Qantas overhypes, underdelivers 787-9 premium economy “revolution”


Qantas promised premium economy passengers “a class leading experience and a revolutionary new seat” when unveiling its new Boeing 787-9, but the seat is barely evolutionary in function and pitched 3-4” below key competitors Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand. For a plane that’s offering Qantas’ narrowest ever longhaul seat down back in economy on sixteen-hour flights, premium economy doesn’t look to be the comfort and space upgrade that many passengers were hoping for in the middle of the plane.

First, though, the positives: Qantas has clearly done a lot of work taking inspiration from other airlines’ (and its own) premium products and spinning them into this product. For a start, Qantas is matching Singapore Airlines’ 2015 premium economy with an attractive 13.3” HD Panasonic Avionics IFE screen.

It’s great to see some trickledown #PaxEx hitting premium economy! Image: Cathay Pacific

I also really like the way the pillow hooks onto the headrest, similar to Cathay Pacific’s 2007 business and first class, and it’s great to see another airline and seat manufacturer going the way of articulated seat bases, like JAL’s 2014 Sky Premium product.

JAL’s segmented seat pan premium economy also has a hardshell seatback, so doesn’t impinge on the person behind. Image: JAL

In a similar way to B/E Aerospace’s 2015 generation of premium economy (as unveiled by American, Delta and others), the aisle-side armrest lowers to enable access for passengers with reduced mobility and an easy way to slip out of the aisle seat. Qantas is also debuting a combo footrest-calfrest, which is a change from the usual premium economy legrest, but that’s really the only new aspect of this product.

The biggest problem looks to be the easiest to solve: pitch. Qantas has pitched these seats quite close together, at 38”. This is at the bottom end of all its competitors’ premium economy offerings, and well behind its ANZAC mates’. It looks just about fine when the seats are upright, or when canny PR reps have arranged the seats so the recline isn’t impinging on the seat behind.

But when the seatback in front reclines to its full 9.5”, it seems fairly clear that there is no way for a window or middle seat passenger to pop out to stretch their legs on the world’s future longest flight without disturbing at least three other passengers: the person in front of them, the aisle passenger next to them, and the person in front of that passenger. In context, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia offer 41-42” pitch and 9″ recline on seats pitched at 41”.

It seems impossible for a window or aisle passenger to slip out without the row in front moving their seatback. Image: Qantas

This is not a new problem in the region. When Air New Zealand introduced its Spaceseat product on its new 777-300ER in 2011, it was pitched far too closely together and the airline ended up needing to remove a row, which torpedoed its economics to the extent that it is pulling these seats off in favour of a standard premium economy product.

Qantas is in a better position: since the bulkhead between economy and premium economy is halfway down the zone between doors 2 and 3, it can easily remove a row of its 32”-pitched economy seats and divide the space between the three rows of premium economy affected by the recline issue. This new seat would indeed be class-leading if if were pitched at 48”. But, as it stands, it is not.

There’s also an issue of fact around width measurements. The phrase “up to” when Qantas cites a width of 22.8” rang a few alarm bells, and indeed this turned out to be less than entirely representative. The seat cushion between armrests, which, as Australian Business Traveller notes, is the standard way of measuring standard seats like these, turns out to be 19.5”, which has been on the bottom end of premium economy since the mid-1990s. Without this width continuing to the pinch-point at the front of the armrest, I can’t in good conscience agree with Qantas that 22.8” is a reasonable way to describe these seats’ width.

Qantas also hasn’t paid enough attention to inflight power. There’s only one AC power outlet between two seats, and I can’t remember the last time an airline was unwise enough to do that in premium economy. While there are two USB sockets, the one in the seatback next to the phone storage shelf is an entirely useless 0.5A. I’m not sure it’s appropriate to call 0.5A a “charging point” given the power requirements of modern devices. There is, AusBT says, a 2A socket angled against passengers’ legs, but I can’t help but feel that’s the wrong way around. It doesn’t appear that the difference is marked anywhere on the seats either.

I also can’t shake the feeling that these seats look and feel, well, small. Australian Aviation’s story header image shows one passenger needing to extend the headrest fully when in reclined position, with the 13.3” widescreen IFE well below the eyeline.

At the end of the ultra-longhaul day, premium economy is about extra space — and Qantas simply isn’t providing as much as the competition. Airlines shouldn’t bait their passengers with promises of “revolutionary” products and then switch to something that arguably isn’t much of an improvement on what they and others already offer.

From this angle, it’s hard to see anything that differentiates these seats from others on the market. Image: Qantas

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  1. James

    Your opinion articles are growing tired.. I cannot remember the last time you had anything favorable to say about any new product. This ‘journalist’ has never worked for an airline and simply flies through redemption of points and or sponsored flights. Qantas’ new premium product is revolutionary, it reflects only a handful of airlines still willing to invest in customizing their own products/designs rather than going straight ‘off the shelf’.

    You compare to VA and NZ, VA is in no financial state to be praised… and NZ is changing their PY on 773 to an off the shelf product that the only thing its revolutionary in, is its pitch.

    BA 789 PY 38″, AA 789 PY 38″, AC 789 PY 38″, Scoot 789 ‘Biz’ 38″

    You continuously shame airlines, but Qantas has to remain competitive with growing LCCs, Chinese Carriers, and the ME3. Shame the consumers if you have to, they’re the ones changing the market for what it is today.

    • John Walton

      Thanks for your comments — I’m always keen to think further about what I write and how I write it. I hope you know that you and your colleagues from that CAPA – Center for Aviation IP address are always welcome to contact me directly with any queries. Please feel free, as I do, to use your real name rather than a pseudonym — I’m not aware of any Jameses on CAPA’s team.

      Do feel free to click on the name in my author blurb to refresh your memory about my body of work here on RGN, including recent thoughts about PAL, SQ and Qantas within the last month that are, on balance, very positive. Up Front is an opinion and analysis column about premium travel with my name on it, so if you’re not up for that kind of writing then this may not be the freely available section of RGN for you.

      Now, to points of substance. I don’t believe that having previously worked for an airline gives a journalist specific insight as to whether a particular seat is comfortable and well designed. Indeed, I think that frequent travel across airlines and classes of service is arguably more insightful when combined with regularly discussing PaxEx in depth and breadth with a wide variety of industry stakeholders, from OEM, MRO, seatmaker and carrier CEOs to designers, suppliers, airline staff and passengers. You’ll recall that I was recognised in the Australasian Aviation Press Club awards this year for both my digital multimedia journalism on RGN and elsewhere, and as runner-up in the journalist of the year category, and I’m honoured to receive that recognition from my peers for the quality of my work. I know that I’m not the only journalist within or outwith the region to hold these opinions about this seat. I may well be one of the most plain-spoken, of course.

      Nor do I believe that the method of payment for a flight is material to one’s eligibility to comment on it. Passengers should expect the same service whether paying for or redeeming for a flight. But if we’re counting, of my nine flights booked in the six months Sep-Feb three are redemptions and six are paid fares. Zero were airline-provided flights, which I am diligent in disclosing both on social media during travel and on every article from the trip.

      Like it or not, a key motivator of airline decisions in Australia is the PaxEx arms race between QF and VA, plus to an extent NZ as the Pacific Rim strategy takes hold. We’ve seen this in the last five years with the creation of first cradle, then angled lie-flat, then fully flat beds with direct aisle access on transcon midhauls, with the late adoption of connectivity, with lounges, and with frequent flyer schemes. I’m not suggesting that NZ or VA (or the others you listed) are a revolutionary or class leading PE product, and they’re not claiming to be.

      I have spoken very positively about Qantas’ decisions to customise seats in previous articles here and elsewhere, and have a great deal of respect for the Qantas team, their designers, and the seatmakers, many of whom I’ve met. I would also suggest that since this seat hasn’t been publicly released by Thompson it’s not yet possible to analyse precisely how much customisation Qantas has or hasn’t done here.

      I fundamentally disagree that I or any other RGN writer shames airlines, and I’m sure that Mary wouldn’t publish a story that set out to do that. But nor are we a mouthpiece for PR or a site for avgeeks to joyfully enthuse about their love of commercial aviation (which I certainly share and value deeply). Disagreeing about the detail of product decisions is hardly shaming, and I find that most passenger experience professionals within the airlines, seatmakers and OEMs that I write about are receptive to (and often act on) perspectives from RGN and other industry media. Indeed, I am visiting airline heads of product within the next few months after some forthright and honest conversations following reviews.

      I think your point about competition with the LCCs, CN4 (plus perhaps HK2 and TW2) and ME3 is valid for some of Qantas’ operations, despite the red roo running one of the major LCCs, being firmly in bed with one of the CN4, and having its most significant partnership with the largest ME3 airline. But this PE product has only been announced for the 787 so far, which has only been announced for PER-LHR and MEL-LAX and, as the 747-400 replacement, is likely to remain on similar routes for a fair amount of its initial years of deployment. It is a class in which the ME3 and LCCs do not compete, and in the context of most of the CN4 not offering premium economy on most of their Australian routes. So I don’t think that’s relevant to this seat.

      Thanks again for your comments, though. It’s useful to take a step back and reflect on this most fascinating of aviation markets.

  2. Jon Fong

    Thanks for the insightful counterpoint and comparison against the baseline of competition in this market. Nicely done.

  3. Peter

    There is always a trade off in the product stakes of the economics of the product and passenger desirability.

    In my opinion the airline should always err on the side of economics. The customers generally are not as conversant with the product differences as you are as a professional aviation commentator. Provided the product is not substantially deficient they will not take the product very much into account in their buying decision. They are simply not in a position to compare to any great extent. A busy business traveller generally does not have the time or inclination to read up on the minor (or even substantial) points of difference

    Of greater relevance are major corporate deals (impacting corporate travel policies), frequent flyer benefits (what’s in it for me), schedule timing and frequency and corporate duty of care policies . And for less frequent travellers their overall perception of value for money.

    Anyway, it is all very interesting and we need to recognise that there are a mix of factors influencing travel buying decisions.

    But your analysis is very incite full and informative and I enjoy reading it as it enhances my understanding and knowledge.