The changing premium market and what it means for business travel

11 May, 2018

The premium market has shifted considerably due to changing passenger demographics and the increasingly competitive nature of the airline industry. For passengers and airlines alike there has been a growing perception of less value in the first class cabin, and many airlines are choosing to do away with first class seating altogether.

In comparison, business class is clearly on the rise in terms of both quantity and quality, with many airlines expanding business class cabins and most airlines now offering flat-bed seating.

Premium Economy seating has also become an increasingly popular fare option among airlines as a way to pull passengers from lower-yielding economy seats.

The demise of first class

Airlines are increasingly reducing the size of their first class cabins and it is likely that this trend will continue. Even Singapore Airlines and Emirates, carriers that are widely known for standing at the forefront of the premium market, are downsizing their first class seating. Singapore Airlines has shrunk its first class seating to one row on its 777-300ERs and reduced the number of suites offered on its A380s. Emirates likewise plans to offer only six suites on nine aircraft by the end of 2019.

Other airlines are axing the fare class altogether. Qantas' 787-9s for example, while premium-heavy in terms of business and premium economy capacity, include no first class option. United Airlines is also scrapping long haul first class, and Lufthansa will not incorporate it on its new 777X fleet.

The rise of business and premium economy

Airlines have been forced to evolve their business class products to remain competitive and adapt to increasing passenger demands. Today's business class passenger typically flies in a lie-flat seat with direct aisle access - perks that were once almost exclusively offered to first class passengers. Business class passengers also enjoy a similar level of seating comfort, food and IFE systems as was customary in first class cabins in the past.

Even LCCs are starting to offer attractive business class seating. Eurowings recently launched 'BIZclass' seating, which claims to offer "maximum comfort at an attractive price". On long haul routes Eurowings 'BIZclass' passengers enjoy "lying in comfort on a two-metre-long bed" and a "vintage in-flight menu". The potential entrance of more LCCs into the market may require full service carriers to innovate their business class offerings even further to remain competitive.

Premium Economy has also become increasingly popular among airlines as a way to pull passengers up from economy class. In recent years numerous airlines have started to experiment with the product and many are witnessing positive results.

Air Canada, for example, has reported that there were "very strong results" in all major markets in 4Q2017 in its premium economy cabin. Qantas recognises similar value in the product and plans to increase the size of its premium economy cabin across its A380 fleet. Other airlines are jumping on the bandwagon, including Emirates. The carrier recently confirmed plans to roll out its version of the product within the next 18 months.

Can first class still provide value for airlines?

While first class is unlikely to generate significant revenue for an airline, it can be capitalised on as an effective marketing tool. Passengers associate airlines that offer superior first class products with a sense of luxury and a high level of service. Airlines can essentially use their first class product to make passengers think they are flying in a superior aircraft operated by a superior airline, regardless of which class they are flying.

Etihad, for example, is now associated with 'The Residence', and Emirates is associated with its luxury private suites. These products elevate the perception of the brand, resonating strongly with passengers and their aspirations.

The future of premium travel

It is likely that the quality of business and premium economy class will keep rising as airlines continue to compete for premium traffic, making first class a less viable option for most passengers. While first class does include a number of attractive additional amenities, it is becoming harder for passengers to justify paying the additional cost.

Although the first class cabin is shrinking across the industry, it can be said that the quality of the seating that remains is increasing. Gulf carriers in particular see the value that first class brings to the brand image, and have introduced extravagantly superior products as a result.