I’m actually reasonably excited about yesterday’s American Airlines announcement that they’ll be adding a premium economy product to their international widebody fleet (other than their Boeing 767s which are slated for retirement).
It’s not a world-leading premium economy product. It’s a domestic first class seat with either a legrest (bulkhead) or foot bar underneath the seat in front (non-bulkhead).
But it’s a product that isn’t currently being offered by a US airline. It meets a need for more space and comfort than is offered in economy that can be had at a lower price than business class. It’s the kind of product that many, business and leisure travelers alike, would want to buy up to.
And my understanding in general is that the addition of these seats isn’t going to cause the airline to reduce the number of business class seats on their planes, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the handful of reconfigured Boeing 777-200s that were going to be reconfigured again with fewer business seats but that had put on hold ultimately do get the reduction as part of the Premium Economy reconfiguration.
From a product standpoint I applaud American for this.
The only meaningful downside, it seems to me, is the potentially bad news surrounding the unanswered question of how upgrades will work — whether the introduction of premium economy means that upgrading from economy will mean a premium economy seat, rather than a business class seat. The sections will be small (so upgrades to premium economy could be tough) and it may no longer be possible to jump from economy to business class.
It’s too early to jump to that conclusion. There are a tremendous number of variations on how they could handle upgrades.
- Upgrades could in fact be from economy to premium economy, and premium economy to business class, which would in effect be adding a new and non-refundable co-pay onto upgrades by requiring customers to spend more to play the upgrade lottery in the form of a premium economy seat.
- It could be that upgrade priority just gets sorted by fare class so that premium economy customers have priority over economy customers on the upgrade list. I love that for the most part fare class isn’t part of upgrade priority at American — that they reward loyalty with upgrades rather than a single transaction the way that Delta and United do. But changing that could allow them to keep economy to business upgrades, while moving those customers down the upgrade priority list. (Although this might not affect confirmed upgrades, so if confirmable space is available it would still be possible to buy coach and go straight into business.)
- It could be that systemwide upgrades will still work to upgrade economy to business class as they do now.
- Perhaps mileage upgrades from coach to premium economy will become cheaper than today’s upgrades to business, and upgrades from regular coach to business will become more expensive.
- Customers could be allowed to double upgrade (spend 2 systemwides to go from coach to business, or spend double the miles).
These are just a few of the permutations, and there are several more. So it’s too early to get worked up over it.
That said, the communication here should have been handled differently.
- They have a new premium product, they should be touting all of the premium elements of the experience. So they should be saying more about the meals — that do look just like domestic first class meals, but which may offer more selections to choose from — as well as the amenity kits.
- They should have been prepared to answer the question about upgrades. Their message is that it’s premature to talk about since the product isn’t even for sale yet. But their 100,000 qualifying members are the ones most concerned here. And not answering the questions about how upgrades will work turns the Premium Economy announcement from an unabashed positive into one of great consternation for the airline’s most engaged members (remember that 13% of American’s customers provide half its revenue, and the percentages are much more skewed for 100,000 mile flyers).
The reason so many American AAdvantage members and Executive Platinums in particular assume the worst, that they will no longer be able to upgrade to business class once premium economy fully rolls out, is that if American had good news, they would tell us. So it must not be good news. The assumption is we aren’t being told how it will work because they didn’t want bad news to distract from their messaging. Although the absence of information is doing just that anyway.
Which is a shame, because a US airline introducing premium economy really does mean more choice and a better product in reach of more flyers. And that’s the message that should be getting out.
If upgrade policies do eventually change, we should save our ire for that — because there’s no fundamental reason that the introduction of premium economy has to mean the end of economy to business class upgrades. That would be a separate, consumer-unfriendly move that an airline might choose to make — entirely apart from making a new premium economy product available to customers.