Inequality visualised – and solved – with a British Airways 777 airliner

On a recent trip to the US  it occurred to me that BA’s 777 aircraft is a perfect illustration of our unequal distribution of resources, and how we might solve this conundrum for the benefit of everyone.

The problem

At 30 000 feet, the most precious resource (after breathable air) is leg room. And so BA’s 777 cabin is divided into four classes where passengers are granted increasing floor space in return for higher fares. It’s astonishing: over half the aircraft is dedicated to First and Business (Club) Class. I guess it reflects the wealth of the carrier’s host nation. But even so, the aircraft’s most precious resource is distributed rather unequally across four classes. This is not dissimilar to the general distribution of wealth although, to keep the same proportions on board, the front half would have fewer passengers than cabin staff.

Still, as it is 62 people at the front occupy the same space as 162 at the rear*. One passenger in First consumes about the same square footage as 4 or 5 people in Economy. It’s a miracle that such a back-loaded plane can even take off:

Four-class seat layout of a British Airways 777. 14 seats in First, 48 in Club, 40 in Premium and 122 in Economy (total 224). Source: seatplans.com

Four-class seat layout of a British Airways 777.  122 seats in Economy, 40 in Premium Economy, 48 in Club and 14 in First (total 224). Source: seatplans.com

The reality

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to experience all four classes on long-haul flights. Being 6’7” tall I (barely) survived overnight flights in Economy but I also cruised in Premium or stretched out in Business on corporate missions, and slept like a baby in First thanks to a couple of accidental upgrades.

But, just like diamonds, airline classes are bullshit.

Think about it. Flying is a miracle as well as a privilege – I always ask for a window seat so I can enjoy the view, which I’ll never tire of. This privilege is available whatever the class. And your prime goal is to go from A to B. First Class does not get there any faster. You might save 10 minutes at the immigration queue or baggage carousel, but that’s not worth the extra few grand.

When you think about it objectively, First Class in the air is equivalent to a youth hostel dormitory on the ground. Where else would you share a room with a dozen strangers? Ditto with airline lounges. If they really are that nice, why don’t cafés and pubs look more like them?

I call bullshit. It’s mostly a status thing. It’s outdated and we need to get over it. In an age of resource scarcity we can no longer afford this collective stupidity.

The solution

The solution is quite simple. If the whole aircraft was kitted out in Premium Economy, everybody would be happy enough. In Premium, even I can stretch out enough to avoid Deep Vein Thrombosis. Besides you get served half-edible food and entertained by a decent in-flight movie collection. Out of all classes, Premium Economy offers by far the best value for money.  What’s more, if every seat on the plane was a Premium chair, you’d fit 134 more people on board than with the current layout – an increase of a whopping 60%! And because everybody would be treated equally, there would be no smugness or guilt at the front, and no despair or resentment at the back. Everybody would just “be”. Happy days!

The 777 re-arranged in all-Premium configuration (total: 358), as photoshopped with GIMP.

The 777 re-arranged with an all-Premium configuration (total: 358), as photoshopped with GIMP.

The economics

But wait a minute. What about the cost?

Airline fares are notoriously complex so let’s make some assumptions here. Let’s say the average return fare for a typical long-haul flight is £700 for Economy, £1500 for Premium, £4000 for Business, and £8000 for First. So with the standard cabin layout the total fare would be around £450,000. In the airline business it’s notoriously difficult to make a profit, so let’s also assume that this is a fair return. Now, if we divide this figure by the number of seats in the all-Premium layout, that averages out at £1250 per seat. Outch.

When doing these sums you realise that people in First and Business Class actually subsidise the people in Economy through overinflated fares (no wonder airlines are keen to attract and retain these lucrative customers). Even if the nirvana of equality does not come true, this should provide at least some comfort for the rest of us.

But imagine if we could somehow pull off a one-class flight (and society). Would this be worth paying £1250 each? That’s almost twice the current Economy fare. If the wealth across our society was as equally distributed as the seats on this all-Premium airliner, would £1250 be affordable to all?

I guess it would. And it would more naturally reflect the true cost of flying, economically and environmentally, as well as make more efficient use of resources – in the case of the airliner, 60% more capacity.

What do you think? Do I need to get my head tested, or am I onto something?

* Correction 01Oct13: Not 54 at the front vs 160 at the rear, as posted originally (this was a gremlin that had slipped in during early drafting). So 14 First + 48 Business = 62 seats, and 40 Premium + 122 Economy = 162 seats.

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5 thoughts on “Inequality visualised – and solved – with a British Airways 777 airliner

  1. Sounds simple. Elegant almost… but sleep and a comfortable journey has as much to do with whether the cabin is properly heated (not over-heated), efficiency of cabin crew, something more edible than “chickenorbeef” & not being crammed next to any number of nightmare traveller stereotypes. Classes exist so those that feel able to justify the expense can minimise the impact of all of these. This is precisely to avoid equality in a cramped aluminium can where you have no control over who you have to share the next 11hrs of your life. Having experienced all but first class it does work and being able to arrive feeling refreshed has been beneficial to me. That said I’ve only ever been in Business Class by virtue of upgrades, luck & sometimes playing the game. For instance, as far as the weight issue goes, Business & First seats are way heavier than those at the back but picking a flight with full Economy and empty up front does mean some frequent flyer “opups” as they even the load. Still, being up front can leave you with your own sense of injustice and inequality… I’ve unfortunately been on three flights with Piers Morgan.

  2. Nice analysis. The economic reason this wouldn’t work is price sensitivity. The majority of airline customers are extremely price sensitive, and will choose a flight that’s £20 cheaper over all other factors – as you said, you don’t get to your destination any quicker. Meanwhile all first-class customers are extremely price INsensitive, and will choose a flight that’s more comfortable for them even if costs thousands more. Both groups would choose a different airline, and even a different route, if one airline fitted out its planes as you suggest. The fact that most airlines carry so few premium economy seats must mean that there are very few potential customers interested in this price point. Many airlines are introducing more and more options (KLM has “extra comfort economy” and the ability to choose an exit row seat) but they remain tiny niches and most seats are still economy.

    I approve of your idea of an equal society, but it’s not clear to me that if we achieved it, there would be any reason for this price sensitivity issue would to go away. Even if everyone could afford premium economy, they might still choose to spend that money on other priorities if they were free to do so.

  3. Thanks for your comments, both here and on twitter. Many people seem to think it’s a great idea. However elegant my theory may sound at first, I also realise it has some flaws:

    – Price sensitivity is an excellent point which I neglected to factor in (thanks to mistdog, see above). There’s no point having an equal society if people are not free to spend their money as they please. So here the airliner analogy with resource distribution perhaps breaks down…

    – Sleep is another factor, as Kenneth & others have pointed out. Sleep, when you really need it, is a precious resource too. From experience I also know the difference between arriving on a different continent feeling relatively refreshed and ready for meetings, vs. totally shattered needing 2 days to recover (which also costs money). I guess this is why some people – and especially companies – are prepared to shell out for Business. But it should at least make you think, is it worth going in the first place?

    – @medgoode also pointed out that I had assumed a load factor of 100%. Obviously not every plane is fully booked, even though the BA flights I’ve recently been on have been. An average load factor of 70-80% might be more realistic. Does this mean I can reduce the all-Premium rate by 20%, closer to £1000? Hmm…. probably not that simple.

    – It also occurred to me later that the layout of a British Airways cabin is by now means representative. Check out for example the same airliner with Egypt Air… the inequality being much more marked it totally shoots down my logic! http://www.seatplans.com/airlines/Egyptair/seatplans/B777-200ER-4

    So, I may have stretched the analogy between airlines and wealth or resource distribution a bit too far, but hey it was worth a try… thanks for reading and for all the comments!

  4. What about the added cost of fuel with all the additional weight of those 134 people. Since fuel costs are the biggest factor in pricing- how would this affect the overall cost of the individual ticket?

  5. Yeah, you made some mistakes. But you also made some great, pithy observations. It’s nice to hear someone thinking, and RARE to hear someone who admits they might not have thought everything all the way through. Most people think that whatever THEY think is perfect. You sound a reasonable guy.
    ..and British Airways 8 across business class looks nasty. Those silly broken foot rests…the horrid backwards/forwards configuration. There’s no privacy. ….The same bad plane food, only more bad plane food. …the window seats in business look like coffins……why pay for THAT?

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