New Virgin premium economy seat

28 Sep 2006 by business traveller

Virgin Atlantic this week unveiled details of its new premium economy seat. Unlike many announcements from airlines of their forthcoming product improvements, the seat is already on seven aircraft, with a quick rollout promised across the entire fleet.

The new seat is a further refinement of the premium economy cabin, a concept which Virgin claims to have introduced in 1992 with its Mid Class product, though travellers may quibble and mention Eva Air and its Evergreen product. What's certain is that Virgin has increased the number of premium economy seats on its aircraft and says that the £12 million revamp is in response to a 56 per cent increase in passengers flying in premium economy between 2005 and 2006 with some 500,000 passengers (out of a total of 4.8 million flying with the airline last year) flying in the cabin.

The details of the new seat are a 38 inch seat pitch (the distance between the seat and the back of the seat in front – effectively leg room) and a width of 21 inches, wider than the competitors in the premium economy market. In part this has been achieved by moving the control for the in-flight entertainment from the armrest to the back of the seat in front, underneath the TV screen.

Other features of the seat include an ergonomic S-shape, a dual position footrest attached to the seat in front which allows for an overall reduction in the weight of the seat (important for fuel economy), a new leather covering which Virgin says is more comfortable as well as easier to clean and reduces laundering (also an environmental benefit), and a redesigned tray table. The headrest is adjustable in four ways, both up and down and with wings for sleeping, and all seats have laptop power with power adaptors available free of charge from the cabin crew. This last enhancement is a considerable innovation when many airlines expect passengers to either have the full complement of adaptors with them in their laptop bags, or alternatively charge high prices by selling the adaptors as part of their onboard shopping range.

Seat configuration differs depending on the aircraft flown, but on the lower deck of the Boeing 747 and all Airbus aircraft it is 2-3-2, and 2-2 on the upper deck of the 747. There are currently 58 premium economy seats on the aircraft operating out of Gatwick, and between 28 and 38 on the planes flying out of Heathrow.

Other benefits included in the price of the ticket include dedicated check-in, priority boarding and baggage reclaim, pre-departure drink and post-dinner liqueur, a redesigned meal service (crockery, metal cutlery), an upgraded amenity kit (though details of this are forthcoming and it is unlikely to be introduced before December 2006) and a softer fleece blanket with a contoured neck, which apparently hugs the body more effectively and keeps passengers covered and warm during flights. Passengers also enjoy a fruit bowl available throughout the flight and a dedicated toilet for the cabin.

So who flies premium economy? Business Traveller spoke to Chris Birch, Virgin Atlantic's Head of Product and Service, economy and premium economy: "It's not just for business travellers. Across the fleet we see a 60/40 split in favour of leisure in our premium economy cabin, with it coming down to 50/50 on the routes out of Heathrow, and up to as high as 90/10 out of Gatwick. Interestingly the cabin also has the greatest range of ages, with families but also retirees flying in it."

Virgin believes it can succeed in gaining a further 10 per cent increase in premium economy passengers over the next year in a worldwide market estimated at £500 million by Chief Executive Steve Ridgway. The rollout of the new seats is a quick one, with all aircraft out of Heathrow having the seats by the end of next year, and flights from Gatwick shortly after.


Report by Tom Otley

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