MIAMI — As seat sizes in economy shrink, premium economy seating — the recliner-style international option that is like US domestic first class — is on the rise. Between 2008 and the middle of 2015 Airbus has seen a 300% spike from nine airlines to an impressive 27. With airlines like Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa arriving relatively late to the table that was first set by Virgin Atlantic and EVA Air in the early 1990s, the obvious holdouts are the gulf carriers: Etihad, Qatar Airways and Emirates.
Even the US Big Three — United, Delta and American — offer an extra-legroom economy product, which they call Economy Plus, Comfort+ and Main Cabin Extra, but which isn’t, of course, a full premium economy seat.
For airlines like Air Canada, which are seeking to compete with the very densest economy seating on the Gulf airlines but also home low-cost and charter carriers like WestJet and Air Transat, premium economy is a reasonable way to maintain something of a premium brand positioning. That’s especially true if it’s priced keenly compared with economy, although that isn’t always the case.
Earlier this year, Airbus quoted 28 airlines with a full premium economy offering (and which excludes, for example, Icelandair’s Eurobusiness style Economy Comfort or the extra-legroom economy product offered by the major US airlines). Some, like Air New Zealand, charge significantly more for certain routes, sometimes around the same as a business class seat on competitor airlines.
And so to the Gulf Three. Among the premium economy holdouts, their premium configurations have the largest hard product gulf (if you’ll excuse the pun) between business and economy. While only Etihad offers a fully flat bed with direct aisle access across its widebodies, Emirates’ A380s and Qatar’s superjumbos, 787s and A350s offer the same gold standard of business class beds. Meanwhile, economy continues to contract: the 787 fleets on Qatar and Etihad see a 31” seat pitch with nine-abreast seating, and both Emirates’ and Etihad’s 777s are the ultra-high density 10-abreast seating (even if Emirates’ offers 32” pitch over Etihad’s 31”). Qatar is also refitting its 777 fleet with ten-abreast seating.
All three airlines are making an unpredecented investment in onboard product, although the timing of Etihad’s recent rollout of its new A380 and 787 cabins make it the least likely of the three to add a premium economy cabin any time soon.
Emirates is long overdue for a refresh of its fleet, which is sub-par in business class on the 777 fleet with an angled lie-flat seat still being installed that is only slightly less unimpressive than the angled seat American is pulling off its 777-200ER and 767-300ER fleets. With expansive promises about a new, elegant first class suite (and hopefully a reduction in the eyewateringly naff gold and wood effects throughout the aircraft), together with the introduction of a high-density A380 without first class for non-premium routes, the Dubai supercarrier could be well positioned to be first to introduce a premium economy cabin, especially given its exposure to markets with rising middle classes.
Qatar Airways, ever the wild card thanks to its mercurial CEO Akbar al Baker, has promised a “superbusiness” seat for its next-generation business class, even as it continues to install the top-flight B/E Aerospace Super Diamond outward-facing herringbone seating in its new 787, A380 and A350 aircraft. The passenger experience gap between Qatar’s economy and superbusiness would be well filled by premium economy.
Yet more than just “would this existing product fit here”, the three Gulf carriers have an opportunity to redefine what premium economy means, just as they redefined what it means to be a network carrier or to offer a first and business class passenger experience.
With their increasing influence on the way people fly — and the ironically helpful actions of arch-enemies Delta pulling its fares from fare comparison metasearch engines, and Lufthansa charging €16 for GDS-purchased fares — the chance to create an entirely new category of travel might be an offer they couldn’t refuse.