Aircraft Cabin Management

The rise of premium economy class seating

Stewardess presenting food to passenger

Premium economy class seats are a relatively new type of installation reaching a critical mass which aims to improve the passenger experience onboard aircraft operated on long haul routes.

Rodolfo Baldascino, marketing and sales manager at aircraft seat manufacturer Geven, says the premium economy class is ascendant within the industry: “Nowadays premium economy class is a given in the aircraft seating industry.

“This intermediate class between business and economy plays a positive role when installed in aircraft cabins and it is ever more being considered and required by airlines to better deploy their revenue management policies and strategies… Passengers are now familiar with the premium economy class and systematically seek for affordable fares in this class, mainly as a good alternative to business class full fares.

“More legroom is the main selling point of the premium economy class, together with a better inflight service and a dedicated and faster platform for booking, boarding etc. We see a prospectively growing demand for premium economy class seats in the medium and long term onboard long-range aircraft, especially those serving Europe and the Americas.”

Seat manufacturer Recaro also believes that there is definitely a positive trend. “The premium economy class continues to gain market popularity and attract interest,” says Mark Hiller, chief executive officer and shareholder of Recaro Aircraft Seating. “As a pioneer, we started developing and offering targeted solutions about 15 years ago. The demand in this segment is increasing significantly.”

Nina Schulz, head of product sales aircraft modification at Lufthansa Technik is similarly ebullient: “The quality, appearance and passenger experience of the state-of-the-art premium economy seats increased greatly during the last several years.

“Whereas in the past premium economy seats and classes were mainly characterised by a larger seat pitch – but using the same seats as those installed in economy class or very similar ones – modern premium economy classes developed into a real new product… We see airlines implementing a premium economy for the first time, as well as airlines, upgrading their already existing premium economy class with a brand new seat, together with an improved service concept.”

Scoot Airways aeroplane

Reasons for choosing premium economy

There are specific reasons why a passenger elects to purchase a premium economy class seat, and these are primarily to do with the comfort requirements of passengers who are unwilling to pay for a business class fare. The installation of a premium economy class seat, however, may carry the risk of business class passengers possibly downgrading to premium economy class, so losing the airlines a revenue opportunity.

“Passengers want to use the time they spend on the aircraft in a meaningful way and arrive at their destination feeling relaxed. But even if somebody is likely to spend more money for enhanced comfort, not everybody can afford business class travel,” says Hiller.

“The premium economy class product is already established. Now it is more important for airlines to stay competitive and to offer solutions to address every need. Middle East airlines also tend to offer premium economy. The risk of not offering a premium economy class is considerably greater than that of passengers downgrading from business to premium economy class”.

Baldascino concurs: “There is a downgrading risk, but only for business class passengers who are price sensitive – those passengers who decide to fly business class only if they find a suitable fare and otherwise fly economy.

“Indeed, in most of the cases without a premium economy class, an airline experiences a low load factor in business class and overbooking economy as a result of potential business class passengers downgrading to economy, because they have no intermediate choice.

“This situation results in jeopardising the overall yield of a flight… Conversely, with a premium economy class, the airline is in some way able to retain some of the yields of passengers downgrading from business to premium economy, and no longer directly to economy.

“Usually, however, premium economy is considered more as a possible upgrade from economy class passengers. Traditional business class passenger paying full fare or travelling for pure business reasons would not move voluntarily to premium economy unless obliged to do so by their companies for budget limitation reasons; we see this as a potential risk in the long term when the premium economy class will be more common among most of the airlines.”

Image of Lufthansa Technik seating

The classic approach of first/business/economy class concepts generally results in a rather big gap in the travel experience, dependent on the quality of the product.

The big differences are in seat pitch, recline, the width of the seats, other amenity features like footrest, storage space, USB power, larger IFE screens, as well as the service concept, reflected in an extreme spread between fares for those travelling in different classes.

“By implementing a premium economy class an airline has the chance to offer a product to those passengers who are looking for ‘that little bit extra’, and are willing to pay an increased fare; this is justified by the upgraded passenger experience,” Schulz says.

“Having said that, the business class offers an additional ‘extra’ in terms of comfort and service. Airlines put a lot of effort into the definition of their business class product. The seats offer more space, more privacy, lie-flat functionalities and large IFE screens, the service may even include signature service and live cooking.

“On many long haul aircraft, the business class is already the superior travel class. Fare-wise the premium economy is closer to the economy class than to the business class and is hence much more affordable and offers upgrade potentials for status customers.”

Distinctive comfort features

Premium economy class seats are being designed and developed in order to embed specific comfort features that passengers are looking for.

“The main features are increased seat pitch/more legroom, more recline option without conflict with the passenger in the back (with or without shell), increased width of the seats, a footrest, adaptable headrest cushions, additional storage space, USB power, larger IFE screens, as well as amenity kits and an upgraded meal selection,” says Schulz.

Premium economy class seating design plan

Recaro’s Hiller says this is something they took into account: “The available passenger living space and ergonomic body support for passengers of all body sizes are just two examples of very powerful influencing factors on overall seat comfort.

“To achieve an optimal relax position, a specific interplay of angles between different body areas is required. Among other investigations, we use the standards of the neutral body posture for our product development.

“They were identified by NASA demonstrating that a human body in weightlessness enters a natural relaxed position… With its wide and long calf rest, Recaro’s PL3530 premium economy seat offers a superior level of comfort.

“A generous recline allows passengers to enjoy an exceptionally comfortable, relaxing position. The headrest can be individually adjusted in height as well as inform and position. And there is more: the wide armrest can be used comfortably by two people at once so that nothing interferes with a relaxed long-distance flight.”

Technical innovations

Premium economy class seats are featuring innovative technological solutions to improve the overall passenger experience.

“The main innovation is to have conceived a new class of services for which a new seat with different features was required. Seating manufacturers have been able to respond to this need coming from airlines by creating dedicated products derived mostly from a sapient and balanced mix from existing business and economy class Products – some sort of economy class seat dressed as a business class seat,” Baldascino says.

Schulz too, stresses the importance of balance in premium economy: “Modern premium economy seats combine the technical requirements for weight, maximum usage of available space etc. with the amenities for passenger experience enhancement.

Installation of premium economy class seats

“The passenger experience improves by the feeling of much more comfort and space added by features which help the passengers to be chilled during the travel, such as inflight entertainment and connectivity offers, USB/AC charging solutions.

“People opting for premium economy will experience the flight not only as a necessity to get from A to B, but to enjoy the delight of travelling and of arriving relaxed at their destination.”

Brand differentiation

In the current climate, where airline brand differentiation is harder than ever, featuring a premium economy class can help an airline to differentiate itself from the competition through branding.

“The customers’ need for more comfort is a reality. Premium economy class will support airlines in remaining competitive. Generally speaking, differentiation and individualisation are acknowledged as being real trends, as well as being key to having three or even four different classes,” says Hiller.

“Implementing a premium economy class helps the airline to show their passengers that they care about their different needs and desires,” Schulz affirms.

“Offering a distinctive class concept helps to tailor the passenger experience exactly to the needs – from price-sensitive travellers to convenience-seeking passengers to people appreciating the amenity of business or first-class travelling.

“The target groups for each class differ, but sometimes you reach the same person in different roles with two different class approaches – the person travelling in business class in his professional life, but enjoying a leisure trip in premium economy.”

While premium economy was perhaps more of a breakthrough for those airlines that first pioneered the then-new type of cabin class, premium economy is now becoming ever-more ubiquitous across all different airline business models.

Installation of seats within aeroplane

“Premium economy can be a defining differentiation tool if well combined with airfares for airlines entering the long haul low-cost market, such as Scoot and Hong Kong Airlines,” Baldascino asserts.

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