Even in the days of Facetime and Skype, flying is still a big part of our lives – some things are just better "real," and until everyone’s got 3D 8K being streamed into their living room, there’s nothing quite like being there. So, people continue to suffer through long-haul flights to far-flung beaches and cities; not all’s lost, however – some airlines have got your back in terms of comfort.
The stats make for pretty grim reading – in basic economy on long-haul flights, the industry average amount of legroom has lost about three inches over the past decade, from around 34 inches to 31. Given that Boeing themselves recommend a minimum of 32 inches for passenger comfort, and it seems like we’re all doomed to hours of cramped agony. It’s not all doom and gloom though – modern features like revamped entertainment systems and ergonomically designed seats are starting to pop up, all promising a marginally better flight. Personally, I’m really excited about the advent of in-flight Wi-Fi, since even with the swanky new personal TVs most airlines now offer, the quality of the display is almost universally going to be better on a tablet, and access to iPlayer would make my journey just that little bit better.
All this said, however, not all airlines are created equal, and even within airlines some planes are better to travel on than others. Settle back (and enjoy the comfort of your non-cramped office chair) as we quickly fly through some of the big names in air travel.
The venerable “queen of the skies”, the 747’s been around for well over 40 years now, and until recently held the record for the largest-capacity passenger aircraft. Despite its age, the 747 just keeps getting better and better, with a new and improved version rolled out last spring. For economy class, the comfort levels vary hugely with whichever airline you’re flying on.
The champ here is definitely Asiana airlines, one of the South Korean carriers. Their economy class is top-notch, with 34” legroom, power ports for all and a decent-looking on-demand video service. Plus, the meals all have wines chosen by an on-board sommelier to match the meals, kinda beating the normal mini-bottle handed out from the trolley. Chasing a close second is Air France, with the widest seats (18 whole inches, woop woop), but the lack of power ports knocks them down into second place for me – plus the entertainment system is probably filled with the assorted works of Gerard Depardieu. As a rule, though, the Asian carriers have Western Europe beaten in the long-haul economy game.
It’s the same story in first, too. Generally, the best carriers’ first class section comes with completely private suites, with real beds, workspaces and televisions. The best for techies is probably still Asiana, with each suite getting its own 32” HDTV and the best collection of movies. Poor old BA is left scrabbling, so resorts to giving you electronic blinds and wardrobes to play with.
In terms of the aircraft itself, the 747-8i (the new one) is one of the best aircraft for everyone onboard. It’s marginally faster than the Airbus A380, so you’ll get there sooner (which might be a bad thing if you’re soaking up the awesomeness of first class); it’s also quieter than the older 747, so it should help if you’ve forgotten your noise-cancelling headphones again. Nifty things like LED mood lighting and redesigned windows help make it seem a little bit less like a cattle carrier as well, which is no bad thing. Still, will Boeing’s golden oldie be able to challenge its bigger European rival?
The A380 is the new kid on the block, a bit bigger and a bit quieter than the 747. For economy class, it’s still a toss-up between the various Asian airlines; Singapore is reputed to have the best service and food, though, and in-flight wifi is a big plus as well. Regardless of which airline you’re on, however, the A380 is probably the best plane to travel in today. 20 per cent lighter than a 747, the seats tend to be slightly more spacious (depending on airline, obviously), and given that they’re only a few years old, most have modern features such as a self-service bar at the back of the cabin that can make a tedious journey just that little bit faster.
When it comes to luxury though, the A380 is the undisputed king of the hill. More space gives the airlines more and more room to cram in amenities, resulting in 10-course meals, turning-down services and most impressively, showers. Yeah, that’s right, you can arrive at your destination, in a clean suit (which has been hanging in your wardrobe), fed to the point of bursting, and smelling all clean and minty. Now, whether or not that’s worth over £10,000 is your call, but it’s nice to know that the option’s there if you happen to come into a large sum of money.
The newest of the twin-engine jets, the 787 has good and bad features for economy-class passengers. On the upside, a low plane weight means less powerful engines, which results in a quiet cabin. Higher air pressure is also designed to enhance passenger comfort, leaving you hopefully feeling less drained when you’re standing around trying to find your bags at the other end. Interestingly, it’s one of the few planes designed to be more accessible for disabled passengers, with toilets that can convert from two normal-sized toilets into one larger wheelchair-accessible one.
Sadly, economy class in the 787 is woefully cramped, with LAN Airlines’ 787s getting a pitifully cramped 16.8” wide seat – the minimum width recommended by experts is 18”.
The 767/777 and the A330/340s are the workhorses of the passenger aviation world. Chances are, if you’ve ever flown transatlantic/long-haul on a non-popular route, you were flying in one of these. The 767 and A330 have more cramped layouts in an effort to squeeze passengers in. In general, they’re a less pleasant experience if you’re in coach, though it still depends which airline you’re flying as to how bad it is. The worst offender is Japanese airline ANA, with the horror of tiny, cramped seats (30” by 16”) and shared TVs. Once again, Cathay, Singapore and Qatar airlines make the best of a bad situation, with wider seats and modern in-flight entertainment systems. As a rule, though, the 747 or A380 provide a better long-haul service, at least for the next decade until the 787 (or something even better – who knows?) comes into service.