again as the first time we were code-shared to a British Airways at Singapore and that was just a woeful experience, then Cathay and SIA which were great all the way through. we tried QANTAS/ Emirates this last time (keep your money in Australia right?) and although the Emirates staff on board were great the transfer through Dubai both ways was a shocker to say the least.

    So Mr Joyce if you put in a 9 abreast in economy you will have put an end to us flying Qantas overseas for all time and we will be taking our money back to the Asian airlines. remember we are amongst the tallest and sadly for some biggest peoples of the world. ignore these facts at your peril.

  • Derrick

    says:

    If Qantas does go 9 abreast then go 3-3-3, it will make it easier for passengers to move around compared to a 2-5-2. Think about the poor saps who get stuck in the middle for the whole flight.

  • PaulE

    says:

    Currently, one of the biggest points of differentiation between QANTAS and its competitors is the A380 and the space and quietness it offers…. To the point that QF is able to command a premium on those flights. If the 787-9 goes 9 across, then that difference is lost. Surely, the bean counters have to realise that a similar experience needs to be offered on all international long-hall flights offered by the same airline. Otherwise, people will select other airlines that compensate for the squeeze in another way. That doesn’t mean that the A380 goes to 11 across in order to give a similar squeeze! Money is not the only criteria for choice, people want a pleasant experience and be treated as a loyal or potentially loyal customer.

  • Paul

    says:

    Well done Qantas, cant wait to fly in one. I came back from UK via Dubai on Monday to Sydney and on to Brisbane and had a great trip on Qantas.

    I agree Dubai is to be missed if possible not a nice place at all, really dislike the fact I have to travel from Brisbane to Sydney to pick up flight to UK unless I fly Emirates.

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