10 Hours in the Seat: Boeing Versus Airbus?

Asiana 330

I should be a big fan of Boeing airplanes. I live in Seattle. It’s where The Boeing Company began and where most of the planes are still made. I worked at Boeing while I was going to school. I have friends who have given their entire professional lives to the company, and as a former Pan Am pilot I have actually flown 5 Boeing airplanes. But, honestly, from a passenger comfort point of view Airbus makes better, quieter, more comfortable, smoother flying, and technically more advanced airplanes. I haven’t seen or flown the 787 Dreamliner and it is the cutting edge in aeronautical engineering, but I’m only a passenger these days and given the choice Airbus is what I want to fly now.

Last night I flew from Saigon to Seoul (5 hours) in a Boeing 777, and today I flew from Seoul to Seattle (10 hours) in an Airbus 330 (seen above). A few years ago the 777 was considered state of the art and, though it is well engineered, from a passenger’s point of view it feels like Boeing is on the side of the airlines – not the passengers. More seats, crowded cabins, narrow aisles, small restrooms and more noise.

I started to notice how smooth and quiet flights on the Airbus were several years ago. The gear comes up silently and goes down quietly and the flaps don’t make that old grinding screw-like noise. Touch down and deceleration are soft, smooth,and quiet – no noisy hard landings, shaking vibrations, engine reversals or heavy braking. Inside the cabin there are differences too. Airplanes that have two aisles with 3-3-3 seating configuration in each row are beastly for long haul passengers. That is true of most Boeing airplanes – the 737, 747, and worst of all the 757 a long narrow single aisle capsule with 3 seats on each side. The Airbus 330, on the other hand, has two aisles with a 2-4-2 configuration that makes it easier for passengers to extract themselves from a seat to access the lavatories or just walk around. From a health standpoint this is really important. Medical experts strongly recommend getting out of the seat at least once an hour in order to avoid potentially fatal blood clots in the legs and to simply get the blood moving again. I always try to get an aisle seat for this reason, but last night I had a window seat and had to ask two people to get up each time I wanted to move around. When the flight is a long ocean crossing at night that is not easy to do. Passengers want to sleep and it is natural to respect that and avoid waking them unless there is a good reason. Avoiding blood clots is a good reason but it doesn’t present itself as urgently as the need to visit the lavatory. Sitting on the aisle or one seat from the aisle makes it much more convenient.

At this point I also have to make a pitch for foreign airlines. When was the last time you visited the lavatory half way through a United or Delta flight and entered a spotless restroom? Usually it’s like visiting an outhouse; the floor is wet, the sink has is rimmed with soap scum, paper towels are wadded up on the counter or overflowing the receptacle and there may or may not be any toilet paper. On Asiana flights the flight attendants regularly patrol the lavatories to refresh the supplies, including tooth brushes and mouthwash as well as wipe down the counters – and the floor. It makes a difference.

And speaking of flight attendants – I don’t want any age discrimination in hiring but I think the energy, pride, and appearance of professionally groomed, agile flight attendants inspires passenger confidence. Shouldn’t American flight attendants, regardless of age, be held to the same professional grooming and productivity standards? The Asiana crew, all women this time, wore identical outfits (two piece suits) and all of them had their hair up in a bun in back. They were almost indistinguishable from one another. It looks (and feels) professional. No one was overweight and they worked tirelessly from the beginning to the end of the 10 hour flight to Seattle. This may seem unfair, but I sometimes look at US flight attendants on the same trans-Pacific flight (it’s a very senior leg) and see people I flew with in 1970 and wonder if they can still perform the duties required for an emergency evacuation. Maybe they can, but they don’t move or greet me with the same purpose, energy, and personality that I meet on Asiana, EVA, Korean, Thai or Singapore Airlines.

Air travel these days is mass transportation. It’s not much fun, especially in the economy section. Long haul transoceanic flights are torture. It makes a difference when the equipment and the crew are the best available. The next time you have occasion to travel think about more than just price. BTW: Asiana usually offers the best price for a crossing to Asia if the destination is not non-stop to Tokyo or Hong Kong). Pay attention to the type and age of the airplanes, the culture of the crew (Asian airlines are very service oriented), and the financial health of the airline itself (Japan Air Lines used to be among the best, but it has fallen on hard times and gone through bankruptcy. The last time I flew JAL the distance between my seat and the seat in front was so short that I had to sit sideways even when the forward seat was upright).

I love to travel and I try to minimize the pain and inconvenience associated with modern air transportation, but there are some things I keep in mind when making plans. I try to pile up the miles until have enough to upgrade to Business Class. It takes awhile, but in Business Class most of these considerations become secondary. There is nothing like a good meal, a stiff drink and a good night’s sleep to ease the pain after 10 hours in the capsule. Go Business, if possible, but if not find a carrier with flier-friendly new equipment, preferably Airbus, and a culture of dedicated service. Singapore is the gold standard, but Qatar and Asiana are right up there.

I want Boeing to prosper as a company. It will help Seattle survive, but for my own health and survival if I have to strap my butt in a seat for 10 hours I want the best seat in the best airplane available, and at this point I’m going with Airbus.


  1. Michael and Jodi and Lucy just flew back to Seattle from Marseille on Air France and paid a few dollars extra to get into some economy plus seats. They said there was a little more space and it made all the difference

  2. Cathay Pacific (which I thought was once a good airline) was the worst experience I’ve ever had (Hong Kong to SF). Absolutely no leg room and very strange seats. Don’t remember what kind of airliner it was, but was a relief to finally board the Alaska flight from SF to Seattle – much more leg room on Alaska and more comfortable seats. Oh, and after that long flight CP couldn’t get the luggage hold open, so we missed our Alaska flight connection, and I had to move into my bitchy persona to get them to get us on a flight to Seattle the same day. They seemed to expect us to stay overnight (at the airport).

    I plan to try Singapore for the next flight. I also had a very good experience on Taiwan’s airline (don’t remember the name, although read afterwards that it had had a dubious safety record at some point in the past, and that Taiwan is prone to typhoons during the season in which I was flying. That flight was Seattle – Tai Pei – Bankok. I was upgraded to first class on one leg – no explanation why, but it sure was nice!

  3. As husband of the union president during the IUFA weight case, I needed to abandon certain puerile predilections in order to avoid a celibate marriage. Ultimately, the issue was “Bona Fide Occupational Requirements.” Flight attendant sexual desirability turned out not to be one. The airline had trouble flaunting Mae West figures and apertures that didn’t have escape slides.

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