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Airplanes are expensive. Even the smallest member of the 787 Dreamliner family can set you back a quarter of a billion dollars, per the published Boeing price list below. But, like every car owner knows, just because you bought it doesn’t mean you’re done paying for it: parts and accessories are expensive, sometimes surprisingly so. From the amenity kit you are handed when you fly in a premium class ($4 and up) to the fanciest first-class seats that are actually suites (a million bucks a pop, give or take), the airlines make hundreds of purchasing decisions before their new aircraft even enter service.
We spoke with industry experts and manufacturers, and performed some detective work, to uncover some of these costs. It wasn’t easy; the prices for everything from galley carts to jet engines are closely guarded in the industry and are usually wrapped into the list prices for commercial aircraft, which are only indicative themselves. For example: Boeing says a 737 MAX 8 costs $121.6 million at list price, but when you’re an airline that buys 200 of them in one go — and gives Boeing a huge image boost in the process — you are sure to get a fat discount.
“When an airline buys a plane, they start with the list price and a standard set of components and features,” said John Mowry, Managing Director of Alton Aviation Consultancy, a global aviation consulting firm with expertise in aircraft leasing, maintenance, repair and operation. “Most items such as landing gear, wheels, lavatories and standard avionics won’t be broken out by line item. Boeing, for example, has downselected the number of options available for the Boeing 787 for efficiency” he said, noting the list of options is still very extensive.
There are two factors that jump up the costs of airline parts, according to Seth Kaplan, an airline industry expert and TPG contributor.
“It’s the safety compliance requirements and the limited number of firms in the space for any given part — that is, the lack of competition,” he said.
“The reason why an airplane seat costs exponentially more than a chair in your living room is because the chair in your living room doesn’t have to be certified by the FAA and then manufactured according to very strict specifications, and then there are many dozens of suppliers of living-room chairs competing for your business, whereas there are only a few suppliers of airplane seats for each cabin,” Kaplan said. “In other words, it really does cost more to design and manufacture an airplane seat, but then the firms benefit from a certain amount of pricing power.”
But aren’t Boeing or Airbus manufacturing the whole plane?
No, not even close. In each case, Boeing and Airbus are assembling aircraft whose parts come from an extensive global supply chain. Jet engines are made by General Electric, Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney. Composite-material wings are made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan and GKN in the UK, among others. The same applies to avionics, tires, windows, galley carts, ovens, Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment, and all manner of other pieces. A case in point: airplane bathrooms, called lavatories. “Boeing does not make lavatory systems. Our airline customers purchase them from a number of different vendors and have us install them,” a spokesperson for Boeing said in an email.
Flight-Deck Windscreen and Passenger Windows: $500 and Up
The windshield on the cockpit of a Boeing 737 costs around $26,000, according to international trade export records of the sliding window assembly for cockpits of that twinjet. In contrast, a single passenger window assembly for the Boeing 737 could cost $500. The price escalates from there. Many aircraft types have electro-chemical heating systems for flight deck windshields; the Boeing 787 Dreamliner passenger windows have electrochromic technology, which uses electricity to change the color and amount of light that passes through the window.
“Spare units are only available through Boeing and the prices will vary based on customer agreements, however the 787 is significantly more expensive per unit,” wrote a spokesperson for GKN, an aviation transparencies manufacturer, in an email.
What does “significantly more expensive” mean? Probably in the thousands of dollars per passenger window.
Economy and Premium-Economy seats: $3,000 and Up
Economy seats vary in price, but not dramatically. Frontier Airlines, Spirit and Ryanair offer no-frills seats, for example, some with no seat-back pockets for easy cleaning and maintenance. Economy seats start at around $3,000 per seat, Alton’s Mowry said, up to around $5,000 for more comfortable or complex seats. A long-haul premium-economy seat — which will have more cushioning and better armrests and headrests, and pretty much is the same as a domestic US first-class seat — will start at around $10,000 per seat up to around $15,000, Mowry explained. In addition, more complex seats will be made from composite materials, said Adam Gavine, editor of Aircraft Interiors International. He noted that the costs of flying a heavier seat over a more expensive composite version might far outweigh the initial savings on the seat: “It could be that the cheapest seat to buy isn’t the cheapest to fly.”
In contrast, the “economy” seat on the Concorde seat seen below cost around $28,000 per pair as installed on five aircraft (adjusted for inflation.)
Lie-Flat Seats: $60,000 and Up
“There are a huge number of options out there for business-class seats to suit different budgets, flight lengths, aircraft types, passenger experience goals, or weight goals,” Gavine said.
Business-class and first-class seats are more expensive, starting at around $60,000 and increasing to $100,000, Mowry explained. Carriers with especially luxurious seats such as Emirates, Etihad or Qatar will spend more.
“There are seats in the $150,000 to $300,000 range, and some airlines spend considerably more,” Gavine said. “There are $1,000,000 first-class suites in the sky. Airlines really looking to differentiate their offer in this lucrative class commission their own designs, which is hugely expensive, and the costs of R&D (and) crash testing, aren’t spread over a large number of seats.”
Seatbelts: $60 per Buckle and Up
Phoenix, Arizona-based AmSafe is a major manufacturer of airline seat belts. Industry sources say that a generic airplane seat belt costs around $60 each and the cost quickly escalates for branded cover plates. For example, Emirates has some of its seatbelt plates gold-plated, and the last iteration of the Concorde seats on British Airways had an embossed logo on the buckle. Those costs per unit would be substantial, given the tooling required to create the plates and labor and materials for a limited number of seats.
In-Flight Entertainment: $10,000-$20,000 per Seat
Mowry explained that modern inflight entertainment systems cost between $10,000 and $20,000 per seat. On the Airbus A220, for example, that cost comes in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars for the whole plane. In contrast, a Boeing 777-300ER with close to 400 seats could cost upwards of half a million dollars. And that’s just for the screen, system and connectivity. Snakes on a Plane costs extra.
Movies: $3,500 and Up
In a recent interview with Delta Airline’s Onboard Brand Experience, Ekrem Dimbiloglu, the executive said the airline is going all-in on in-flight entertainment and offering passengers plenty of choice, from Internet to “world-class entertainment with 300+ movies and TV shows.” The content is not inexpensive. One industry analysis calculated that hot new movies cost the airlines around $25,000 per title, with airlines adding on average five early release titles per month. Even older movies cost around $3,500 per month, according to the analysis.
Amenity Kits: $4 per Kit and Up
Airline amenity kits are not an aircraft component per se, but an important part of the business- and first-class passenger experience. The kits are typically made and assembled overseas by third-party agencies on behalf of the airlines. Industry sources say that US airlines pay less than $4 for the bag itself, toiletries, ear plugs and other items inside, buying millions of units at a time. The non-US airlines are bigger spenders, with kits upwards of $30 in cost. While they are de rigeur for a first- or business-class passenger, the airlines want to strike a balance between a seemingly luxury offering and added expense.
The Coffee Maker: $7,000 and Up
According to reporting in The New York Times, the coffee maker on an airplane can cost between $7,000 and $20,000. Other industry sources suggest older aircraft coffee makers can be had on the used market for $300 and can be plug-and-played into aircraft, but I doubt the major airlines elect to do so. Why the high price for a usually terrible cup of joe? It’s an electrical device used regularly by cabin crew, and a fault in the device could be the cause an in-flight fire, which airlines would like to avoid.
Galley Cart: $700
Delta recently sold a number of used galley carts for $75 each. But new, the galley carts cost around $700 plus the cost of plastic tray inserts. They are perhaps the most important part on in airplane; after all, they protect and transport your food and drink!
Main Tires: $1,500 per Tire and Up
Airplane tires are made by Michelin, Goodyear and Bridgestone. A Boeing 737 main tire, of which there are four per aircraft, costs around $1,500 each, Mowry said, explaining that manufacturers can re-tread these tires up to three or four times to extend their lifetime. In contrast, a single main tire for a Boeing 777, of which there are 12 per aircraft, will run around $6,000.
The Engines: $12,000,000 and Up
Jet engine manufacturers such as GE, Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney are tight-lipped about the costs for their jet engines, with much variance based on the size and power of the engine, and the customer.
Accordingly, it’s difficult to parse the actual jet engine costs separate from maintenance service agreements. In a press release Rolls Royce noted 12 Trent 1000 engines (and service) for eight Dreamliners was around $42 million per engine at list prices; similarly, the Pratt & Whitney GTF engine for A320neos cost around $12 million each at list prices.
Engine Fan Blades: $50,000 per Blade and Up
Engine fan blades are made of aluminum or hollow titanium or a combination of both (and sometimes with a carbon-fiber wrap). According to industry sources, the fan blades on the General Electric GE90 engine cost around $60,000 each and there are 22 of them on each engine. Even the blades for the Boeing 737 are pricey, at around $50,000 per unit, according to FAA estimates.
The Pretty Paint Job: $100,000 and up
Airplane liveries are branding on wings. Mowry explained that a paint job on a Boeing 737 might cost $100,000, noting that complex liveries for larger planes start at around $200,000 and up. “If it’s a simple design, you can be at the low end of the range,” he said. “Many airlines, such as Etihad, have much more complicated designs and those cost more.”
Lavatories: $250,000 and Up (We Think)
So, what do the lavs cost? Boeing and its suppliers declined to comment. However, a Wall Street Journal article cited Sebastien Weber, the CEO of Zodiac Aerospace, who said the vacuum toilet alone cost “a couple thousand dollars.” What about a full aircraft plumbing system? It might be expensive, but “not in the millions of dollars,” Weber said. The lavatory system in the Airbus A380 boasted “672 feet of titanium pipes to four waste tanks and eight water tanks,” according to the WSJ.
The price is baked into the standard configuration of an airliner, Morwy said, making it hard to give a quote. My best estimate is that the system must cost at least $250,000.
Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand and a marketing consultant to airlines, none of which are mentioned in this story.
Featured image of the entertainment screen on a Turkish Airlines Boeing 787 in coach class by Ben Smithson/TPG
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