Icelandair Wisely Removes Premium Economy


Last week, Wandering Aramean noted that Icelandair had decided to remove its version of premium economy, Economy Comfort, off its fleet. This is entirely understandable and somewhat predictable, but don’t expect this to be the beginning of a trend. This is a one-off move that uniquely makes sense for Icelandair.

Icelandair’s backbone has been the 757 for years. It has a few different configurations, but in general, it looks like this:

In the back you have a pretty standard coach class though with a generous 32 inch seat pitch. Up front you have Saga Class which is pretty much just like a domestic first class. In the middle, you see Economy Comfort. Economy Comfort is a regular coach seat, though it has a few extra perks including:

  • Blocked middle seat with a tray table
  • 1 extra inch of seat pitch
  • Priority check-in
  • Lounge access
  • Free drinks and meals (coach pays for meals)

It’s a nice fairly nice product, but it’s also a problem for Icelandair in a few different ways.

The Squeeze
With most airlines, premium economy fills what has become an ever-increasing gap between coach and business class. Business class has flat beds while coach has… well, you know what coach has. But on Icelandair, Saga is nowhere near being a flat bed. It’s just like domestic first class which, frankly, is a lot like international premium economy on most airlines. Saga fares are consequently far lower than flat bed business would be able to command.

Meanwhile, last year, Icelandair announced an Economy Light coach fare which wouldn’t include a checked bag and would have a higher change fee. That pushed Economy Standard fares up and there are Economy Flex fares as well with, well, more flexibility. So the squeeze is on. Look at Boston to Keflavik, for example. Here are the lowest filed one-way fares (including taxes/fees) for travel in May (if you can find availability):

Class Fare
Economy Light $202.40
Economy Standard $246.40
Economy Flex $437.40
Economy Comfort $592.40
Saga $1132.40

It should be noted that it’s rare to have the lowest coach fare selling, especially during peak season. So what you find is that there isn’t all that much room for Economy Comfort in this fare structure. The spread between coach and business is worth maybe $2,000 each way at the least in a typical long-haul cabin, often higher. That gap just doesn’t exist with Icelandair.

The Airplane
There’s also a problem with putting premium economy on a narrowbody airplane. Think about it this way. On a 757, as well as on the 737 MAX, the future of the Icelandair fleet, you can put 6 across in coach but only 4 across in premium economy. That’s a loss of 33 percent. Meanwhile, on, say, a 777, you can do 10 across in coach and 8 across in premium economy, a loss of only 20 percent. So operating a narrowbody is already tough to do with premium economy just because of the width of the cabin.

But with Icelandair getting the new 737 MAX, that was an opportunity to rethink the onboard product anyway. Icelandair initially said it would take its 737 MAX 8s with 160 seats, but that seems fluid. I saw at least one blog post saying it was going to end up with 16 Saga seats, 12 Economy Comfort seats, and 128 Economy seats. That’s only 156 seats. Now, looking in Sabre, I can see Icelandair is selling 12 Saga seats, 4 Economy Comfort (the bulkhead), and 144 Economy seats. That’s 160. Presumably once Economy Comfort goes away, they’ll sell 162 seats (unblocking the middle).

Selling 162 seats on a 737 MAX 8 sounds decent, but then again, American is going to sell 172, so it’s still fairly lightly-loaded. That’s a big problem because…

Look across the Keflavik airport and you’ll see a purple army of Airbuses flying for WOW. WOW has A320neos which are slightly smaller than the MAX 8, yet they hold 180 people. WOW flies a lot of the same routes that Icelandair does, but with so many more seats on the airplane, WOW can drive down coach costs and help justify its low fares. The pressure is on.

Icelandair looked at the entire situation and realized it just needed to lower its unit costs and be able to sell more seats for cheap. Sure, there are people who want Saga seats, and that’s fine, but Economy Comfort was a tweener that wasn’t worth the real estate.

Like I said at the top, this is a unique situation for Icelandair. For most of the rest of the world, I assume we’ll continue to see premium economy become more and more prominent as time goes by.

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14 comments on “Icelandair Wisely Removes Premium Economy

  1. Wonder if IcelandAir will look to reduce the pitch eventually. 32″ pitch is pretty generous these days, and would cause me to lean towards IcelandAir if prices/schedules were similar, but I’m sure the allure of packing a few more seats into the planes must be tempting.

  2. Interesting move by IcelandAir, and thank you for a great analysis of it. I agree with Kilroy that the 32″ pitch seems like an easy target to increase density in their 757/737max fleet. It’s indeed a bit surprising that instead of cutting seat pitch in the back, they cut the “premium” section up front. Maybe this was also a case of the 2-2 “premium” economy undercutting sales of their 2-2 Saga up front. See:

    1. True but this doesn’t require any a/c reconfiguration like an overall seat pitch reduction would. This is a super easy change they can implement immediately and at no cost.

      1. So do the former PE seats retain the extra 1” pitch?

        Perhaps instead of a full PE product they could pitch it as an extra legroom section a la Economy Plus and just collect a seat selection fee. Although with just one inch difference that might be hard to sell.

        1. Oliver – Well this is a good question. I’m guessing that since they’re selling only the bulkhead as Economy Comfort right now, they probably standardized at 32″ pitch in all of coach except that bulkhead row. Maybe they’ll charge for those, or maybe they’ll just keep them for frequent fliers.

  3. Is it really a big problem though to have 18 fewer seats than WOW? WOW doesn’t have a Saga class equivalent to get those higher fares up front. In addition, between 180 and 162 seats, you’ll still need the same number of flight attendants. Wouldn’t it make sense to earn more revenue on 16 seats up front to justify having the extra staff member, than it would be to have four flight attendants otherwise?

    1. Thisworldtraveler – This isn’t about Saga. That’s a product that should work, and apparently it does (even though the new configuration seems lighter up there). This is really about Economy Comfort not being premium enough to command enough revenue to be justified. Icelandair needs more cheap seats to help lower seat costs and compete more with WOW. That’s more valuable than a half-baked premium economy section.

  4. Premium economy on a narrowbody: Are there any seats in existence for a 2-3 configuration on a 737/757 or 320 family aircraft? Not saying it makes sense for Icelandair, but it could work for someone else. I could even see domestic first class going this way; seats would have a similar width to first class on the DC-9 family.

    1. Ron – I think there’s an issue with the seating tracks for that. I know on the regionals they do 1-2 in First with 2-2 in coach, so it seems like it should work, but I seem to recall there being an issue with it on the 3-3 aircraft. Maybe someone else here knows better.

      1. Here I am, a month later, answering my own question: Yes, 2-3 seating exists on a 737. I just booked my first ever JAL domestic flight, and while I’m traveling in coach (can’t beat those 4500 Avios short hop fares), I noticed the seat map shows 2-3 in business.

  5. Look at it this way. In the example you could buy two economy seats with enough left over to pay for lounges, food, etc. Or you could buy 3 for half the price of Saga.

  6. i just came back from KEF, having flown WOW last year and Icelandair this year. It’s absolutely buzzing at the airport, although there’s still tons of growth capacity available before they’ll need any meaningful terminal expansions (both FI and WW are very heavily banked, and their banks are largely non-overlapping).

    if u haven’t gone to Iceland, you gotta check it off your bucket list. and if you’re into more exotic foods like puffin reindeer and whale, Reykjavik is quite a foodie heaven.

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