Without too much fanfare, Emirates has recently announced a new sub-category in its business class fares, "Special" fares, or "H" class fares in Emirates' own parlance. This Special fare comes without many of the things you take for granted when you fly business class with a leading carrier, such as lounge access, seat selection and a swag of air mileage points.
It's what the airline industry calls an unbundled fare. Unbundling normally signifies a bare-bones flight and while this is a familiar concept among low-cost carriers, a business class fare shorn of some of the frilly bits is completely new territory for leading carriers such as Emirates.
But it sounds like a great idea, right? You get what you really want – which is a fabulous business class seat and onboard pampering, without paying extra for the stuff you can really live without. And while it might seem like a game-changer, it's not, at least not in its current format. Which might be the reason that Emirates chose not to make a big deal about it.
What an Emirates Special fare does and doesn't get you
You'll get the same generous baggage allowance as a regular business-class flyer, namely 2 x 32kg of checked baggage plus 2 x 7kg carry-ons. Seat selection is restricted and it's not up to you, you'll be allocated a seat by the airline with no possibility of a change.
Special-fare flyers earn 50 per cent of the air miles that a traveller earns with a full-fare business class ticket. You can't use points to upgrade to first class on an H class ticket and the fee for a flight change is double what a passenger flying on a Saver fare, the next rung up the business-class ladder, would pay.
You're also losing the cushy limo transfers to and from the airport and there's no lounge access when you get there. You'll be mixing with the hoi polloi in the terminal's bottom shelf, although you'll still get the same priority boarding privilege as any other business class flyer.
How much are you saving?
It's maddeningly difficult to find any Special fares on the Emirates website, and if you're thinking of flying aboard Emirates on a Special fare from Australia, tough luck, "At this stage, the special fares are to be confirmed for Australia," according to an Emirates spokesperson.
Based on figures supplied by Emirates, flying return from Dubai to Paris in February 2020, the Business Class Special fare is AED7350 (UAE dirhams). That's a saving of AED1500 on the next-cheapest Business Class Saver fare, or 17 per cent.
If that same metric was to apply to Emirates' Special fares across the board, that suggests a Business Class Special fare of around $6240 for a return Melbourne-Paris flight in February 2020. Which is about $1280 less than a Business Class Saver fare on that route.
But this is only $180 less than a business class seat flying aboard Qatar Air, same dates, same route. And that comes with the full suite of Qatar's business class goodies. And, lest we forget, Qatar took the gong for World's Best Business Class in both the 2019 Skytrax World Airline Awards and 2019 TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice Awards.
Emirates' premium economy
It's all about the seat then, and Emirates is betting there are enough economy and premium economy flyers who place a sufficiently high value on comfort that they're prepared to shell out for one of the best business class seats in the air – but they're not prepared to offer that seat at a lowball fare.
One reason that Emirates might be treading cautiously is that the airline is planning to introduce premium economy seats on its A380s in 2020. Premium economy seats often sell at 2½-3 times the price of an economy seat.
There's a big leap in comfort, food, status recognition and personal service between premium economy and business class. Emirates would not want to jinx its premium economy seats by having them compete with their Special fare business seats, and therefore the relatively high price of those seats.
It's a low-risk option. Emirates can vary the number of these Special seats to offer more on routes and times when higher cost business class seats with the full complement of bells and whistles are unlikely to sell out. In peak season, on a route where the airline is assured of a high number of business class bookings, you can bet Emirates won't be offering any Special business class fares.
Is it worth it?
AirAsia's Premium Flatbed seat.
Emirates is in new territory with its unbundled business class seat. For a comparison you might look at a low-cost carrier that offers a similarly shorn service, and AirAsia's Premium Flatbed is a likely candidate.
Baggage allowance for Premium Flatbed flyers is 40 kilograms, you get a complimentary meal – although don't expect it to be within coo-ee of an Emirates business class meal. You get to pick a seat, priority boarding and priority baggage handling. You also earn AirAsia BIG Loyalty points.
So much for the frills, but it's the seat that really matters. It's a lie-flat seat rather than a full-flat bed, which means there's a slight downward tilt toward the feet. The shell-type seat has a pitch of 152cm, extending to 195cm in full-recline mode.
So far so good, although in terms of storage compartments and privacy the Emirates business class seat puts it in the shade. In common with many low-cost airlines there are no seat-back screens. The inflight entertainment feeds to a dedicated AirAsia Xcite Tablet device and Sony noise-cancelling headphones, one free perk that separates AirAsia's Premium Flatbed passengers from their economy flyers. Configuration in the dedicated Premium Flatbed cabin on the Airbus A330-300 is 2-2-2.
AirAsia doesn't have anything like the global reach of Emirates but as a ballpark figure you could expect to pay around $2800 return for a Premium Flatbed seat aboard AirAsia from Sydney to Bangkok in February 2020.
The cheapest return Emirates business class flight from Sydney to Bangkok in that same month is about $4223. Discount that by 17 per cent to approximate what you might pay for a Special business class fare if such a fare was available and you'd be paying about $3500, or $700 above the AirAsia Premium Flatbed seat.
The AirAsia flight includes a stopover in Kuala Lumpur and the airport in Bangkok is the old Don Mueang, not the newer Suvarnabhumi Airport, and it's second rate. If it was an option, the Emirates Special fare would be worth considering, although it's around $350 more than you'd pay flying business class with Thai Airways.
The tweaking of business class
Lufthansa's new business class seats for the Boeing 777x.
Emirates is not the only player tinkering with its business class, but while that airline is looking to unbundle its business class, Lufthansa is heading in the other direction, "upbundling". When Lufthansa launches its Boeing 777X late in 2020, business class flyers who are prepared to pay more could opt for a longer lie-flat seat, one that comes with wider wings on either side to create an expanded workspace, even an upgraded menu.
Nor is Lufthansa taking the paring knife to lounge access or any of the other standard perks that come with a business class fare. The proof of this new business class-plus concept will be in the pudding, but if it's as good as Lufthansa is suggesting it could be another nail in the coffin of first class.