The Torturously Tight Plane You May Fly in Next
What began 50 years ago as a small Boeing jet just kept growing…and growing…and growing. Now it has become a very, very long tube stuffed with seats.
Somewhere in the deep and darkest places of airline back offices there is always an accountant with a single-minded dream: will someone ever give me an airplane that allows me to squeeze the most money out of every seat?
They no longer need to dream. Here comes the Boeing 737MAX 10, just revealed at the Paris Air Show. It may be an accountant’s dream but it sure as hell is a passenger’s nightmare. Never will have flying felt more like being stuffed into the smallest possible space.
This development reflects a new code word in the vocabulary of airline economics, an ugly word with ugly intent – densification. It’s code for: just how many passengers you can stuff into a tube?
And the 737MAX 10 will be the ultimate tube, the longest of the thinnest.
However, before I get into the excruciating physical details there is a story to be told, one of the most extraordinary origin stories in the history of commercial aviation.
Back in the 1960s Boeing began its early domination of the jet age with the intercontinental 707. It followed that with the smaller trijet, the 727, for domestic routes. And then, in 1964, in order to stave off competition, it rushed ahead with an even smaller jet, the 737, designed for shorter inter-city routes.
The 707 and 727 have long passed into respected museum pieces. Astoundingly, the 737 continues on and on and on and on…the greatest cash cow in Boeing’s long history. Many upgrades have been made to the design, the most significant in the mid-1990’s with new wings and avionics, but one thing has never changed — and it is the thing that most influences the passengers’ experience — the size of the fuselage and, therefore, the limits of its cabin comforts.
Critically, it concerns what was deemed in 1964 to be the ideal width for a single-aisle cabin, 11 feet 6 inches. With three seats on each side of the single aisle that means the tightest possible seat width, about 17 inches. But, as everybody knows, since the 1960s Americans have grown wider while the seats have not.
The 737’s seats remain limited to the original width but the airlines have demanded more and more rows of them. The only way to meet that demand was to make the cabin longer…and longer…and longer. That was possible because jet engines became more powerful. And so the cabin was incrementally stretched to lengths unforeseen by the original designers.
The first version of the 737 had a fuselage that was 94 feet long; the second was 100 feet long; the third 109 feet; the fourth 138 feet 2 inches and the fourth – as in the 737MAX 10 – is 143 feet 8 inches long.
As the tube got longer and longer it held more and more rows of seats: the first 737 had seats for 124 passengers; the second 136; the third 149 and the latest an astonishing 230 passengers – nearly twice as many as in the original.
Now, just think about what these numbers mean in terms of both the airline accountant’s dream and the passenger’s nightmare. To meet that total of seats for 230 passengers in the 737MAX 10 the rows are going to be as close together as 28 inches – that’s the space from one seatback to the next or, as I would prefer to call it, the knees-in-your-face space.
And consider the optics of that tube. Boeing has come up with an ingenious trompe l’oeil re-styling of the cabin called Sky Interior that sculpts the ceiling and bins to give a more spacious feeling and the windows are 20 percent larger. That may help a bit to ease the feeling of claustrophobia but nothing can bring mercy to those “densified” seats.
The airline accountant has another reason to love this airplane – and it’s the same one that gives a passenger another reason to hate it. The engines are around 15 percent more efficient than on the previous versions of the 737. On the face of it, that’s good – the emissions are lower, too, and the engines are 40 percent quieter. But to the accountant that means something else: the airplane can fly further on one fill-up of gas.
The original 737 had a range of just over 1,500 miles, ideal for the shorter inter-city routes it was designed to serve. The 737MAX10 has a range of 3,235 miles – enough to fly nonstop from Boston to Dublin or from Singapore to Tokyo (it can be extended to 3,750 miles with an extra gas tank but that reduces the number of passengers.)
This makes the airplane perfect for what the accountants call the “long and thin” routes, nonstop flights between cities for which there is not enough demand to fill a wide-body jet. But passengers can interpret that term another way - as a long time (as much as six hours) in a very thin cabin.
You might think that Boeing would be careful about how it promotes this airplane, a machine that does, in its own egregious way, straddle both the past and the future of mass air travel in a way that no other jet does. But that depends on the audience they address. When they are talking to the airline accountants (who, after all, are their real customers) they deal in superlatives.
A new promotional video declares that the 737MAX10 “is the most profitable single-aisle ever.” It goes on to give an example of that profitability: an airline operating a fleet of 50, each making four flights a day, could fill 46,000 seats a day, representing 17 million passengers a year, at a cost lower than for any competitor.
And in reality there is only one competitor, Airbus with its A320 and A321 jets. When these were designed in the 1980s Airbus purposely chose a cabin seven inches wider than the 737’s; that may seem a small difference but it allows seats in economy that are an inch wider and it produces a notably less claustrophobic tube.
There is no doubt that in terms of passenger appeal the Airbus decision was correct. And yet the Airbus designers knew that the wider cabin came at a cost – the wider the tube the heavier the structure and the more the aerodynamic drag, and weight and drag translate into higher fuel consumption and higher operating costs. The difference is actually small but it still enables Boeing to crow about having “the most profitable single-aisle ever.”
Airbus has put new generation engines on the A320 and 321 that are more efficient and made aerodynamic improvements. The larger of the two airplanes, the 321, can more than match the 737MAX10 in the number of seats and exceed it in range. Surprisingly, there are enough airlines that still value comfort as well as costs and, as a result, Airbus has been outselling the earlier and smaller versions of the 737MAX.
For sure, the 737MAX10 is the last gasp for the world’s best selling airliner. Its narrow cabin is not its only deficiency. Although its cockpit has some modern avionics pilots are still flying a machine that is an awkward hybrid of old technology and new.
This was noted when Aviation Week recently tested the 737MAX8 (smaller than the 10) in the way that, say, Consumers Report tests new cars. The pilot doing the test flight reported: “It is obvious that the 737-8 lacks the fly-by-wire flight controls, avionics integration and other advanced technologies of newer jetliners…there are only so many ways an airplane can be stretched, strengthened, lengthened and re-engined before it loses out to more modern designs.”
This really underlines the strange fact that at Boeing there are, at the same time, two different philosophies about how to treat passengers. The first is unique to the 737 and it can be called the Walmart Option – make them longer and stuff them full for as many years as you can. The second is typified best by the 787 Dreamliner. It can be called the Quality Option: find out what passengers really dream of and deliver it.
Nobody knows how much money the 737 has made for Boeing over the 50 years of its life because the numbers are elusive – most 737s are sold in large batches to airlines at a hefty discount, but financial analysts have no doubt that it is by far the company’s most profitable airplane (roughly 9,500 have been produced and there is a backlog of around 4,400 waiting to be filled).
The 787, in contrast, created a large black hole in Boeing’s accounts that will probably never be corrected. The airplane was three years late reaching the airlines because of a combination of delays produced by badly prepared outsourcing of production and a damagingly public problem with lithium-ion batteries that caught fire and caused a grounding of the whole fleet. Every 787 is sold at a loss reckoned to be at least $23 million and the overall loss on the program is put at $32 billion.
But the 787 has come right. Passengers rate it so highly that many frequent fliers are choosing flights according to whether they are flown by the 787 rather than choosing by airline. (The same is true for the Airbus A350, an equally advanced jet.)
There is a reason: when the 787 was being created in 2004 Boeing interviewed scores of travelers worldwide to find out what they hoped for in a new airplane.
At the time I saw the results of that survey and interviewed some of the Boeing designers. The message was clear: passengers wanted something a lot better than the existing cabins, and they got it. It is, after all, not an airline that determines the built-in fundamentals of cabin comfort but the airplane makers. On the 787 fundamentals like the air quality, the lighting, the capacity of the baggage bins, the feeling of spaciousness and the noise levels were all significantly improved.
Frequent fliers soon noticed that on longer flights the effects of jet lag were greatly lessened because the cabin air was pressurized to equate with an altitude of 6,000 feet, not the old standard of 8,000 feet, and that consequently the air was less dry.
Originally the 787 was not expected to be used by budget airlines that would pack it with more seats. That is changing. Singapore Airlines – an airline that has always raised the bar for cabin comforts – is now flying the 787 on its companion budget airline, Scoot, on long distance routes from Asia to Europe. The cabins have a small business class, a small quiet zone and a large economy class. That way everybody – whatever they pay for a seat – gets the benefit of the superior cabin technology.
A study by the McKinsey consulting firm found that 35 percent of fliers choose an airline on the basis of price alone and another 35 percent mostly on price.
That means that the airlines who buy the 737MAX10 know they will fill those 230 seats in the tube because they can be sold at rock-bottom prices. And, as you might have guessed, of the first 240 orders Boeing has for the airplane, 100 will go to the U.S. airline that has a reputation for being lean and mean, United. These will, in every sense of the word, always be cheap seats. Crossing an ocean for six hours in that cabin will truly feel, to use the old term of abuse, like cattle class – a piece of the past that is flying on long into the future.