Premium value: Latest developments in airline premium cabins

With 'Business Class' becoming the new 'First Class', airlines are focusing on Premium Economy - especially for business travellers, as organisations' travel policies tighten. Read about the latest developments here.

There’s nothing new about premium economy as a concept, but for many airlines it’s a brand-new product.Effectively, business class is the new first class as travel policies restrict access to first class and airlines competing with low cost carriers pack our economy cabins. Business class is a product that easily rivals anything we’d have seen in the first-class cabins of long haul aircraft in the 1990’s with space to work and relax and varied choices on when and what to eat.With Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Emirates occupying three of the top four slots for the world’s best business class airlines 2019, the latest trends in business class products are for aisle access and private, suite-style seating. British Airways’ new Club Suite product will be available on its A350 aircraft between London and Madrid during the summer, offering both these plus luxurious flat beds in a 1-2-1 configuration. Club Suite will then be rolled out to selected long haul routes including Toronto and Dubai.

In June 2019 Qatar Airways was named Skytrax’s “Best Airline of the Year” for a record fifth time, World’s Best Business Class for the fourth consecutive year and retained its World’s Best Business Class Seat award for its Qsuite product.

For international passengers departing from Toronto, Air Canada’s Signature Class travellers can exclusively access the Air Canada Signature Suite for a more peaceful experience. An exclusive lounge experience away from the busy airport, travellers can relax before their journey in the bar area or work in a quiet area before boarding the flight. If they want to dine before flying, they can also enjoy a meal from the à la carte menu, voted World's Best Business Class Dining Experience at the 2019 Skytrax awards.

Meanwhile in order to offer its customers even greater choice, Emirates has introduced an “unbundled” business class fare on selected routes based on seasonal demand. These fares, which have recently been introduced for UK departing passengers, will not include the usual enhancements such as chauffeur drive or lounge access, but will include 40kg of luggage, priority boarding and the full award-winning business class experience once on board.

One step down in cost, but less so in terms of experience, premium economy provides great value, offers enhancements such as priority boarding and more extensive menu choices, and ensure travellers can arrive at their destination relaxed and productive. British Airways and Virgin were two of the first European carriers to offer a premium economy product in a separate cabin to standard economy. US carriers later introduced the concept of “premium” economy which originally was essentially economy class with extra legroom. All three transatlantic American carriers American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines now offer a “true” premium economy product; with United being the latest airline to join the party. In March 2019 they launched their new premium-economy cabin, Premium Plus, on selected long-haul routes. Passengers in Premium Plus get wider seats, extra legroom, a special meal service and other amenities such as a larger at-seat entertainment screen. United customers in both the Polaris lounges and United Club locations will also be able to take advantage of new amenity kits featuring the Sunday Riley cult beauty brand.

Prices are at an all-time low. Increased competition has also brought better premium economy experiences. Some carriers provide lounge access and fast track passes for premium economy customers. Most premium economy fares include priority boarding, additional checked baggage and a more comprehensive food and beverage menu. Some are using headphones, amenity kits and improved bedding to distinguish their products.

Although premium prices represent great value, they regularly command twice the price of discounted economy fares. However, it’s worth knowing that most airlines only allow upgrades to the next cabin, from economy to premium or from premium to business.

Amongst European carriers, Air France launched its new economy and premium economy cabins last year. Their premium economy cabin also offers better (and bigger) seats, more storage space and a larger HD screen. Both economy and premium economy customers are welcomed with an oshibori (a small hand towel) to freshen up before being offered a complimentary glass of champagne. It makes all the difference!

With so much time and money being spent by airlines to attract higher-fare business customers, the race is on to harness technology, create eye-catching benefits and freshen the whole look and feel of airplane cabins.

The concept of class in cabins is shifting, and that shift may become more pronounced in the coming years. How long will it be before passengers wonder how they ever managed to fly any other way?