Whoa: French Bee’s New 480-Seat Airbus A350-1000

French Bee has just taken delivery of its first Airbus A350-1000, which features 480 seats. This makes it the world’s most efficient long haul aircraft. I’m undecided as to whether this is an incredible feat, or just sounds plain awful.

What is French Bee?

For context, French Bee is an ultra low cost carrier that launched operations in 2016. The airline operates a fleet consisting exclusively of Airbus A350s — initially the airline had a fleet of four A350-900s, and now the airline is taking delivery of two A350-1000s.

As far as French Bee’s destinations go, the airline flies from Paris Orly (ORY) to San Francisco (SFO), with continuing service to Tahiti (PPT). On top of that, the airline is soon launching flights to Newark (EWR), as well as flights to Los Angeles (LAX).

French Bee’s new 480-seat Airbus A350-1000

Since launching operations, French Bee has operated a fleet of four Airbus A350-900s, featuring a total of 411 seats. This includes 35 premium economy seats and 376 economy seats, making them among the densest A350-900s out there.

Now the airline is taking delivery of two Airbus A350-1000s, featuring a total of 480 seats. This includes 40 premium economy seats and 440 economy seats. In part, the airline is able to cram so many seats on the plane because there are 10 seats per row in economy, rather than the standard nine.

French Bee A350 economy

To be clear, this new configuration isn’t disproportionately dense compared to the A350-900. It’s just a larger plane, so it makes sense that there are more seats. It’s the sheer number of seats we’re talking about that’s remarkable here, if you ask me.

Just to compare this to some other airlines operating the A350-1000:

French Bee A350 premium economy

French Bee’s A350-1000s are likely the world’s lowest cost long haul aircraft in terms of per-seat operating costs. The A350 is incredibly fuel efficient to begin with, and then on top of that no airline has installed as many seats on a twin-engine long haul aircraft (All Nippon Airways has 514 seats on its 777-300s, but those are specifically used for short haul domestic flights).

Just to put this into perspective, Virgin Atlantic used to operate a 747-400 in a leisure configuration with just 14 business class seats, and those featured “just” 455 total seats. And the economics of the 747-400 are much worse than those of the A350-1000.

Does a plane this dense make sense?

I’m fascinated by French Bee’s A350-1000, and have a few conflicting thoughts here. Historically the long haul, low cost airline business model simply doesn’t work… just ask Norwegian. So could this be any different?

  • French Bee’s configuration is materially more efficient than what we’ve seen from other long haul airlines, and the per-seat operating costs here must be wildly low; for example, these planes feature 150 more seats than Norwegian’s 787-9s did
  • At the same time, this efficiency is only worth anything if the airline can consistently fill those seats
  • The question becomes how often French Bee can sell nearly all 480 of those seats; the airline does have the benefit of operating in some markets with different seasons, but I still just don’t see this working all that well in winter (due to lack of school breaks, etc.)
  • While many passengers are willing to sacrifice comfort to save money, French Bee operates some ridiculously long flights, like the nearly 24 hour journey from Paris to Tahiti; are passengers willing to subject themselves to that (including 10-abreast seating) if the price is right?
  • Unless the airline can consistently fill those seats, it would make more sense for the airline to offer different types of seating products so that the airline can get more revenue per passenger; for example, the airline could also offer flat beds, and that would make a whole new crowd interested in flying the airline

To me this is going to be a very interesting plane to watch. If the airline can consistently fill nearly all 480 seats, even at low fares, this plane could be a cash cow. Meanwhile if these planes are mostly empty in the off-season, the economics will be much tougher.

French Bee A350 economy

Bottom line

French Bee has just taken delivery of its first A350-1000, which should be the world’s most efficient long haul aircraft in terms of per-seat operating costs. While that sounds great in theory, one has to wonder if French Bee will be able to achieve load factors that make this worthwhile. Comfort aside, boarding a non-double decker with 479 other passengers just doesn’t sound fun, and that says nothing of the inflight experience.

What do you make of French Bee’s A350-1000 — brilliant or awful?

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