Space Race: Airlines Fitting Premium Class Seats with Added Enhancements and Comforts
Airlines are making room for premium economy as passengers look to these products for comfort, value and service
June 1, 2019
Business Traveler has been following the development of premium economy products since EVA Air airlines first introduced its Evergreen Class over 25 years ago. Since then the momentum toward offering standalone premium economy seating has built, and today more and more airlines the world over are featuring this class of service. It has taken many years, but finally premium economy is offered by the majority of long haul international airlines.
Bridging the gap between economy class and top-tier cabins, premium economy gives passengers added benefits such as increased luggage allowance, priority boarding in the airport and, on some carriers, free champagne and lounge access. So on most airlines what these products offer is a better travel experience – not just economy seats with extra legroom.
As the rewards of personal space, convenience and a higher level of service lure passengers, more airlines are launching new premium economy offerings while others are announcing plans to add to what they already have.
Brussels Airlines has announced plans for new cabin interiors on its long-haul A330 aircraft, refreshing its business and economy class cabins and adding a new premium economy experience. The carrier has 15 long-haul Airbus aircraft getting outfitted and was waiting until five of them are in service before offering the new class.
The first of these retrofitted aircraft is already flying so premium economy tickets are on sale now for travel beginning August 1. The premium economy cabin is currently only on sale on the airline’s three routes to North America, followed by a gradual rollout to the African network later this year.
The new premium economy cabin is separate from the other classes, featuring 21 seats with a pitch of 38 inches (compared to around 30 inches in economy), a wider seat and 40 degrees of recline. Seatback IFE screens measure 13.3 inches, and each seat includes AC and USB power ports.
The airline has tasked JPA Design with creating the new premium economy seating, as well as new economy and business class products. “The user experience we’re creating is vibrant, and achieves the rare success of being on-brand upon first view,” says John Tighe, JPA’s design director of transport. “There is a trend for many brands to talk about being ‘human,’ but Brussels Airlines has been living this philosophy for many years.”
Swiss is joining its sister carriers Brussels, Lufthansa and Austrian, introducing a premium economy cabin to its 777 fleet. The new product will be configured in three rows of 2-4-2 for a total 24 seats, and will offer 20 percent more seat pitch, 25 percent more recline and 10 percent more width compared to economy.
The carrier said work will begin to retrofit aircraft at the end of next year, with the product available from spring 2021. According to the airline, this premium economy offering will be “a newly developed seat providing extensive legroom and movement.” According to Tamur Goudarzi Pour, the airline’s chief commercial officer, “All in all, our premium economy class travelers will enjoy a substantially stronger sense of personal space.”
Swiss says it was responding to growing demand for an air travel product between economy and business class, and said it had been “encouraged by the positive experiences with such a product at Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines.”
El Al Airlines
“Premium is the new kid in town,” according to Gonen Usishkin, CEO of El Al. “I feel that trend will continue for the foreseeable future with only minor tweaks.” In fact, the service – which the Israeli flag carrier calls ‘Premium Class‘ – is so popular that the airline is considering adding more premium economy seats to its Boeing 787s. Usishkin says the airline is focusing on business travelers, and the way to cater to them is by providing a premium economy option for the cost-conscious customer and improving business class.
El Al’s premium economy product is available on the eight routes served by the Dreamliner fleet – Newark, JFK, Hong Kong, Paris, London Heathrow, Miami, Los Angeles and Toronto – and provides more legroom and recline, a greater baggage allowance and different dining options.The airline is taking delivery of a total of 16 Dreamliners, with eight already in use and six more arriving in 2019. With the introduction of 787s, El Al is installing a new business class seat from Recaro and adding the premium economy class.
Finnair has announced its entire long-haul fleet will feature a new premium economy cabin class beginning next year. “We see a growing trend of quality-focused travelers who place a strong focus on the comfort and quality of their travel experience,” says Piia Karhu, Finnair’s senior vice president of customer experience. “Responding to customer needs from all our key markets, our new premium economy class will serve the requirements of both leisure and corporate customers.”
Specific details are slim at this stage, but the new offering, which will occupy its own separate cabin, looks to be more of a stand-alone premium economy product compared to the basic extra-legroom Economy Comfort class the airline introduced back in 2014. Finnair says the class will feature “highly customized designs for Finnair” and will offer more space and comfort “along with an enhanced service offering.”
Planning of the cabin design as well as the service concept are currently underway, with more to be revealed “at a later stage.” Rollout of the premium economy cabin is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2020 with completion expected by the end of 2022.
United’s new premium economy cabin, Premium Plus, has been flying on 21 international routes since April aboard its Boeing 777-300ERs and -200ERs. In January, the carrier also took delivery of its first 787-10 Dreamliner with 21 of the purple seats in its Premium Plus cabin. In addition to European destinations, that aircraft is currently plying the routes between the West Coast and Newark.
Premium Plus passengers are offered complimentary checked bags, Premier Access check-in and priority boarding, a welcome meal, mid-flight snacks and pre-arrival dining service. The new service also includes complimentary alcoholic beverages, a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and pillow, an amenity kit and noise-canceling headphones.
The fleet that carries Premium Plus are all four-cabin aircraft. All feature United’s newest Polaris business class seat product and service, plus United also still offers its old Economy Plus product – standard economy seating with expanded legroom, but no other definitive service enhancements.
With the addition of Premium Plus, United joins legacy US carriers American and Delta in offering an upgraded premium economy experience.
Air France has been flying a premium economy cabin since 2009. Last September the carrier unveiled new products for both its premium economy and economy class seats that are being retrofitted on board its 15 Airbus A330 aircraft, as well as on its Boeing 787-9s.
Along with the seat products themselves, Air France is also giving its A330s a new cabin design as well as enhancing its service offerings to travelers in the two classes.
In terms of actual seat product, the premium economy cabin offers fixed-shell seats with a 130-degree recline, 19 inches wide with 40-inch pitch between rows. Seats are laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration. Leather armrests have been widened for more space, while the seats offer softer cushions and lumbar support, additional storage space and a wider footrest than previous designs. A 13.3-inch HD screen along with a power outlet and two USB ports are also available in each seat. “With a further investment of €150 million ($167 million) in the cabins of our A330s, this is a major step in our overall strategy to move upmarket,” according to Anne Rigail, Air France’s executive vice president, customer. The strategy, she notes, has been underway since 2014 and “will result in our 15 Airbus A330s being equipped as from 2019.”
It’s long been the subject of speculation, and now it seems a major Gulf carrier is on the cusp of actually introducing its own premium economy class next year. According to Arabian Business, Emirates president Tim Clark has confirmed the airline’s new A380s scheduled to be delivered beginning in 2020 will feature a new premium economy product.
Details about the Gulf carrier’s new cabin are sparse, but preliminary reports indicate they are likely to be something of a departure from existing products. Clark himself is quoted as saying, “The airplanes that we ordered, the latest A380s – the first six of which come in 2020 – we will be installing premium economy in those. It will be an Emirates premium economy, so it will be special.”
UAE publication The National, quotes Emirates’ commercial director Thierry Antinorias saying the carrier’s plans for premium economy are on track for a 2020 launch. “It’s about targeting and pleasing some customers flying in economy who want to fly a better class but not business class,” Antinori said. “It’s about up-selling the economy to premium economy and not down-selling business class to premium economy.”
The Gulf carriers are among the few major carriers worldwide who have not yet embraced premium economy. So with this move, the only question now may not be whether Emirates’ regional rivals follow suit, but when.