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.