PaxEx 2018: An increasingly complex balancing act for premium classes


In the pointy end of the plane, 2018 is set to be a pivotal year as business class continues to supplant first up front. Can the industry pull out of the disappointing 2017 trend of production problems with premium seats: certification, quality control, volume, or all three in a variety of combinations? Your author struggles to remember a time with so many seat quality issues on so many airlines, including in new flagship products, and across multiple seat manufacturers.

Airlines are increasingly demanding highly customised branded flagship products, and this customisation is in tension with both the certification and production problems. Expect more seatmakers to move towards the zones of customisation and flexibility model to try to mitigate the issues.

Not only are the better business class seats continuing to approach the features of first class, they are also becoming increasingly branded. Qatar seems to have made a smarter choice to create Qsuite as a sub-brand that is specific to one particular seat, however, avoiding United’s over-promising and under-delivering Fauxlaris problem.

Polaris demonstrates the variety of premium-feel surfaces now used in cabin design. Image: United

Those branded flagship products are continuing to roll out, and they will increasingly be business class rather than first. Qatar Airways’ superbusiness — the Qsuite from Rockwell Collins — materialised this year, and has garnered many plaudits, as has the Delta ONE Thompson Vantage XL+, with the compact Zodiac Optima-based United Polaris also popular (when it is available).

As airlines invest in new seats, including compact staggered products like Zodiac’s Optima, can they monetise them in new ways? Image: John Walton

Particularly with larger airlines, seating product inconsistency will remain a challenge. Direct aisle access is now the norm in longhaul business class and even some shorthaul premium products, although there remains a shrinking pack of airlines that continues to install seats without direct aisle access.

This pack is split into two: carriers like LATAM and Ethiopian Airlines which seem to have consciously decided that their market can’t or won’t support the added marginal cost, and carriers like KLM and Emirates which are installing direct aisle access on their flagship fleets but older products that still require the midnight clamber over an aisle passenger on other aircraft.

Harkening back to the branded cabin trend, though, some airlines are keeping a common design language as they install less spacious seats for non-flagship routes, with some like KLM still installing decade-old seats like the Rockwell Collins (former B/E Aerospace) Diamond, which will replace the even older product on the A330, as other aircraft see direct aisle access outward-facing herringbones.

KLM is installing a decade-old base seat as its latest business class cabin. Image: KLM

It seems like airlines are still missing an opportunity with a lack of PaxEx-based fare differentiation, though the industry has been talking enough about the opportunity that 2018 feels like a year where it may well happen.

Most airlines offer a variety of business class products on trunk routes, whether that’s different seats entirely, different sizes of seat, or the same seat on different aircraft. But very few of them are making fares more expensive on products that are more roomy and therefore more expensive to operate. Delta’s $500 door surcharge for its new suites is one of only a very few notably visible examples.

It would be interesting to see airlines (and even airline groups) begin to experiment with this kind of differentiation, especially given the increasing connection options using metal neutrality within joint ventures and larger airline groups — but equally interesting to see whether the passenger reaction were positive.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see more airlines following Swiss’ lead and charging for the better seats within a cabin, though, nor if more carriers started to charge for advance seat reservations as British Airways has long done, arguing that it ensures favoured seats in its zero-sum cabins are available for late-booking (and high fare paying) higher-tier passengers.

Fixing the zero-sum problem is a big part of the attraction for the Delta One suites. Image: Delta

Yet 2018 seems set to redefine what business class means too. With Delta already testing out sales of international narrowbody recliners as premium economy, increasingly dense new seats tempting airlines to offer a better business class, and low-cost carriers going fully flat with older current-generation seats, passengers have more options than ever to travel with extra comfort and the chance of a good night’s sleep.

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