For many airlines, premium cabins are a key source of income. While they generally seat far fewer passengers than economy class, the higher prices that premium seating demands mean that the front of the aircraft is a big money-spinner. However, as the airline industry navigates through its post-pandemic recovery period, are these cabins set to downsize?
Slower recovery in business travel
The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered several facets of what we previously thought to be everyday life. As many of us will have experienced, the health crisis has seen remote work replace in-person, office-based roles. This shift has been made in an attempt to reduce unnecessary travel and, with it, the spread of coronavirus.
With the pandemic now beginning to subside, working in a physical workplace rather than at home is becoming the norm once again. However, for many people, the health crisis has been an eye-opener that has highlighted that the viability of remote work might be greater than previously believed. This also has implications for business travel’s recovery.
Advances in digital communications that have been made during the pandemic have allowed international meetings to take place live and online from the comfort of workers’ homes. COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that, while in-person meetings are important, it might not always be necessary to travel around the world for them
Subsequent reconfiguration projects
Over in Europe, a reconfiguration project at Virgin Atlantic has also seen it downsize certain premium cabins. The headline of this onboard reshuffle is the fact that it will replace the ‘Loft’ social space with ‘The Booth,’ a two-person area, on certain Airbus A350s.
However, a by-product of this new leisure space will be a reworking of the A350’s seat map. As Simple Flying reported at the time of Virgin Atlantic’s announcement, the newly configured aircraft will feature just 16 Upper Class suites. Behind them will be a far larger economy class section, which can accommodate up to 325 passengers.
In contrast, SeatGuru reports that Virgin’s standard A350s have a larger 44-suite Upper Class Cabin, and just 235 economy seats. Both configurations have the same 56-seat premium economy section. Small premium cabins are not new to Virgin Atlantic. Indeed, the 747s that flew its leisure routes had just 14 Upper Class suites in the plane’s nose.
Smaller aircraft = smaller cabins
Another aspect to consider in terms of the future of premium cabins is the movement away from larger aircraft. The advent of long-range narrowbodies like the Airbus A321LR has allowed carriers like Aer Lingus and JetBlue to redefine transatlantic operations.
With the future of long-haul narrowbodies looking bright, it seems probable that premium cabins will indeed become smaller on average. To use Aer Lingus as an example, its transatlantic A321LRs have a 16-seat lie-flat business class cabin. Meanwhile, its widebody A330s seat between 23 and 30 premium passengers.
As such, if more airlines follow suit and implement long-haul narrowbodies on intercontinental routes to allow greater point-to-point connectivity, smaller premium cabins, as are natural on smaller aircraft, seem a certainty, especially when combined with the factors discussed earlier. Of course, smaller premium cabins might also feel more exclusive, and thus may prove to enhance passenger experience in such business class sections.