Pre­mium Econ­omy: A cut above

The num­ber of car­ri­ers of­fer­ing pre­mium econ­omy keeps on grow­ing – but their prod­ucts can vary con­sid­er­ably

Business Traveler (USA) - - COVER STORY - By Alex McWhirter

In re­cent months, two ma­jor US air­lines have an­nounced they will fi­nally join the pre­mium econ­omy band­wagon. Some 25 years af­ter the class first saw the light of day, Amer­i­can Air­lines and Delta are both launch­ing a stand­alone prod­uct. Mean­while, two new­com­ers to the pre­mium econ­omy mar­ket – Cathay Pa­cific and Sin­ga­pore Air­lines – are con­tin­u­ing to fine­tune the prod­uct across their fleets.

As more car­ri­ers get in­volved, aboard more air­craft types, sub­tle dif­fer­ences emerge – not just in re­gard to the seats them­selves but things like the size of the in-flight en­ter­tain­ment screen, in-seat power, seat con­fig­u­ra­tion and wash­room ac­cess. For ex­am­ple, do pre­mium econ­omy pas­sen­gers have a ded­i­cated toi­let or must they traipse into econ­omy? Air­lines also vary in what other ben­e­fits they of­fer to pre­mium econ­omy pas­sen­gers, such as ex­tra bag­gage al­lowance, fast-track se­cu­rity ac­cess and up­graded food and drink.

There can be a sig­nif­i­cant price dif­fer­ence be­tween econ­omy and pre­mium econ­omy, which sug­gests to some read­ers that the lat­ter is closer to busi­ness than econ­omy class. Alas, that’s not the case. The word“econ­omy”in pre­mium econ­omy must not be over­looked.

It had been thought that Air New Zealand (ANZ) had bucked the trend when it in­tro­duced the Space­seat con­fig­ured six-across (2-2-2) on its long-range 777-300ER fleet. The air­craft han­dles the car­rier’s most im­por­tant routes, in­clud­ing its daily flight be­tween Auck­land and London Heathrow via Los Angeles.

When it was launched in 2011, the Space­seat was tipped as the way pre­mium econ­omy was ex­pected to progress, but this was not to be. The Space­seat was de­vel­oped at a time when Rob Fyfe was ANZ’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. Like the car­rier’s econ­omy class Sky­couch, it was the sort of in­no­va­tion that Fyfe brought to what was then a rather staid air­line. Since Fyfe quit at the end of 2012, it has taken a more con­ser­va­tive ap­proach, and has now of­fi­cially an­nounced the scrap­ping of the Space­seat; they will be re­placed with stan­dard seat­ing as found on its re­fur­bished 777-200s and new 787s. These are in a 2-3-2 lay­out on the 787s and 2-4-2 on the 777s, with a 41inch seat pitch, nine-inch re­cline, 11-inch touch­screens and in-seat power for per­on­sal­ized com­fort.

Join­ing the Pack

Delta Air Lines will be launch­ing a proper pre­mium econ­omy cabin later this year (it cur­rently of­fers Com­fort Plus econ­omy seats with ex­tra legroom). The prod­uct will de­but on its new A350s, which will serve trans-Pa­cific routes from the US to Asia be­gin­ning in late 2017. Delta will then ex­tend the new seat­ing to its 777s, as well as its A330-200s and 767-400s.

Amer­i­can Air­lines in­au­gu­rated pre­mium econ­omy on its 787-9s in Novem­ber. The first in­ter­na­tional routes were from Dal­las to Sao Paulo and Madrid, and in Jan­uary, the car­rier added Paris and this month, Seoul. How­ever ticket sales will not start un­til later in 2017.

The 21 seats are in a 2-3-2 con­fig­u­ra­tion with a 38-inch pitch and have ex­tend­able foot, leg and head­rests, and larger IFE screens than Main Cabin (econ­omy) and Main Cabin Ex­tra (ad­di­tional legroom) seats, which are con­fig­ured 3-3-3. On in­ter­na­tional flights, cus­tomers will re­ceive noise-re­duc­ing head­phones, amenity kits and an“en­hanced meal ser­vice”with free wine, beer and spir­its.

Cathay Pa­cific in­tro­duced its A350, which fea­tures the car­rier’s lat­est pre­mium econ­omy prod­uct, on its new Hong Kong to London Gatwick route last fall. Un­like some other air­lines’787s, Cathay will adopt an eight-across (2-4-2) con­fig­u­ra­tion for its A350s, which is the same as on its wider 777-300ERs.

Why no dif­fer­ence? Paul Crut­ten­den, the air­line’s mar­ket­ing and dig­i­tal sales man­ager, ex­plains:“It’s to keep con­sis­tency in our long-haul fleet. Be­cause the A350 cabin is slightly nar­rower [than the 777-300ER], we have in­creased the pitch from 38 to 40 inches

to pro­vide pas­sen­gers with more liv­ing space. We also

in­creased the re­cline from eight to nine de­grees.”He adds:“It of­fers ad­di­tional fea­tures in­clud­ing ta­ble hold­ers – so pas­sen­gers can use their own en­ter­tain­ment de­vices – power out­lets and USB points. Leg rests are pro­vided.”

Sin­ga­pore Air­lines (SIA), which launched its pre­mium econ­omy cabin just over a year ago, is still busy in­stalling the seat­ing. Seats have 13.3-inch mon­i­tors, legrests, power out­lets, USB ports, cocktail ta­bles and ex­tra stowage space, with width rang­ing be­tween 18.5 and 19.5 inches de­pend­ing on air­craft type.

The car­rier of­fers pre­mium econ­omy seat­ing on all flights from its US gate­ways – in­clud­ing San Fran­cisco, LAX, Hous­ton and JFK. Else­where the pic­ture is more mixed; in Europe, for ex­am­ple, the car­rier’s daily Manch­ester-Sin­ga­pore ser­vice fea­tures the prod­uct, but only three of the four daily London-Sin­ga­pore flights do like­wise. The air­line’s ser­vices from Am­s­ter­dam and Dus­sel­dorf (both op­er­ated by the A350) have the new seats, as do its Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Zurich routes. (If in doubt, check the book­ing pages on sin­ga­pore­

Not for Ev­ery­one

Pre­mium econ­omy isn’t a suc­cess in ev­ery mar­ket. Last year, we re­ported that Cathay had been prompted to with­draw its new seat­ing on routes link­ing Hong Kong with the Gulf and South Asia. Crut­ten­den says:“Pre­mium econ­omy is pop­u­lar on our UK-Hong Kong route as well as from our Hong Kong to Aus­tralia, Toronto and Los Angeles mar­kets.” De­spite pre­mium econ­omy now be­ing on a roll, some ma­jor

car­ri­ers still lack the prod­uct. In Europe, they in­clude KLM

and Swiss. In the for­mer’s case, it can only be a mat­ter of time be­fore it fol­lows Delta, with which it op­er­ates a trans-At­lantic joint ven­ture, and its part­ner Air France in adopt­ing it.

With the roll­out of its new Po­laris busi­ness class prod­uct, United Air­lines says it has no plans to of­fer a ded­i­cated pre­mium econ­omy cabin at present. How­ever, the US car­rier says has been eval­u­at­ing pre­mium econ­omy for some time and not ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity in the fu­ture.

That leaves the Gulf car­ri­ers, none of which cur­rently have any form of pre­mium econ­omy prod­uct, and un­til re­cently, stead­fastly dragged their feet on con­sid­er­ing. How­ever, in De­cem­ber, Emi­rates pres­i­dent Tim Clark an­nounced that his air­line is very likely to in­tro­duce a pre­mium econ­omy class well be­fore the end of the decade. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports in Reuters, Clark is quoted as say­ing, “I would think we would have it in the air­line within the next year to 18 months, hope­fully up and run­ning. We are at the stage of find­ing out what form [pre­mium econ­omy] will take.”

This change of di­rec­tion at Emi­rates is a nat­u­ral next step for the car­rier. Fall­ing oil prices have hurt rev­enues. The air­line’s lat­est fi­nan­cial re­port showed a 3.2 per­cent de­cline in pre­mium ticket rev­enue, and, while small, this is wor­ry­ing for a car­rier ac­cus­tomed to con­tin­ual fi­nan­cial growth.

And it’s a ma­jor devel­op­ment for Emi­rates’Gulf ri­vals. All the Gulf na­tions and their home air­lines have been af­fected by the col­lapse of oil prices. At press time, no other Gulf car­rier has in­di­cated whether they will fol­low suit. But even­tu­ally the other air­lines in the re­gion will prob­a­bly get on board re­gard­less of what they might say in pub­lic. For them, as for many air­lines seek­ing to stay com­pet­i­tive in global avi­a­tion, pre­mium econ­omy as a con­cept

is prov­ing to be just too per­sua­sive to ig­nore. BT

Main pic­ture: Sin­ga­pore Air­lines Above from left: Amer­i­can Air­lines ameni­ties; Air New Zealand’s Space­seat; AA seat

Be­low: Cathay

Be­low: Bri­tish Air­ways

From left: EVA Air; Vir­gin At­lantic; Qan­tas

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