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Africa: The Decline Of First Class Vs The Rise Of Premium Economy

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As first class air travellers declines around the world, we’re simultaneously seeing Premium Economy (PE), expanding to fill the gap. Investigation show how the two are related, and whether this is good news for travelers.

As two more airlines drop first class from their aircraft, it seems there is no stopping the juggernaut of change at the pointy end of the plane.

However, there’s something interesting going on, a bit further back too, as many airlines are adding more premium economy seats to the mix. What’s going on, and does it make any sense? And is the rise of PE and the loss of first class a good thing for passengers, or not?

First class is out
If any airline anywhere in the world was going to keep first class a bit longer, it would have been Asia. But now it seems even the Asian carriers are failing to see the benefit of an elite cabin.

Both Korean Air and Asiana have recently announced they are eliminating first class from a number of their routes from June.

Korean Air will scrap their first class cabin from 27 of their international routes. Asiana will stop offering first class on their A380s from September, instead planning to sell the same seats at a huge markdown as what they’re calling ‘business suites’.

Heard of business suites somewhere before? That’d be on Malaysia Airlines, which last year rebranded their first class offering as an uprated business class instead, perhaps in response to legislation preventing government officials from travelling in first class.

As we already know, many other airlines are falling out of love with first class. The main problem is that the business class product has become so good, there’s very little reason left for passengers to pay more. Consequently, airlines are continuing to make business class the best it can be, while simultaneously dropping first class from their planes.

Premium Economy is in

Premium economy is something quite different to the ‘economy plus’ option you might have come across. Economy plus usually sells the odd seats which just happen to have a bit more legroom, such as bulkhead or exit row seats, for a mark-up. Everything else remains the same. Same cabin, same food, same service.

Premium economy has its own cabin, separate from the hustle and bustle of economy. It has better seats, more legroom, and in some cases other perks such as priority boarding or a better inflight menu.

American Airlines added premium economy to its 100 aircraft last year, making it the airline with the most PE capacity in the US. Delta plans to add Premium Select to all widebody flights by 2021. And for the first time ever, Emirates passengers will have the option of premium economy from next year onwards.

The rise of premium economy is no big surprise. Airlines are making huge profits on these seats, selling them for as much as double the cost of a regular economy seat, and without giving up as much cabin space as a business class product does.

As first class falls off the front of the plane, those who would have flown first will fly business, and those who would have flown business have a choice of either flying the new and improved business product or saving some pennies and choosing premium economy. By the same token, those who would normally fly economy have a choice too, of spending a little bit more and going premium.

Because the jump between economy and premium economy is far less than that between economy and business.

Is it good for passengers?

That’s up for debate, and depends on your perspective, but for the majority of passengers we’d say yes. Premium economy offers a taste of the high life without needing to take out a second mortgage for your trip. Those who miss the exclusivity of first class will still be able to find it in some places. If not, well the new business class suites are, in many cases, better than first used to be.

Taking that idea a step further, isn’t the current premium economy class almost as good as old school business class used to be? So, if business is on a par with yesteryears first class, and PE is up there with previous iterations of business, has anything really changed at all?

Aside the name change, the biggest change is in price. Air fares are spiralling downwards, as tough competition forces airlines to price low in order to fill their planes. In fact, premium economy is the
same price on many routes as economy was a few years ago.

The end result? A better seat and service for the same price. That’s got to be a massive win for passengers, right?

By Morakinyo Tolu Akindele

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