As fuel prices surge, passenger demand soars and supply chains are squeezed, airlines are looking more closely than ever for ways to boost efficiencies. Alongside options such as surcharges to tickets and the scrapping of marginal routes, there are longer term solutions which make sense for some carriers looking to bolster their balance sheet.
Among these is 'cabin densification', otherwise known as adding extra passenger seats to an existing airframe. It's a practice which has been around for almost as long as commercial flight, with OEMs, airlines and regulators all closely examining possible ways for more people to be transported without compromising on safety.
For example, anyone who has flown recently in economy class on British Airways' leisure fleet of Boeing 777-200s will have noticed the change. From a previous 3-3-3 configuration, the jets now typically offer a 3-4-3 setup, with narrower seats and less roomy aisles.
While this usually means less space for customers, it allows airlines to sell more seats for busy services and - in theory - to keep fares competitive through economies of scale.
Following on from its widebody cousins, it's now it's the turn of the Airbus A220 to push the envelope, with an extra-high density layout taking to the skies.
Riga-based airBaltic has confirmed that its fleet of the European narrowbodies are currently undergoing retrofitting to unlock seats that could not previously be used.
The flag carrier's roster of the -300 variant will now operate with as many as 149 seats, up from 145 previously. The change has been made possible by new rules published by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) which permit the higher capacity.
Martin Gauss, chief executive of airBaltic confirmed that in late February the company received its first A220-300 which is certified to fly with the more dense cabin: "Going forward [our] existing fleet will be adjusted to use the additional capacity, which will further drive efficiency of our operations,” he noted.
As of April 5, the Latvian national carrier has altered the seating configuration for five of the company's 33 A220s. The airline aims to have the bolstered capacity across its entire fleet by next summer.
An airBaltic spokesperson confirmed to Key.Aero that due to different seat configuration, the first 20 jets will have 148 seats available, while the next 12 examples will have 149. They added that all aircraft to be delivered between 2022 and early 2024 are expected to have 148 seats.
The pioneering move will come as little surprise to airBaltic aficionados. The Riga-based outfit was the global launch customer for the A220-300 (previously known as the Bombardier CSeries) and as of May 2020, is an all-A220 operator.
As something of an airline ambassador for the Canadian-built type, airBaltic proudly flies the jet on some of the longest scheduled routes anywhere in the world, including Riga to Dubai and Riga to Tenerife.