Growing Asian airlines will shrink seat space even further and sacrifice legroom to squeeze more passengers onto planes, with experts predicting budget carriers are betting big on demand in the region soaring higher.
Among the leading Asian low-cost carriers making moves at the Paris Air Show this week, Cebu Pacific bought new jets to squeeze a record number of passengers onto its planes while AirAsia upgraded to the largest single-aisle jets.
Philippine carrier Cebu announced it would buy 31 Airbus "neo" planes - 16 A330-900neo widebody jets and 15 A320neos - in a US$6.8 billion (NZ$510.3 billion) deal.
AirAsia, the dominant Southeast Asian budget airline group, upgraded an order for 253 Airbus A320neo jets to the largest single-aisle A321neo model, which could fly on average 45 more passengers and was certified to fly with 244 seats.
Cebu's order for A330-900neo planes was most eye-catching. Reorganising the galley, toilets and adding slimmer seats would allow the airline to fit 460 passengers per plane in an all-economy layout. These would feature non-reclining narrow seats with either 28 or 29 inches of legroom.
In contrast, Korean Air's double-decker Airbus A380 seats 407 passengers in a mix of economy, business and first class.Cathay Pacific's 777-300s, which are larger and longer than A330s, carry 438 passengers in mostly 10-abreast economy class, a layout designed for regional flights.
Michael Szucs, chief executive adviser of Cebu Pacific, credited the company's rise over 23 years to buoyant demand and said the airline was positioning for more to come.
"Asia is a fast-growing region and demand for travel is high. [Low-cost carriers] have driven tourism in the region. The growth has been astounding over the past decade at double-digit levels. In Southeast Asia, travel penetration is still low, yet it's one of the fastest growing markets in the world," Szucs said.
Some 8.2 billion people are expected to travel by air by 2037, according to an industry forecast, with half of the growth in the Asia-Pacific region.
Samuel Engel, head of aviation for consultancy ICF, said: "You have tremendous current and future growth in air travel demand in Asia, that gets unleashed when low-cost carriers are able to provide competitive fares.
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"Asians are no different from the rest of the world in that they may say they want legroom, but will buy on price," Engel said.
"Price wins over comfort, over lower reputation. Price wins over brand because a new low-cost carrier with no history and no brand to speak of is still able to sell [tickets]."
Compared with Cebu Pacific's existing A330s, legroom would be reduced by an inch, but in the new planes, Szucs said passengers should not notice the difference because the knee clearance was the same, thanks to non-reclining seats designed to provide "more distance and legroom between seat rows".
At least one of Cebu's dense 436-seat planes flies to Hong Kong daily. The new A330neos would primarily fly long-haul.
Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia said its order upgrade was designed to meet soaring demand for flights in Asia.
Airbus said its A330neos, which could fit 440 in a high-density configuration, was based on seats nine abreast with a mix of 29 and 30 inches of legroom.
With Cebu's reduction of one inch, the maximum capacity would be raised to 460 and Airbus said the plane would still be certified to fly.
"Seat pitch isn't the biggest issue here. What I think will be interesting is seat width," said Kai-Chin Shih, an aircraft interiors researcher at Capa Centre for Aviation.
"Cebu Pacific is already one of the very few airlines with nine-abreast A330ceos, with 436 seats and seat widths of 16.5 inches. This figure is the main reason this configuration never really took off [among airlines]."
The reality was customers were chasing lower prices and airlines were responding accordingly, Shih said.
Regular Cebu Pacific passenger Ana Lea, 34, a domestic helper based in Hong Kong, said she was doubtful about denser planes.
"If they add more seats on the same-sized plane, I don't think it will be more comfortable," she said.
Cebu appears to have no problem filling planes. The carrier, which operates 51 planes, was 84.8 per cent full in 2018.
Traditional Asian airlines also went shopping in Paris led by Korean Air picking up 30 787 Dreamliners, Qantas opting for 36 A321neo XLR planes and Taiwan's China Airlines picking up 25 Airbus narrowbody jets and six Boeing freighter 777s.
Mainland Chinese carriers, however, did not place any orders for new planes.
- South China Morning Post