Since they have to ride a knife edge financially, where marginal profits in one year can be wiped out by volatile fuel prices in the next, airlines tend to be conservative – reactionary even – in introducing changes that can affect their bottom line.
For the past 15 years, they have been obsessed in their attempt to improve “yield” – average fares paid, which is the magic number that industry analysts look for in regular filings to stock exchanges – by squashing economy seats ever closer together so they can woo business flyers with ever more luxurious premium offerings.
With the fares they were charging to sit in business class – anything up to seven times the discount rates down the back – the gap in the classes became a canyon.
Eventually, a number of full-service carriers figured out there was a market in between the corporates and the rest which they decided to call premium economy.
I’ve always found it hilarious that premium economy is actually what business class was comfort-wise in the 1980s and 1990s, and much closer to the price multiple that business travellers used to pay.
Still, the idea of having to pay roughly double the discount economy rate to sit in a chair with marginally more legroom never struck me as a bargain.
But it’s the only way for repeat travellers to get a little more comfort while not having to pay the rate that companies are charged for moving their people around in business class.
It has also led to corporate downgrading from business class, which, for airlines worldwide, has remained stubbornly hard to fill since the 2008-08 global financial crisis.
But still there is clamour from below: seating space remains the number one gripe expressed in surveys by economy passengers annoyed with the squeeze on the cheap seats in the past few years.
Snagging an exit-row seat with 12-18 centimetres of extra legroom used to be a matter of luck, but now retails for upwards of $10 extra for short-haul hops in many countries with low-cost carriers (LCCs) and full-service carriers alike.
On long-haul international routes, LCC AirAsia X sells “Hot Seats” in the so-called bulkhead row for a surcharge of $46 one-way between Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Elsewhere in the Asia Pacific, full-service Hawaiian Airlines has been selling “Preferred Seats” in the bulkhead row of its Boeing 767-300s and Airbus A330-200s starting at $US40 extra one-way on its international routes to Australasia and Asia.
Now Hawaiian Airlines – which, incidentally, has never had premium economy class – is taking a further step: not only rebranding Preferred Seats as “Extra Comfort” seats, but, for the first time, reconfiguring the forward section of its economy cabin.
From next June, the three forward A330 economy seat rows will each be given 91 cms (36 inches) of “pitch” and a range of value-added extras will be thrown in, including priority boarding, free electronic entertainment, power point for laptops and other devices, souvenir pillow and blanket and premium meals – the same ones that go to first class.
Like all airlines, Hawaiian uses the chook-feeding method of tightly-controlled media spin so we don’t yet know whether the new seat rows will be sold for the same as are charged for the current bulkhead seat rows.
“We haven’t yet announced what price the Extra Comfort seats will be but we can say they will certainly be competitive with other premium seat products,” an airline spokesman says.
However, my take is that Hawaiian is unlikely to depart dramatically from its existing surcharging arrangements and will therefore become one of the first carriers of any type to actually create an affordable class of travel that is much closer than any earlier attempt to match what repeat travellers want and what they are prepared to pay.
If, on the other hand, Hawaiian attempts to charge double the discount economy rate like competing premium economy “products”, I think it will be a very short-lived experiment indeed.
Have you tried any of the Hot Seat-style extra-space seats currently in the market for long-haul flying? Will you pay extra for a bulkhead or emergency exit row seat? Who do you think has the best deal? What is you idea of an ideal economy seat and how much extra would you be prepared to pay? Post your comments below.