Why airberlin’s new business class is barely better than coach

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‘European Business Class’ is coming to airberlin. Maybe this shouldn’t be seen as big news; after all, the carrier has 14 Airbus A330s flying with flat-bed seats from the Middle East to the West Coast of the USA. But this new business class product will be on offer on airberlin’s short-haul fleet later this year. And like much of the competition, the product is barely better than coach.

From the statement announcing the move:

Stefan Pichler, CEO of airberlin, says: “We find ourselves at the beginning of a far-reaching transformation from which a new, stronger airberlin will emerge. By introducing a business class on short and medium-haul flights, we are making key strategic decisions that will pave the way to a sustainable future for the company and that will clearly position airberlin in the premium sector of European airlines. The new premium product will make us more attractive, particularly for business travellers and frequent flyers, and we now offer a seamless business class experience on the global route network by airberlin and our partner airlines.”

More space, please

Winning at the game of regional business class in Europe isn’t difficult. The competition is weak and getting worse seemingly with each passing moment. The vast majority of European flights feature a “Eurobiz” concept, which uses a movable curtain – and blocked middle seats – to create an adjustable business class cabin. Priority check-in, lounge access and meals on board can be included too, but usually with no extra legroom. Moreover, the blocked middle is fixed, which can restrict the width rather than making things more spacious. The mediocrity up front is only outdone by the coach products typically offered on the same planes.

Enter airberlin.

The German carrier is going to address the space issue by offering “particularly generous legroom” for its business class passengers in the form of a 32″ pitch. But it’s only on offer on a single row of seats at the front of the plane; this means that travelers will have extra knee room and no one reclining into them but stretching out isn’t really a viable option. And, yes, just one row of business class (two triples with blocked middles) means that only four passengers can be accommodated on any given flight. Management suggests that the blocked middle seats ensure “a particular amount of exclusivity and personal space, even high above the clouds”.

But at least you get good food on board!

Improved catering is the response given every time an American (me) brings up the shortcomings on Eurobiz seats in terms of personal space. And it is true that the flights offer a meal. I flew Air France in February and the intra-Europe business class meal was better than what I received longhaul. But airberlin is taking a different approach, allowing business class passengers to “choose food and beverages ‘à la carte’ from the extensive on-board menu”. So free selections from the buy-on-board cart are now considered a premium offering – a trickle up approach to inflight dining.

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Other benefits

An increased baggage allowance comes with the ticket as does a free advance seat assignment. Ditto for priority boarding, expedited security and lounge access prior to the flight. But such amenities are expected to accompany any premium product.

For travelers flying regionally and looking for an improved travel experience, the smart money is likely in the form of buying two coach seats rather than the business class product. Even with the fees for seat assignments and buying a snack on board (or, even better, in the airport or in town before or after the flight) short-haul travelers are likely to come out ahead in the comfort/cost comparison.

Because this business class barely beats coach.

10 Comments

  1. Patrick

    I agree that it’s a particularly pathetic business class offering, but I wonder whether perhaps it is not really intended for point-to-point passengers but rather C class pax connecting to/from long-haul flights? I always find that a connecting itinerary in C with a sector on an all-Y carrier is rather a downer – “I paid HOW MUCH for this?” The Air Berlin approach strikes me as a zero-added-cost way of offering SOME modest perks to connecting C pax to assuage their disappointment.

    Than again, maybe it’s just Chapter 467 in the ongoing saga of Air Berlin strategic incoherence.

    • Seth Miller

      I know it is targeted to the long-haul connections. They say that in the release and I alluded to it in the story. But they also talk about the benefits for the short-haul passengers.

      And even targeted to long-haul it is unclear that a blocked seat and free BoB makes up for the otherwise spectacularly mediocre product before boarding the A330 with a real business cabin.

  2. Always got the impression that Air Berlin has a confusing positioning, starting with the name (not a Berlin-only company anymore), the product (is it an lcc or not?), the network (hubbing or not?)

  3. Article is rubbish, “runway girl” doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Fact is most EU flights are under 90 mins, many (most?) under 60 mins. Only status obsessed Russians / Gulf Arabs or fat Americans need a giant laz-e-boy to fly from London to Hamburg or Paris to Zurich. Airlines are in business to make money (admittedly this is a pipe dream for AB) and if demand existed for a premium hard product then it would exist. Slagging off airlines for correctly responding to the needs of the market is for kids. This blogger should stick to posting on a.net.

    • Well, it was me, Seth, and not some unnamed author so that’s a starting point.

      I respect the view that on a 90 minute flight passengers don’t need much (though I dispute the 90 minute number, and I’ve shared data in the past that supports my position there). In fact, I wrote at the conclusion of the piece that one would likely be better served by not buying premium cabin in many cases especially because the product does not meet the (even European) standards of differentiation from a coach offering.

      If Airberlin wanted to respond to the market it would come up with a way to offer something more than a comp’d BoB snack and the bulkhead row. Even the competition acknowledges that there is some demand for a premium meal or other advantages along the way. This is a “me too” product that turns out to be more “almost there” than fully baked.

      But this isn’t going to change the margins at all for the carrier. Passengers from the Middle East or Asia are going to arrive long-haul to their destination via AUH, DXB or DOH (or others, I suppose). Passengers from the Americas might end up in one of these seats as part of a long-haul itinerary but that’s not really why they’ll have bought the ticket; it doesn’t change the value proposition. All it does is take away the bulkhead from economy class folks who might have paid to sit there. Where’s the value proposition??

  4. Thecriticalvoice

    What a bullshit. For the small price you pay for AirBerlin flights you get outstanding service. The new Business alternative will be an inexpensive addition to the offered service of regular and XL seats and another option for customers wanting a little extra comfort.

    • Seth Miller

      I think you’ve missed my point. I agree that the regular economy is a decent value and even that the BOB and upgrade options currently available are, too. There is no evidence that this will be an inexpensive offering (it isn’t on any of the other airlines in those markets) and the value proposition in terms of a differentiated service offering is minimal. That’s my annoyance with the positioning in the market.