Flight Plan

Airlines focussing on India are now doing a ‘class’ act

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on May 16, 2019

Global players offer ‘premium economy’ seats in their India fare as part of a conscious effort to make passengers upgrade. Ashwini Phadnis reports

In this era of intense competition, international carriers are going all out to woo more flyers from India.

The latest measure that some airlines are trying out is reconfiguring their aircraft to provide more seats in the premium economy cabin on their flights to and from India. After Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and British Airways, Virgin Atlantic is now looking to offer more premium economy seats on its flights out of India.

Worldwide, premium economy seating on flights is not new. While, earlier, global airlines would have first, business and economy classes, some years ago, global airlines introduced premium economy as the fourth cabin in the air.

Up and flying

According to Diogenis Papiomytis, Global Progam Director, Commercial Aviation, Frost & Sullivan, the popularity of the premium economy product is growing. He adds that currently there are 32 major airlines globally with existing or planned premium economy products, of which 14 have been implemented over the past five years.

From this summer, Virgin has put the Airbus A-330 on its daily Delhi-London service, which offers 37 per cent more premium economy seats. “Premium economy is very much our focus in the Indian market,” says Juha Jarviven, Executive Vice-President, Commercial, Virgin Atlantic.

By introducing premium economy which provides personalised service, Virgin is following in the footsteps of others like Singapore Airlines which are seeing increasing demand for seats in this cabin, in flights from India.

“Demand for this product has been steadily growing. PY (the technical code for premium economy) is the legitimate choice for those who want more comfort than (in the) economy class cabin,” says David Lim, General Manager, Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines introduced premium economy in India in 2016 and currently offers it on its flights from Delhi and Mumbai. The airline does not offer premium economy on its routes from Chennai and Bengaluru, though the airline maintains there is a lot of demand for travelling in premium economy from passengers in South India travelling with Singapore Airlines to cities like San Francisco and others on the West Coast of the US.

According to Paurus Neekoo, General Manager Sales, India, Lufthansa Group, premium economy has high demand on its European flights and even greater demand on flights to North America. The airline introduced premium economy on the India route in 2015.

Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong headquartered carrier, first introduced premium economy in 2012 on flights to Delhi and then rolled it out to other cities, including Hyderabad and Chennai.

According to Papiomytis, “Airlines introduce premium economy due to peer pressure, or as part of a conscious effort to spur economy passengers to move up a class. Particularly since business class products have been improving over time, the service gap between economy and business is becoming wider.”

More comfort in the bargain

Airlines cite various reasons for the popularity of premium economy, the most significant of which is more comfort than economy class. Normally premium economy offers more seating space than in the economy class (therefore more comfort for passengers), a liberal check-in baggage allowance and enhanced meal service.

Singapore Airlines also offers more storage space with a dedicated stowage area for keeping water bottle, laptop, headphones and other personalised items. It also offers priority treatment, from check-in to boarding and even baggage handling.

British Airways, which introduced World Traveller Plus, as it calls its premium economy class, in 2000, currently offers it on all its flights from India, including services from Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai. It promises premium economy passengers a more comfortable and relaxing experience on its longer flights with wider seats, more recline, more leg room, priority boarding and a flexible baggage allowance.

For others like Lufthansa, targeting the Indian market for its premium economy seating makes sense for another reason. Nekoo points out that while travelling in premium economy, passengers get an extra piece of check-in luggage. “This is something that appeals to our Europe-bound leisure travellers. They do not mind paying a little more for premium economy seats,” he adds.

Lufthansa’s passengers to North American destinations often comprise elderly parents visiting their children or young adventurous travellers. “Both these categories value the extra comfort and convenience that our premium economy product facilitates,” Nekoo says.

When the airline started its premium economy, its business customers mostly comprised small and medium enterprises because the corporate travel policies of Indian multinationals were not adjusted to account for premium economy. But it is slowly seeing a change, with premium economy now being introduced in MNCs’ travel policies.

“During peak periods, when the economy compartment fills up and economy class fares are almost at par with that of premium economy, we notice that passengers tend to switch to premium economy,” Nekoo says, adding that keeping these trends in mind, the airline fully expects demand for its premium economy offering to increase even further.

Not well-defined

However, Papiomytis cautions that premium economy is not a well-defined product and lacks consistency across airlines.

“Depending on the airline, it can simply be an economy seat with higher pitch and no further perks, or a completely new product that includes a wider seat, free ancillaries and better customer service,” he says.

It is for this reason that the prices too vary for premium economy, as they do for the other cabins, from airline to airline. Though the airlines are tight-lipped about the fare differences between the three classes — economy, premium economy and business — a ballpark figure puts it at somewhere between the highest economy class ticket and a business class ticket.

Published on May 14, 2019

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