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Article from BTNews 28 SEPTEMBER 2009

COMMENT: Air France breakthrough and British Airways gamble?

Air France (AF) last week in Paris previewed what might be the biggest breakthrough in airline passenger comfort and marketing since Virgin Atlantic introduced Upper Class back in 1986.

“Premium Voyageur” is an Economy Plus product featuring a shell seat.  In practical terms this means that the occupant in no way impinges on those in front or behind.  Overnight “Premium Voyageur” makes virtually all other premium economy products obsolescent.  The seat pitch is 38” and the width 19”.  The detail is clever too with well thought out storage space for bottles or water, a decent size table and noise reduction headphones. (see below)

It all adds up to something those in economy can aspire to, and passengers whose budgets in these difficult times will not stretch to Business Class can enjoy.

There can be no doubt that introducing a breakthrough new product at this time is something of a gamble.  With the notable exception of beleaguered Japan Airlines no other carrier has as yet introduced such an advanced Economy Plus product.  Virtually all are just more spacious lean-back economy seats with various extras added.  Is the JAL experience a bad omen?

It will take AF 15 months to complete the 76 aircraft fleet upgrade, quite quick by airline standards.  A week is needed in the hangar for each aircraft but this will in most cases be accommodated during a planned service visit.

The new class replaces 40 economy seats on the Airbus A330/340 and Boeing 777 fleets with between 21 and 28 of the new B/E Aerospace units.  The Boeing 747 is being phased out and with the Airbus A380 the first four aircraft will be retrofitted at a later date.

When the project was conceived in 2007 we were still in boom times and the plan was to convince Economy Class passengers that the 40/50% extra on the fare was attractive.  It was to be a real revenue generator for the airline.  Fate has proved otherwise and now the thinking is that it can attract the corporate flyers and SMEs who are being forced into the back of the aircraft. 

Compare the AF gamble, across the whole fleet, and the British Airways venture with its London City – New York two aircraft operation, which Willie Walsh himself will see off on Tuesday 29 September, hammering his flag to the LCY masthead. 

The BA venture competes with its own New York services out of Heathrow T5 and can be expected to dilute the Club World load factor at a time when all carriers are struggling for revenue.  No airline has yet made a 32-passenger jet profitable.  BA is relying on the Canary Wharf traffic and its contracts with the banks to ensure that the planes are filled.  There should be no problems out of Kennedy where if you miss the aircraft there are plenty of alternative flights.  At London City if you fail to arrive within 15 minutes of take-off it is either a rush over to Heathrow or you could try a Continental gateway.  Open Skies, a similar BA operation but with larger aircraft out of Orly to New York, is reputed to be losing money.

We wish both airlines success with their gambles.  One is for 1,800 seats and is very likely to be copied.  The other is just two aircraft that could be moved elsewhere if it all goes wrong.  It is unlikely to be imitated.

We will follow each with interest.

Malcolm Ginsberg
Editor in Chief

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