Air Canada introduces premium economy: Is the trend finally catching on?

air caqnada

Photo courtesy Air Canada

IS the premium economy trend slowly catching on? Air Canada becomes the latest airline to announce its introduction as “a new class of travel”, starting with the Montreal-Paris non-stop in July 2013. New, perhaps for the Canadian carrier, but not quite globally.

EVA Air of Taiwan was one of the first carriers to introduce the premium economy, when it launched its operations in 1991. There was a limited number of seats, that boasted more legroom. Since then, a number of airlines have dabbled with the idea and more of them started to introduce an expanded “middle” class particularly when it became clear that the global financial ciriss has taken a toll on business (and first) class travel.

The concept has taken on an international dimension, with many major airlines pushing the trend. They include British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Qantas and Air New Zealand.

There are noticable exceptions. Singapore Airlines introduced the class on non-stop flights between Singapore and Los Angeles but did away with it when it upgraded the flights to an all-business class configuration. Since then the airline has insisted that it has no plans to revisit the concept anywhere in its network. Some analysts think it may be a mistake for SIA to not go with the flow as it banks upon recovery of the business class traffic.

Noticeably too, one may wonder why there is no premium economy on Emirates Airlines which may have prided itself as providing an economy class that is as good as any other airline’s premium economy. In the same way, one may ask: Do you fly legacy economy or budget business class?

Indeed, what makes the premium economy any better than the normal economy? The early model was not that much visibly different, and that probably explained why it was slow in catching on.

Air Canada offers:

  • priority check-in with personalized service. It is not clear what “personalized service” entails, but priority check-in can assuage the nerves if the line for the normal economy means an inordinately long wait.
  • priority boarding. It means getting to your seat before others and assessing the overhead compartment for your hand luggage before space runs out.
  • priority baggage handling, which entails up to two free pieces of checked baggage and amonmg-the-first placement on the arrival belt. While Air Canada restricts free carriage to only one piece for economy, many other airlines such as Cathay, SIA and Emirates still allow up to two pieces (or equivalent). First on the arrival belt? There is no guranatee; much depends on what happens at the airport where you arrive. Reputable Asian airports such as Hong Kong and even Beijing are known for speedy delivery of arriving baggage even for economy, whereas many airports in the west have questionable standards even for priority-tagged baggage.
  • wider cabin seat with more recline and legroom. This has been the main selling point for premium economy, offering more comfort for the long-haul. Increasingly, airlines are competing on the comfort factor even for economy.
  • a larger screen for in-flight entertainment. This is a good-to-have but not critical feature, especially when you may prefer to squeeze in some hours of sleep and good only if the airline offers a wide range of programs.
  • power outlet at the seat for electronic gadgets. Many travellers are already powering their gadgets with portable battery.
  • premium meal service served on china dishware with complimentary wine and spirits. Does it really matter the kind of dishware? If you do not know, you get complimentary wine with meals in economy on Air Canada, perhaps not the premium brand.
  • hot towel service. No big deal. SIA hands out hot towels in economy as well.
  • a larger pillow. Some people do not need pillows. You can get two in economy if you are resourceful enough.
  • a handy amenity kit. Some airlines such as Qantas and Cathay boast brand-name amenity kits for their premium economy passengers. You will find even business class passengers leaving behind the kits on disembarkation.
  • earn higher mileage. This may be the best deal, depending on how generous is the specific airline’s frequent flyer program.

For the premium economy to sell, downgraders from business and upgraders from economy must be adequately tempted with visible advantages to make the trade-off vis-à-vis the cost, whether it is saving on the otherwise higher fare or paying the difference additionally. As the name suggests, premium economy is more an economy than a business class product. Thisa could be the reason why airlines such as SIA and Emirates probably prefer to market a superior economy and at the same time not be detracted from the truly premium product of the upper classes.

 But it may all be a case of nomenclature. The early days of the business class was really an upgrade of the economy status. Swissair (the predecessor of Swiss International) swore it would not bow to the fad, believing there was no room for a three-class configuration. But it did in the end. In the same way, today’s premium economy looks set to take on an exclusivity of its own, though it is unlikely to evovle to the same degree as the business class which, for some airlines, has in fact replaced the first class product. Quite on the contrary, carriers that susbcribe to the concept may be compelled to do even more for their business class to maintain an enviable difference.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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