INTERNATIONAL - Emirates aircraft are synonymous with luxury, offering premium-class passengers shower on board and a bar while cruising at 30,000 feet.
Now the carrier wants to give some legroom for those flying coach.
The world’s biggest long-haul airline outlined details of a new premium economy seat that it plans to help stem “leakage” of passengers who can’t afford business, but want a more comfortable ride to competing airlines.
The carrier is introducing the seats on all of its new A380 and 777s from 2020 and plans to retrofit the seats onto some aircraft already in its fleet, Emirates President Tim Clark said. The Dubai-based carrier’s A380s will have about 56 such seats in the front of the bottom deck of the aircraft while the 777s will have between 26 and 28.
Premium economy seats have arrived in recent years in carriers from Singapore Airlines Ltd. to American Airlines Inc. as customers want more space and frills for a little extra, but aren’t willing to fork out for business class. Emirates is taking steps to combat the encroachment of competitors on its routes, including the introduction of new low-cost carriers. The airline is also facing a more existential threat to its business model as planemakers Airbus SE and Boeing Co. work on new planes that will allow airlines including Qantas to fly some of the world’s longest routes directly, bypassing big connecting hub airports.
“We’re going to recognize that premium economy is something that is here to stay,” Clark told reporters in Sydney on Monday. Emirates has “noticed much more leakage out of our mainstream passenger demand into carriers that have it.”
The seats, which he described as “sleeperettes”, will have a pitch of about 38 inches, up to 6 inches more than the current economy product, and will come with better service and food and a private toilet. Emirates is still in talks with various seat manufacturers to come up with a new design. There will also be a reduction in the number of seats in each row.
“The groundswell of opinion from the segments which are telling us that they are prepared to pay more for a more comfortable seat with more legroom with a degree of exclusivity," Clark said.
As space in economy class becomes ever more constrained, airlines have devised a more spacious cabin product for passengers priced out of business class but determined to get more bang for their buck. Called “premium economy,” this section of added frills between coach and business aims to address a widening gap that has emerged between those cabins—and to extract more money from passengers.
On almost every airline with premium economy, the biggest lure is increased seat pitch and width, typically along with nicer food and tableware, a larger entertainment screen, a fancier amenities kit, and occasionally, a more generous baggage allowance.
American Airlines was the first U.S. carrier to introduce the cabin on its Boeing 787-9, with 21 seats in a 2-3-2 across layout, far roomier than the 3-3-3 arrangement in the back of the plane.
In 2015, Singapore Air brought its premium-economy version, offering champagne, a broad selection of wines and food, a bigger TV and seats that were as much as 1 1/2 inches wider. Regional competitors Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Qantas Airways Ltd. had the same offering before as customers want more comfort on ultra long-haul flights.
Clark ruled out the premium seats having hard-back shells as is the standard in business class which he said other carriers had scrapped because they were cannibalizing their business-class sales. Fares for these seats won’t be anything like business class pricing with the product being advertised as a supplement to economy, he said.
“We can see the take up, it’s obvious to us that we need to do something,” Clark said. “The difficulty is getting the mathematical point correct, you’re trying to trade people up from economy, not down from business.”