The big squeeze in economy

In an era when you can get almost anything you want from an airline through ubiquitous “ancillary” charges, why does 99 per cent of the industry continue to deny consumers the one thing they value beyond almost anything else?

Australia’s airlines continue their dumbing down of the passenger experience as Virgin becomes more like Qantas in its race to acquire high-yielding business travellers.

Tellingly, that involves the axing of premium economy in favour of a fairly squeezy domestic business and a Jetstar-like economy class of as little as 30 inches (76 centimetres) per seat row.

Most of the action is at the front of the plane, where Virgin’s new 737 business class offers four-abreast seating at 38-inch pitch compared with Qantas’s four abreast at 35-inch pitch. One of Virgin’s best deals will be its three-abreast business class now being installed on its Embraer 190 regional jets, which are now being deployed heavily on Canberra services, as well as its only central Australian route from Sydney to Ayers Rocks/Uluru. (Comically, Virgin’s E190 service departs Sydney for the Rock and arrives at exactly the same as Qantas’s, just like the old Qantas-Ansett days).

But business class is usually five times more than discount economy.

Premium economy of about 34 inches is now being offered on only “selected” Virgin international 737 routes, as well as Boeing 777 flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Los Angeles.

But here’s the thing: most airlines that now have premium economy price it as an upmarket “product” one rung down from business class, not as a comfortable alternative to economy class. So, for example, a return ticket to Los Angeles will set you back around $1700 one-way on Virgin and nearly $4000 on Qantas for a seat that offers you only 30-50 per cent more space than economy, for which you might be paying as little as $1200 return.

So “premium” economy has gone the way of the dodo Down Under when one of the most successful low-cost airlines in America, Jet Blue, offers 34-inch-pitch economy as standard on its A320s (which includes free live satellite TV in every seat). So did budget Australian carrier Compass 20 years ago (minus the in-flight TV).

And “premium” is also standard economy at 34-inch pitch on most planes in the fleets of Asian carriers Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and Korean Airlines. Locally, Air New Zealand is more of a lottery on its Boeing 777s, with economy ranging from 31 to 33 inches. Qantas's standard is 31 inches (78 centimetres) and on Virgin Australia's 777s 32 inches.


American Airlines has also just announced a Main Cabin Extra program, which will give economy flyers four to six extra inches of leg space (10-15 cms) for $8 to $108 per sector, depending on the route.

If airlines are hellbent on turning basic economy seat comfort into a profit centre, how about simply charging for extra space? For example, a standard 17-inch-wide seat in a 737 occupies 510 square centimetres of floor space at 30-inch pitch and 578 square centimetres at 34 inches, an increase of 13.3 per cent.

If an airline wants to get the same yield for that seat as it gets for sardine class, it has to charge a premium of only 15 per cent or so. That’s what people want, but the airlines are determined not to give it.

What have you found works best to obtain a basic level of seating comfort if you’re flying around Australia in economy? What about international flying?