In the last decade, it’s been incredibly rare to hear about American being first, but this is a different American these days. Yesterday, the airline announced it would add a true premium economy section to its international fleet. This isn’t innovative on a global scale, but within the US, American is the first. What American is rolling out now might have been called a great business class years ago, but times have changed. Business class has gone so upmarket that it left room for a new cabin to come in and fill the gap. That’s what we have here, and I bet we see others follow what has already become standard elsewhere in the world.
Before we get into the strategy, let’s look at the seat, shall we?
Looks pretty nice to me, though this is a bit misleading. That nice leg rest is only in the first row. Rows behind have foot rests that drop down from the seat in front. Unlike extra legroom seating (American’s Main Cabin Extra, United’s Economy Plus, and Delta’s Comfort+) which is just coach with some more space at your feet and a couple of frills, premium economy is a whole different class of service. As you can see here, the seats are very different from regular economy. They’re wider, have leg rests, and have substantial armrests with storage and power in them. Meals are upgraded, you get priority boarding, etc.
For those who are used to flying European and Asian airlines, this won’t look like anything revolutionary. Premium economy took hold years ago with some carriers, and others (like, most recently, Singapore) have been racing to add the cabin. But in North America, Air Canada has been the only airline to really put forth a true premium economy offering. The airline has been really happy with it, so it was always surprising to see American carriers shun the product.
The Evolution of Airline Cabins
If you think about the evolution of classes of service, then this move makes a great deal of sense. Many years ago, the difference between first class and coach was more about service than anything else. Yes there was more personal space as well, but for the most part it wasn’t how we think of first class today. As coach continued to get squeezed, first class got better and better. It got to a point where airlines realized there was an opportunity for something to wedge in between, and that’s when business class cabins were born. Just take a look at the Continuum of AwesomenessTM for a visual representation.
Over the the last decade, first class has gone more upscale to the point where most airlines that have widespread first class products have created suites with physical walls. At the same time, business class has been a race to see who could install the best flat bed with direct aisle access. Business class has become so good that first class has become obsolete for many airlines. On the lower end, however, coach is still coach and the product has been stripped down further over the years.
Fifteen years ago, United stumbled onto the idea of Economy Plus. But it wasn’t for about 5 years that United realized people would be willing to pay more to sit in those extra legroom seats. This served as a good enhancement to coach, but the gap between coach and business continued to widen. American is simply following in the footsteps of international airlines in seeing the need for a true premium economy to fill the gap. What was once economy, business, and first is now economy, premium economy, and business.
As international carriers have learned, providing something closer to economy than business in price will allow economy travelers to upgrade without breaking the bank. It will also prevent most business class passengers from downgrading because the product difference is still enormous. (Couldn’t have said that with American’s old torturous angled flat beds.)
The Roll-out Schedule
American will start rolling this out next year when it takes delivery of its 787-9s, but it’s going to take a long three years before the roll-out is done. While regular coach is 3-3-3 across on that airplane, premium economy will be 2-3-2. This will also roll out to the 787-8s, A330s, A350s, and 777s. In other words, it’s the entire long haul fleet except for the 757s and 767s. With the roll-out taking so long, those 767s may be gone by then. Main Cabin Extra will stay on all these aircraft as well. That means the 777-300ER will have 5 different product offerings: First, Business, Premium Economy, Main Cabin Extra, and Main Cabin. That’s a lot to choose from.
Are you wondering why this isn’t going on the domestic fleet? It’s because it’s already there. These types of seats look a whole lot like domestic first class with a leg rest. This resemblance isn’t lost on many. When Delta rebranded its cabins, the rumor was that it would roll out a true premium economy and then change domestic first class to be premium economy as well. That hasn’t happened, but it would certainly make sense if it did. Product consistency is key, and nomenclature matters for setting expectations.
Many have assumed Delta had designs on adding a true premium economy product at some point, and I wonder if this might just accelerate those plans. Then if Delta does it, United is bound to follow.
I personally think it can’t come soon enough. A successful, modern, global airline should be all about providing a variety of choices to cater to different passenger needs. There has been a very big gap in the US carriers’ product offerings for some time, and it only continues to widen. This helps to fill it.