Thirty years ago airlines offered a mostly flat comfortable seat at the front of the plane with upgraded dining. They called it first class. They also offered a middle cabin featuring recliners and 38 to 40 inches between seats, along with upgraded privileges like priority boarding. They called it business class.
Today airlines offer mostly flat seating up front with upgraded dining. They call it business class. They offer a middle cabin featuring recliners and 38 to 40 inches between seats, along with upgraded privileges like priority boarding. They call it premium economy.
American Airlines Premium Economy
Joe Brancatelli in his (subscription) column this week points to Continental’s 1992 move to eliminate first class and improve business class as the beginning of a cycle that brought us right back to where we started.
Continental’s business class product lagged, and their business class sales lagged. They weren’t making money on first class either. So they introduced better (although not yet flat) seats to business class, gave more room (about an extra 15 inches between rows), and upgraded dining. They called it BusinessFirst. It didn’t offer the true flourishes of a quality first class product, but it was priced the way competitor business class offerings were.
They saw an opportunity to win market share by offering a better product than competitors who gave customers something very similar to what premium economy looks like today as business class. They upgraded their cabins over a six month (!) time period, and didn’t market the new product until they actually had it to offer to customers.
It was 2000 before we began to see flat beds in business class – British Airways was first, offering a product that isn’t materially different today. They will soon begin flying a new seat, the American Airlines seat with a door tacked on, but will roll it out very slowly.
British Airways Business Class
First class — at least on airlines still offering the product and not named American Airlines or British Airways — has gotten better. Whether it’s the Etihad Apartment, new Singapore Airlines A380 Suite, or showers on board the Etihad and Emirates A380 there are true trophy products flying the skies. Although the airlines offering first class, the routes on which they offer it, and the number of seats has been cut back drastically.
For most airlines the front of the plane is the flat seat and better service just like it was 30 years ago, and the middle cabin an improved product over coach, just like it was 30 years ago. It’s only the names given to those products that’s really changed.