The long-haul market for US carriers has entered the next stage in its evolution. Even as the major carriers prepare to offer more fares and options for customers who want only the cheapest seat possible there is a glimmer of hope for those who want – and are willing to pay for – more. American Airlines announced that it will offer a proper Premium Economy cabin on its 787-9 aircraft starting with their delivery in 2016. The product will expand to the carrier’s 777, 787-8, A330 and A350 aircraft over the following three years.
American’s Premium Economy will offer upgraded dining – the company’s photo shows a small extra appetizer and service on real plates rather than foil/plastic – and other benefits like noise-cancelling headphones and an amenity kit. Every seat will have power and USB ports and, most importantly, more space. Only the bulkhead row will have a leg rest; the others get a drop-down foot rest. On the 787 the cabin will be a 2-3-2 layout compared to the 3-3-3 in economy, including Main Cabin Select seats. Presumable the same layout will fly on the A330s while the 777s and A350s will be 2-4-2, comparable to other carriers.
American will continue to offer its Main Cabin Extra product with additional legroom (and, on some 777s additional seat width), meaning that an aircraft could have as many as five different seating options on board. Between the large number of products and the slow conversion of the existing fleet there will definitely be challenges for American to work through as it begins selling the premium economy cabin. No doubt the carrier believes those complexities are offset by the increased revenue many premium economy cabins demand for the incremental decrease in seats versus a traditional economy class.
It also appears that American is going with a product which appears to be much more a stock solution from B/E Aerospace than something highly customized for the airline. Given the significant challenges it saw with the very customized business seat – so much that it killed the contract – this seems a prudent choice. That said the product does look mightily boring. Nary a hint of color anywhere. No special nooks and crannies for storage at the seat and it is unclear if the IFE screen will tilt to keep a decent viewing angle when other passengers recline, a feature missing on the company’s economy 777-300ER seats. Yes, more space is the most important factor. But that doesn’t mean it cannot have just a little bit of flair in the design.
We need to know!
Also still unclear are many details like upgrade paths. For other carriers which have implemented a premium economy cabin there has been variability in what economy fares qualify for upgrades to business class or only to premium economy or how upgrade instruments function. American has some precedence in how it processes upgrades for travelers in the World Traveller Plus premium economy product on its partner British Airways but there are still plenty of specifics which remain open questions today.
Another interesting question is where the space for the premium economy seats will be coming from. As more and more long haul aircraft are removing the first class cabin it is clear that flat beds in business are the new first class. Economy is getting better entertainment but not much else. And the “something better than the worst option on the plane” is, once again, a recliner option with extra space and a few other amenities. Just like business class was 20ish years ago before the flat bed revolution took hold. So, does it begin to cannibalize business class rather than economy class?
Looking across the market the real question is “Who’s next?” Delta has been positioning for such a move with its Comfort Plus product and I have previously suggested that I expect an announcement by the time the new domestic C+ seats are actually in operation, but that’s not for a few months yet. Similar to American, Delta has an opportunity to introduce the new product on a new aircraft type; it is scheduled to take deliveries of the A350 in Q2 2017 which means a mid-2016 announcement is not out of the realm of reasonable. For United Airlines the next new type is the 777-300ERs set to be delivered in 2016. Those will feature a new business class product but no premium economy per several prior reports. After than United will also be taking the A350-1000 in 2018. Waiting an extra year longer may put it in a disadvantageous position. But if the company really is planning to retrofit its other 777s with the new business class seat as it has suggested that could be an opportunity to also add premium economy to the layout.
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