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Airbus eyes new seat choices as economy traffic booms

Airbus's company logo is pictured at the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, December 4, 2014. REUTERS/ Regis Duvignau

By Tim Hepher and Victoria Bryan

PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) - Airbus (AIR.PA) plans to offer airlines more choice in the way they configure their planes, and sees carriers opting for different levels of comfort within their economy cabins, a senior Airbus executive said on Wednesday.

It also plans to redefine the capacity of its wide-body jets to add premium economy to the traditional economy and business classes to recognize market trends, Chris Emerson, head of marketing at Airbus, said in a telephone interview.

Airbus now offers 8-abreast seating as the standard coach-class layout on its widebody A330, for example, but can offer 9 seats per row where airlines want to offer a leaner product in exchange for lower fares.

Nine-abreast is of particular interest to Asian airlines serving price-sensitive customers, Emerson said.

There is also interest in a 10-abreast A350 rather than the normal 9-abreast layout for that jet, he said.

"Ninety percent of global air traffic is in the economy segment," he said.

Airlines have long had the option to configure their cabins as they wish, but choices have been relatively slim.

Emerson said that airlines would increasingly look at offering differing comfort levels within the economy cabin.

"We see more and more segmentation in the market."

Besides offering choices to passengers, seats have long been the center of a deeper PR battle between Airbus and Boeing.

Each accuses the other of squeezing in passengers to make their planes seem more efficient on paper.

The new claims are likely to rekindle the debate days ahead of a major jet interiors show in Germany.

In 2013, Airbus launched a campaign to persuade airlines to insist on economy class seats that were at least 18 inches wide, arguing that Boeing was squeezing passengers with narrower configurations to make its economic performance claims stick.

Boeing officials deny this and say their rival has lost the argument because the wider fuselage on jets like the 777 allows for more seats in each row, without sacrificing comfort.

Although it still says 18 inches is the standard, Airbus is giving more weight to the option to have higher density seating to give airlines flexibility. It has coined the terms "Budget Economy" or "Max Abreast" seating versus Comfort Economy.

Currently, 10 percent of Airbus wide-body planes are in the "Max Abreast" configuration, Emerson said. He said 60 percent of Boeing planes were configured this way.

"That comparison doesn’t work because Boeing airplanes are designed with a higher standard and level of comfort," a Boeing spokesman said.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher and Victoria Bryan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Christian Plumb)