Weighing up the worth of premium flying

As Aer Lingus rebrands with a more ‘high-end’ look, and other airlines rethink first, business and premium economy strategies, travel buyers are also weighing up the worth of flying premium class

Some airlines just embody “premium travel”, while some have broader appeal, which is why Aer Lingus recently spent months mulling over how to change its livery to suit its place in the market.

Its new colours and fonts represent Aer Lingus’s first image update since 1996, and its revamp is a reminder that the world has changed a great deal over the past 23 years, particularly for business travel. 

The Irish carrier is attempting to tread a fine line between convincing premium travellers the airline is corporate enough in its offering, while retaining a value message for the majority of its customers who fly in economy. 

It’s partly about the size of the lettering, according to Dara McMahon, the carrier’s director of marketing and digital experience: “Too much and it says low cost; too small and it says full service.” The airline’s previous jolly green livery “communicated it would get you to Ireland, but it would not get you to New York”, according to its research. Hence the change in livery towards something that suits both types of passenger.

Standing out
Back in 1996, during Aer Lingus’s last re-brand, there would have been no such dilemma – there were far fewer carriers pitching for high-end premium business. It was in 1995 that flat beds first appeared on British Airways, but just in first class. BA’s Club World, which brought flat beds and decent sleep to business class, only began to revolutionise the industry from 1999. Nowadays, this is the norm, leaving airlines puzzling over how to differentiate themselves to appeal to premium travellers.

Most low-cost, long-haul carriers are currently focusing on premium economy. In contrast, Aer Lingus claims its business class product is up there with the best on its transatlantic routes and “tends to be one-third of the price of a comparable business class product”, according to chief operating officer Mike Rutter.

The message of “value” in long-haul travel is being pushed by the likes of Norwegian for its premium economy cabin. While flat beds are now the norm on full-service airlines, the unnecessary frills (the amenity kit full of combs, facial moisturising sprays and shaving foam that went unused, for example) have gone or are the preserve of first class. Instead, value, based on a playing field that is becoming increasingly level, is key, as Aer Lingus knows.

So confident is it of its business offering in terms of price point, premium economy is not on the agenda: “The right combination is a reasonably sized business class and a strong economy product,” adds Rutter.

The search for value and the high quality of business class is behind the slow demise of first class, which has fallen from a 2 per cent share of global capacity in 2014 to just 1.2 per cent last year, according to OAG. 

The latest to dispense with it is Malaysia Airlines, which has rebranded First Class on Airbus A380s and A350s as the Business Suite. The package, offered on the London-Kuala Lumpur route, includes access to the first class lounge and all other perks, but at a reduced price. The carrier is aiming it at its frequent flyers and those barred from purchasing first class tickets.

“Our target is to enable the frequent flyer looking for enhanced comfort to now be able to enjoy a premium experience at competitive prices,” says the carrier’s chief executive Izham Ismail.

New arrivals
Another emerging trend that will affect travellers who frequent the US and Asia particularly is the ability of new generation aircraft to fly vast distances nonstop

The latest of these, the Boeing 777X, is currently being tested before Lufthansa becomes its launch customer in summer 2020. The new aircraft will feature the world’s largest engines and wingspan – 7m of which will be folded on landing.

The 777X can fly 10,000 miles – around 20 hours in the air – putting it firmly in the growing ultra long-range category.

How things have changed since 2013, when Singapore Airlines axed its nonstop flights from Changi to Newark and Los Angeles, operated with thirsty four-engine Airbus A340s. The carrier resumed its 18-hour Changi-New York flight last October and a month later, reinstated the LA flight, which is just under 18 hours.

Meanwhile, Qantas brought Australia within nonstop reach in March, although this distance, at just over 17 hours, now seems almost routine.

What has made the long trans-Pacific routes possible in Singapore Airlines’ case is the Airbus A350 ULR (Ultra Long Range), of which the carrier has a fleet of seven. The ULR has a range of just over 11,100 miles and with these aircraft, which carry only 67 business and 94 premium economy seats, Singapore Airlines is making a determined pitch for the trans-Pacific traveller – it will begin a service to Seattle on 3 September, its first new US route for 11 years.

Geographically, Seattle is the closest mainland US point to Singapore and, more importantly, a hub for Singapore Airlines’ partner Alaska Airlines, giving it connections to many parts of the US interior, particularly since the latter carrier’s takeover of Virgin America.

Singapore Airlines will not have it all its own way in Asia – others are using the A350 and the Boeing 787, to launch new services. Since October, Philippine Airlines has used the A350 to fly nonstop from Manila to JFK in around 16 hours. United Airlines now flies Houston-Sydney in just over 17 hours in a 787. It has already beaten Singapore Airlines by offering Los Angeles-Singapore, having launched that route in 2017.

Lie-flat beds are a crucial part of an ultra long-haul flight, but the new aircraft, including the 777X, also offer higher humidity and lower cabin pressurisation due to their carbon composite construction. 

Another trend is the pre-bookable meal with healthier menus. Singapore Airlines’ premium customers can now pre-order meals from “up to” 68 choices 24 hours before departure. Pre-booking prevents airlines wasting food and carrying excess weight. Air France, for example, introduced pre-bookable menus for premium economy in January, for travel from 1 April. Choices ranging from €12 to €28 include a healthy option, although the full range is only offered on flights originating in Paris.

As airlines introduce new classes or remove categories, there’s certainly food for thought for buyers as they weigh up the true meaning and value of the premium flying experience for their travellers.  

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