A Compromise on Safety? Qantas adds seats on A380s, by deactivating Emergency Exits

The Australian national carrier, Qantas, has a remarkable safety record; no fatalities or hull losses in the jet era. This extraordinary record of pioneering safety achievements spans the airline’s 97 year history. In 2008, the Advertising Standards Agency challenged Qantas’ remarks that it was the world’s ‘most experienced’ airline. The carrier defended itself fiercely, listing 30 notable industry-leading achievements. I have a feeling that this latest development won’t go down as one of those symbolic actions.

Qantas launched the first ever Aus-UK non-stop flight last month.

After receiving the Airbus A380 10 years ago, the aircraft has become the backbone of the airline’s long haul fleet. In 2012, the airline announced plans to increase the seat count on its aircraft from 450 to 484 seats, by removing toilets and squashing in more seats. Last week, the airline announced its intention to become the launch customer for Airbus’ new ‘Cabin Flex’ programme. The initiative will deliver up to 11 more Premium Economy seats or 7 more Business Class seats. However, there’s a catch. In order to accommodate the new seats, Qantas will be deactivating emergency exits on the upper deck. Here’s how Airbus describes the new line-fit or retrofit solution:

A380 Cabin Flex makes extra space for additional seats  by allowing the upper deck “Doors-3” to be deactivated. The programme can bring up to 11 more Premium Economy seats or 7 more Business Class seats.

The so-called ‘enhancement’ is clearly attractive for airlines. Airbus predicts that there will be a Return on Investment (RoI) in just one year. The cabin-flex option is available to be fitted on new aircraft on delivery or retrofitted onto existing aircraft.

Our author, James, reviewed Qantas’ A380 Economy product earlier this year

Qantas have no plans to receive any more A380s – instead continuing to operate the 12 double-deckers already in their fleet. We don’t know yet whether Qantas will simply install seats in front of the exit doors – which is bound to be confusing for passengers, especially in an emergency – or just cover them up.  Furthermore, the press release never mentions safety. It is widely known that the maximum evacuation time for an aircraft on fire is just 90 seconds. Does the removal of these exits have an affect on that?

Will the cabin-flex option have an adverse effect on safety?

Although the cabin-flex option is attractive for airlines, it certainly isn’t for passengers. With no reassuring message on safety in Airbus’ press release, Qantas need to clarify this immediately, instead of profiteering from extra seats.