Singapore Airlines gives a boost to premium economy

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Like the perks of a business-class seat but not the price tag? International carriers are increasingly rolling out new seats and service that seek to split the difference.

Singapore Airlines on Thursday (May 21) became the latest to announce a separate “Premium Economy” cabin for its flights.

The seats boast about six inches of extra legroom and are up to 1.5 inches wider than standard coach seats. Premium Economy customers are provided with noise-cancelling headphones for the flight, which they can use to enjoy the programming on a 13.3-inch high-definition screen.They also receive amenity kits, bonus miles and other perks typically reserved for first- and business-class passengers.

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“We aim to maintain our position as a leader in inflight service and amenities,” says Singapore Airlines spokesman James Bradbury-Boyd. “In designing the new Premium Economy, we listened to our customers’ feedback and their desire for enhanced comfort and personal space.”

Singapore Airlines’ new Premium Economy seats come at a time when the opulent suites rolled out by the Gulf carriers have captured much of the recent industry news on luxury air travel. But new premium economy cabins have been gaining traction among many of world’s top airlines.

Like others that have rolled out such sections, Singapore Airlines hopes the seats will appeal to fliers who may not have a budget for business class, but may be able to spend a little bit more for Premium Economy.

Singapore Airlines says it will begin “progressively” installing the cabin on the planes it flies on long-haul routes. All told, Singapore Airlines will offer Premium Economy in 19 Airbus A380s, 19 Boeing 777-300ERs and the first 20 Airbus A350s.

The airline’s first flight with Premium Economy will fly Aug. 9 between Singapore and Sydney. The cabin will debut in the U.S. in December on routes from Los Angeles and New York, followed by San Francisco. For the carrier’s U.S. markets, Bradbury-Boyd says Premium Economy seats will be priced as low as 40% to 50% over standard economy seats.

Singapore Airlines’ website show Premium Economy fares of about $2,005 for a mid-December round-trip from Los Angeles to Singapore, compared to the airline’s lowest coach fare of about $1,303 on the same route.

A jump of $700 or more in price is still substantial for most travelers. But Boyd says the airline hopes it will be attractive to those who may be priced out of business class but are otherwise willing to pay more for nice seats and better service. Singapore’s business and first-class fares for the same L.A.-Singapore routes were going for $5,347 and $13,233, respectively.

Expanding options for a ‘fourth class’

Singapore Air is the latest in a rapidly expanding list of international carriers to add an entirely new class of service – one that’s more than a simple coach seat with extra space.

U.S. carriers, of course, have their own versions. United has offered its Economy Plus seating since 1999. Delta rolled out its Economy Comfort seating – since rebranded as Comfort+ — in 2011 while American began adding its version – Main Cabin Extra – in 2012.

But there’s a significant difference between the enhanced economy offerings of the U.S. airlines compared to the international carriers. The U.S. carriers offer only a few extra inches of legroom. Some throw in free drinks and move fliers up in the boarding and check-in queue.

But, on international carriers, “it’s a completely different class of service,” says business-travel writer Joe Brancatelli, who authors the JoeSentMe.com travel website newsletter. He calls it the “the fourth class” of air travel – distinct from the traditional offerings of first-, business and standard economy.

Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways, Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific are among the growing cadre of global carriers that offer enhanced economy sections as a distinct class of service. Even more than extra space, the premium economy cabins on international carriers often feature custom-designed seats that are better – not just more spacious – than standard economy.

On Air France, for example, the premium economy seats are enclosed in their own shell, offering privacy and protecting personal space from the recline of other passengers.

The service is different, too. Customers buying premium economy seats on international carriers typically can check-in via the first- or business-class lines. Meals are typically served on China and feature menus more similar to what’s served in business class. Flight attendants patrol the premium economy more frequently with refills for wine and water glasses.

Staying power

That Singapore Airlines – widely regarded as one of the world’s most luxurious carriers – is rolling out the service hints that premium economy has hit critical mass.

“It’s absolutely here to stay,” Brancatelli says. “I think the two carriers that had to come in were Lufthansa and Singapore. They’re the two bellwether trans-oceanic carriers and they’ve each adopted it (since early 2014).”

Brancatelli says the premium economy products are aimed partially at business travelers who are prohibited from flying on expensive business class fares, but also at leisure travelers who are willing — and able — to spend more for a little extra space and comfort.

And, so far, it appears to be well-received among travelers flying to or from the United States.

Lufthansa debuted its own Premium Economy seats just last March, and the carrier’s executives have repeatedly said that sales are exceeding the company’s expectations on U.S. routes. Other airlines flying premium economy cabins to the United States have echoed those sentiments.

“I think they’ve actually been surprised at how well it’s gone,” Brancatelli says, noting that more customers seem to be “buying up” from coach class rather than people “moving back” from pricier business class seats.

“The airlines do seem to have gotten what they wanted out of these seats,” Brancatelli adds.

He says it’s been a good deal for fliers, too, saying “prices on premium economy fares have been fairly rational” on U.S. routes.

U.S. carriers slow to match

Despite the success of premium economy on international carriers, none of the USA’s three big global carriers – American, Delta and United – have indicated plans beyond the more-modest premium economy seats they already have.

Some industry observers believe they may eventually feel pressure to do so – especially as their premium economy seats appear increasingly inadequate when compared to the cabins offered by their own frequent-flier partners.

Of particular concern for the U.S. carriers is that their own passengers could increasingly choose to fly on partners instead when they’re in the market for premium economy seats, Brancatelli says.

“Once again, the U.S. carriers are behind,” he says. “So far, they’ve chosen not to compete for premium economy passengers.”

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