Air France has officially launched its premium economy offering which will be rolled out across its long-haul fleet by the end of 2010.
Businesstraveller.com exclusively announced Air France was developing a premium economy concept last year (see online news April 30, 2008), and the seat has now had its first public airing, with a mock up on display at the International French Travel Market (IFTM) in Paris this week.
The most striking feature of the seat is the fixed shell concept, making Air France the first European airline to offer such a set up in an intermediate cabin, and allowing the passenger to recline to 123 degrees without impeding on the row behind. The seat reclines mechanically rather than electronically, with one button on the armrest allowing the seatback and pan to slide forward within the shell, and another raising the legrest upwards.
The seat has been designed by B/E Aerospace, and is 48cm in width, with a pitch of 97cm. There is a 26cm TV seat back TV screen, and the box for the AVOD in-flight entertainment system has been positioned within the seat structure rather than underneath, to ensure leg room is maximised.
Other features include a large foldout table (which is around twice the size of that in economy), an individual reading light, a headrest with movable wings which can be slid up and down, seat power with an international socket, a water bottle holder, and a cocktail tray on the armrest. Premium Voyageur customers receive the same pillow, cushion and amenity kit as in business class (Affaires), as well as noise-reducing headsets - passengers can also use their own headphones with the new seating, as Air France has opted for single pin socket rather than the usual two or three pin version.
Passengers also benefit from several of the enhanced ground services already enjoyed by Affaires customers, including premium check-in facilities, priority baggage handling, and increased checked luggage allowance, but there is no lounge access, and food and beverage options onboard are the same as in economy (Voyageur).
The new Premium Voyageur offering will be launched on the New York route on October 25, followed by Tokyo on November 16, Beirut and Singapore on December 28 and Beijing and Hong Kong on January 18, 2010. By the end of 2010 all of Air France's Boeing 777s and Airbus A330s and A340s will feature the seat, with the exception of those on its Caribbean-Indian Ocean routes.
The carrier's Boeing 747 jumbos will not be fitted with the new seat as these are being phased out of the fleet, and the forthcoming A380 (which launches on November 23 (see online news July 30) will not initially feature the seat, as designs for the superjumbo were already at an advanced stage before the Premium Voyageur seat was announced. There are however plans to fit later A380 aircraft with the seat, as well as retrofit earlier ones at a later date.
Air France is making space for the new cabin by removing 40 economy seats, and replacing them with 21 Premium Voyageur seats on the A330 and A340 aircraft (configured 2-3-2), 24 seats on the B777-200ERs and 28 seats on the B777-300ERs (both 2-4-2). The new seats will have their own cabin, with a full partition between the Premium Voyageur and Voyageur offering. In total 72 aircraft will be fitted with around 1,800 of the new seats, although it will mean a reduction in total capacity on these aircraft of around five per cent.
The economic climate was far more benign when Air France first started developing the concept in 2007, and this was undoubtedly an influence in the decision to remove a large chunk of economy class seats rather than high-yielding business class seats. Speaking at the launch Bruno Matheu, Air France's executive vice president, marketing, revenue management and network, said that despite the economic downturn Air France had decided to go stick to this layout in order to rollout the new cabin as quickly as possible, but that depending on results of the new seating the carrier may need to "rebalance the cabins" at a later date.
Asked if Air France had had any input into the different style of premium economy recently announced by its sister airline KLM (see online news September 16), Matheu said that the strategy of the two airlines "allowed room to differentiate the brands", while still presenting a united front in terms of loyalty schemes, etc. "We're fully co-ordinated, but our strategy allows us to offer different answers to the same questions," said Matheu.
Tickets are now on sale for the first tranche of routes to feature the new seating, with initial lead-in fares of €1,038 Paris to New York, €1,179 to Beirut, €1,456 to Singapore, €1,652 to Beijing, €1,657 to Hong Kong, and €1,658 to Tokyo.
For more information visit airfrance.co.uk.
Report by Mark Caswell