Premium economy: Class systems

28 May 2015 by Alex McWhirter
Premium economy is on the rise, but is it worth it? And why are some airlines still slow on the uptake, asks Alex McWhirter After a shaky start, premium economy has now settled down and been adopted by most major airlines. This year, two more – Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines (SIA) – have joined the club. Lufthansa is busy installing the product across its mainline fleet, while SIA will follow suit later this summer. Still, it has taken long enough. When Taiwan’s Eva Air and the UK’s Virgin Atlantic instigated the concept in the early 1990s, no one could have predicted that it would take almost 25 years for it to gain acceptance. After all, business class was warmly received by the travelling public within a decade. Even today, many millions of travellers in North America, the Middle East, India, China, South East Asia and Africa are unaware of the cabin or what it represents. For these people, standard economy seating is good enough so why would they pay a substantial premium – which varies from airline to airline and route to route but can often be twice the price? The answer is simple. We may grumble about having to tolerate discomfort in economy, with the likes of ten-across seating on a B777 or nine-across on a B787. But it’s only going to get worse – tighter 11-across seating was unveiled by Airbus recently in Hamburg. Do not despair – Airbus believes that the premium economy sector is set to grow. The manufacturer would like carriers to offer passengers a choice of three economy products – Budget, Comfort and Premium – each with its own level of amenities and price point (see news, April 14). Still, most carriers need a profit motive before they will act, and Airbus believes a 60-seater premium economy zone would generate an additional US$20 million per aircraft per year. With more and more airlines offering the cabin, if you can afford it, that’s the way to go. Mind you, some cynics would argue that premium economy is little better than the economy product of yesteryear (see "Feel the squeeze"). Whose product would you choose? I ask because premium economy is not clear-cut. Comfort standards vary from airline to airline, but the better carriers, such as Air Canada, Air France, ANA, British Airways, JAL, Lufthansa, Qantas and SIA, believe it should be disposed eight-across (2-4-2) on planes such as the A380, B777 and B747. On aircraft with slightly narrower cabins, such as the A330, A340, A350 and B787, premium economy would be configured seven-across (2-3-2). Legroom tends to be about 38 inches for all aircraft types, although it varies slightly. By comparison, if you’re flying in economy class, expect to find yourself seated ten-across (3-4-3) on an A380 or B747 (and many B777s), nine-across (3-3-3) on a B787 or A350, and eight-across (2-4-2) on an A330 or A340. One airline leads the field in the premium economy comfort stakes – Air New Zealand (ANZ). On its B777-300ERs, the economy seating is ten-across, but walk through into premium economy and it’s six-across (2-2-2), which is similar to some business cabins. So hats off to ANZ. But will it last? This seat is a product of former chief executive Rob Fyfe’s time with the carrier. One suspects that now he has departed, it will opt for a standard product. I say that because the six-across seating can only be found on Air New Zealand’s B777-300ERs, which ply the Auckland-London route via Los Angeles, and which entered service during Fyfe’s time with the company. ANZ’s subsequent retrofits have seen it emulate its rivals – in other words, seven-across on the B787 and eight-across on its B777-200ERs. What about the US carriers? With the exception of American Airlines, which has wider seats on some aircraft, “premium economy” classes are identical to economy except for legroom. Granted, you will pay a far smaller surcharge, but on one of United’s B787s, for example, you will find legroom is 35 inches (rather than 32) yet seating is the same nine-across as in economy. One of aviation’s big mysteries is why none of the Gulf carriers has yet adopted premium economy even though three of them have now developed to become a global force. All of them say they have no plans to introduce it. It’s also suggested that their local populations are either wealthy or poor with no one in between. Fair enough, until you realise that the bulk of their passengers fly through, rather than to or from, the Gulf. So the answer lies deeper. I believe there are three main reasons: the Gulf carriers are not yet mature; they have complex route networks, many of which cover regions where the local carrier does not offer premium economy; and having premium economy would cramp their style. These airlines are building market share by keen pricing. In extreme cases, they are known to sell business class flights for less than rival carriers’ economy fares. Still, with the ever-widening comfort gap between luxurious business class on the one hand, and cramped economy on the other, the Gulf carriers will be forced to adopt an intermediate product at some stage. SINGAPORE AIRLINES JOINS THE CLUB Ever since premium economy saw the light of day, Business Traveller has faithfully reported SIA’s comments on the product, which were along the lines of: “Our economy class is as good as, if not better than, other carriers’ premium economy.” But while this claim may have rung true ten or 20 years ago, that’s no longer true today. SIA’s rivals have upped their game substantially in the past five years or so. As we revealed in February (see news, February 3), SIA’s product will feature the standard comfort and seat layout with a few additional touches. But you may have to wait some months before it comes to a route near you. Initially, SIA will install premium economy on its flagship aircraft, the A380 and B777-300ER. These do not operate on every route of the network. Current plans envisage the new product making an appearance in August. Sydney will be first to experience it, followed by Hong Kong and London. It’s clear that SIA wants to keep the seat close to home in the early stages so that any problems with the in-flight entertainment and so on can be more easily ironed out. By September, it should be appearing in mainland China, Paris and Frankfurt, and it is expected to be launched across the US from early December. As several aircraft are needed to operate any particular route, it means that in the early days, some flights will offer the new seating while others won’t. Even more confusing is the fact that SIA is a hub airline. As with the Gulf carriers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, many passengers fly through, rather than to or from, Singapore. That means confusion both in terms of what to expect on board and how the ticket price will be calculated. For example, if I fly from London to Adelaide I might be able to book premium economy between London and Singapore, but for the onward sector between Singapore and Adelaide – a distance that equates to a transatlantic flight – I would be back in economy as there are no plans to retrofit the A330s (which operate along this route) for some time.
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