Aircraft Cabin Innovation Summit: The Rise of Premium Economy Class

by Satu Dahl
Photo By Ahmed Syed On Unsplash

When planning the aircraft cabin, seating is naturally one of the key features to consider. Airlines spend a lot of time and money to ensure they provide the best possible experience for their passengers while also maximising profit. So how is the aircraft seating market evolving currently and what trends can we expect in the future?

The second day of RedCabin’s Aircraft Cabin Innovation Summit 2021, Wednesday 9 June, featured ZIM Aircraft Seating CEO Heiko Fricke who shared his insight into the current aircraft seating market. Due to the challenging business environment, ZIM Aircraft Seating went through restructuring recently and also restructured its leadership team in the process.

According to Fricke, the company is now in a good position and orders have started to come through again. The company, which also changed its name, (previously  ZIM Flugsitz) counts several large airlines such as Japan Airlines, Swiss, ANA, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines as its clients.

Changes in the air

Fricke believes the market is going to change, especially when it comes to business travel. Issues caused by COVID-19 such as hygiene constraints and risk avoidance aren’t going anywhere soon and this will result in slow business travel recovery. In addition, remote work and video conferencing are now proven alternative solutions to face-to-face meetings and also save companies cash. “Face-to-face meetings are important without a doubt, especially for making those initial connections to establish work relations, but for the day-to-day work we have learned that remote work is functional.”

For business travel, there is a desire for enhanced privacy and social distancing, he says, and ‘fully flat’ seat comfort is probably not going to be driving the aircraft seat business.

Regarding leisure travel, Fricke says people are now eager to go on holiday and are accepting the existing health risks to do that. Passengers are more willing to pay the premium for comfort and opt for a bit more than a standard economy seat. Like business travel, there is a wish for privacy and distancing for leisure travel too so this is expected to remain a factor when airlines are making purchasing decisions on seating.

Future configurations

Regarding aircraft configuration, Fricke says low business travel demand forces operators to use more economy class seating and focus on differentiating between economy seating sub-categories to improve customer experience. “There will be more demand for Premium Economy,” he predicts. However, the price premium for Premium Economy (PECO) must compensate for the loss of passenger numbers due to having less space for seats in the aircraft.

“After this psychologically tough year, we are not ready to squeeze next to people in economy class, so the extra space will be welcome”, Fricke says, noting that “we believe people are willing to trade down from business class to this kind of seating as they will still have a reasonable degree of comfort and freedom.” “Also, Frequent Flyers will have fewer miles to burn after a year of not travelling and as a result, will upgrade to PECO instead of business.”

ZIM says it has managed to remain the innovation leader in premium seating products even throughout the COVID-19 crisis and restructuring.

ZIM says it has managed to remain the innovation leader in premium seating products even throughout the COVID-19 crisis and  company restructuring.

Regarding features in demand for Premium Economy class, ZIM Aircraft Seating believes there will be more priority services such as free seat reservations, priority boarding and increased luggage allowance, in addition to five to ten inches of additional legroom and a more generous recline with a leg rest. “Enhanced entertainment experience, with ‘bring your own device’ is the way the industry is going”, Fricke sums up. “Premium Economy class can be the most profitable part of the plane per square foot.”

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