Op-Ed: Seat wars present opportunity for mid-cabin innovation


The passenger experience is evolving faster than ever before.

Up front, business and first class passengers have more amenities, better service, and more personal space, carved out in many ways by intelligent cabin ergonomics. It’s being called a new golden age of flying — with the personal chefs, hand-cooked steaks, free-flowing top-shelf champagne, and more to remind us of those halcyon days of the jet age.

Yet in economy, the dark ages are on the horizon. Are airlines fiddling while Rome burns — or even adding tinder to the fire? How much longer can the bread and circuses of inflight entertainment distract passengers from the ache in their lower extremities?

On widebody aircraft, economy seating configurations other than 3-4-3 on a Boeing 777 or 3-3-3 on a Boeing 787 are becoming extinct. Pitch is being cut, which is in some ways mollified by slimline seating, yet even if the hip-to-knee measurement is only reduced slightly, the eyeball-to-screen measure is still reduced at the same rate as pitch.

No wonder passengers are becoming more disruptive, or that devices like the Knee Defender are selling faster than hotcakes.

Lufthansa premium economy

Lufthansa premium economy

But if the pointy end of the plane is going up in the world and the back of the bus is going to hell in a handbasket, there is opportunity in the middle.

Premium economy is the future for passengers and airlines. That’s true whether it’s the proper international style, with 19-21” wide recliners and around 38” of legroom, or the economy plus style that’s just regular economy seats with the same amount of pitch that regular economy used to have — predominantly 34” on US airlines, four inches more than the unfortunate new economy seats at 30”.

Airlines love premium economy and economy plus for several reasons. They can sell them to business travelers, use them as upgrade insurance for frequent flyers, and point to them when passengers and the media call out the cattle-car conditions in coach.

Passengers aren’t necessarily as thrilled. As business travel policies and frequent flyer programs contract their benefits, and as airlines install markedly smaller business and first class cabins on new jets — paying customers only, now — travellers will scrabble towards the middle as an alternative to being stuck down the back.

The US, land of the ancillary fee and home of the brave elite passenger, will see customers with status considering a “should I buy or should I wait” conundrum: hope that the airline releases first class seats for upgrade, or even economy plus seats for elite assignment — or stump up for the ancillary revenue to lock in an economy plus seat offered for sale.

Elsewhere in the world, where proper premium economy is more widespread, there are signs that a quiet middle class revolution is overdue. Premium economy seats have barely changed since their inception in 1992 on board Virgin Atlantic and EVA Air, with new premium economy entrants like Lufthansa offering basically the same product as everyone else.

Yet the space they occupy has grown: economy seats have shrunk and business class seats have ballooned in size. Whither the middle?

A few niche airlines have attempted, like Air New Zealand’s unsurprisingly non-starter SpaceSeats (more expensive than competitors’ business class on flights from NZ to the UK), OpenSkies’ inherited Prem Plus (formerly Biz Seat, the same 52”-pitched sleeper American used to use on its 767-200 in business class), and AirAsia X’s Premium Flatbed product (60” angled lie-flats, with economy service, and in limited markets).

The time is ripe for an airline to follow these leads and take a bold step with a new style of premium economy. Angled lie-flat seats — no longer acceptable in business class — are the obvious path, with new options providing pitch not a million miles away from the 38” of the current generation of premium economy.

Even the more compact first generation of angled lie-flat seating, placed in the right gap between an excellent business class and a middling economy, priced competitively, could be a winner.

There’s surely space in the market for a seating product that combines the more compact business class seat principles seen in Lufthansa’s footsie class full flat product, or the Equinox 3D seat introduced by Philippine Airlines. Could the “one up, one down” model work for rows of passengers in angled lie-flat premium economy seats? Airlines, seat-makers: it’s your move.


  1. Peter Evans

    Good article.

    However, the point often gets missed when discussing seat products – most often in respect of Economy/Coach – that the passenger is the one who has the real power to make airlines shift from sardine economics to a better value proposition. Heaven knows passengers are quick to scream and point the finger at others (i.e. airlines) when something is quite what they need or, more accurately, desire. Yet it is they who influence most the strategies adopted by airlines.

    Price being a key driver to choice of airline – and it seems to be staying that way, in the main – airlines are compelled to maximise revenue from diminishing fares and squeezing in more seats is one of the key ways of doing that. If passengers really want more space in Economy/Coach then they best be prepared to pay for it.

    You are quite right in pointing out that Premium Economy seating is akin to Economy seating of yesteryear. Similarly, Premium Economy fares now are akin to the Economy fares airlines used to charge. It’s a mutually dependent relationship. When Virgin Atlantic first introduced Premium Economy it was, initially, offered to anyone paying the full (unrestricted) Y class fare. As time progressed it was realised that it was possible to harvest a slight premium. When asked what the the optimal configuration for B747-200 should be, the CFO remarked “400 Premium Economy”. Why? Because $ per sq ft it was the best yielding seat on the plane. Of course, it was never going to happen because far too few passengers actually valued the space enough to pay the reasonable fare involved. I doubt the economics have changed that much so any idea that airlines will develop ‘Business Class-like’ Premium Economy cabins is probably fanciful……….unless passengers start to stump up the cash.

    There, is, no doubt, an opportunity for airlines to develop new segments in aircraft cabins, especially mid-cabin but it is highly unlikely they will do so if fares do not rise. The danger is higher fare in such new cabins will be considered as J- instead of Y+. Invariably there is a choice passengers can make when travelling but those choices (airline, cabin, fare, service, redundancy, resilience etc.) often get very restricted – and moreover become uncomfortable – if the passenger values price over the others.

  2. Peter, I absolutely see what you mean. Yet fares are already wildly variant for the “middle classes” of more-room-economy and premium economy, let alone business class. Take a look at the variance in price and services between London and LAX. And if you have to connect on a US-to-Asia or Australasia-to-Europe route, the “why am I paying $X for this rather than that” question becomes harder to answer. Or price-compare Air NZ’s premium economy from AKL to LHR with other airlines’ business class. Quite frankly, I’ll take full flat beds on China Southern via Guangzhou over Air NZ’s premium economy, and I’d save money doing it.

    I’m sure you know that business class started off transatlantically with Pan Am and TWA offering a separate cabin and a couple extra amenities for full-fare Y. Not a world apart from VS’ Mid Class a decade and a half later. There was a bit of “hmm, how does this fit into our product lineup” then, as there has been for even longer with standard premium economy right now.

    The time is ripe for the next VS to introduce the premium economy gamechanger analogous to their 1999 of angle flats, or the 2000 BA first fully flat Club World seat.

  3. Ellen

    It’s the space between one’s eyes and the seat in front that seems to be the real cause of the problem. A couple of decade ago, someone reclining in front did not lead to the feeling of claustrophobia that a reclined seat back in one’s face now produces. Knee contact is uncomfortable physically, but having what is effectively a wall so close to one’s face produces the more panicked response, hence the increased tension over this issue.

    However, everyone seems to concentrate on knee space for some reason. Maybe it’s easy to call something Knee Defender rather than Claustrophia Panic Attack Preventer, or Is There Any Chance I Can Peaceably Read My Book Asserter.

  4. Yes, I agree. It may only be an inch or two of change, but the eyeball-to-screen measurement I referred to is a big part of the passenger perception issue.

  5. Stefan Paetow

    So… we have BTK and ETS? I like the eye-to-screen measurement… Pitch just doesn’t do it for me anymore. :-/

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