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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cathay Pacific brings premium economy to its New Zealand service

Following on from the Air NZ/Cathay Pacific partnership on the Auckland-Hong Kong route (and Air New Zealand now selling through tickets connecting with Cathay Pacific flights into China and London through Hong Kong), Cathay Pacific has announced it is upgrading its Airbus A340-300 fleet which serves Auckland, Amsterdam and Paris.  The upgraded aircraft will start operation in October 2013.

That upgrade includes:
- Addition of a premium economy cabin in a 2-3-2 configuration using its premium economy seats that are a version of its regional business class;
- "Refresh" of business class, essentially tidying up the existing cabin with new colours.

What it does not include is a replacement of the controversial fixed-shell economy class seats.

What does it mean?

1.  You will be able to buy premium economy seats from London to Auckland on Cathay Pacific, which given the prices often advertised for the services to Australia, is likely to be very competitive with Air New Zealand's premium economy fares via LA.

2.  Air New Zealand will be able to sell codeshare tickets in premium economy all the way.

3.  Premium economy travellers from New Zealand to Asia and Europe now have another choice, and can credit any OneWorld frequent flyer programme (e.g. Qantas Frequent Flyer, BA Executive Club and obviously Cathay Pacific AsiaMiles) with such a flight.

For the route between Auckland and Hong Kong it presents an intriguing choice for travellers.

Business Class

Air New Zealand's Business Premier product on its Boeing 777-200s offers a wider, longer seat than Cathay's similar configuration Business Class (although Cathay's in flight service is very competitive).   Cathay's "refresh" wont make much difference, given Air NZ will be "refreshing" its Boeing 777-200s starting in 2014,  I'd say Air New Zealand will maintain its hard product edge here.  Bigger, more comfortable flat beds, with improved catering should mean it is superior to its partner.  However, Cathay can easily match Air NZ in soft product.

Air NZ ahead in Business

Premium Economy

Cathay will be ahead here after its upgrade.  Its 2-3-2 configuration on A340s beats Air NZ's 3-3-3 on the 777s.  Cathay's premium economy seats are wider and purpose built for premium economy, with only slightly less seat pitch than Air NZ.  Air NZ's seats are identical to the economy seats besides the seat pitch and extra recline.   So on hard product Cathay appears ahead for now, but Air NZ on soft product is likely to be ahead, as it offers catering just short of Business Premier.  Cathay's catering in this class is a cut above economy, but isn't close to Business Class.  The real change will come when Air NZ installs SpaceSeats in Premium Economy in 2014.  That will mean Air NZ's hard product will arguably beat Cathay's, as a 2-2-2 configuration in a 777 is far more roomy (and avoids the dreaded middle seat) than 2-3-2 in a narrower A340.

Cathay ahead in Premium Economy until Air NZ introduces Spaceseat


No changes here for Cathay or Air NZ for now, so I would prefer Air NZ's 9 abreast 777 to Cathay's 8 abreast A340, because Air NZ has an inch more seat pitch and Cathay's shell seat appears to be unpopular.   However, when Air NZ converts its 777s to 10 abreast including the Skycouch, it may be more moot.  Both airlines have similar soft products, so your choice will be a seat that doesn't recline comfortably to a narrow one (although if Air NZ increases pitch to 33" that helps a little).

Air NZ ahead in Economy until Air NZ adds another seat to a row, narrowing it, making it too close to call.

Monday, September 24, 2012

British Airways hanging onto Sydney, but who should it partner with?

Following the announcement by Qantas and Emirates of their ground-breaking new alliance, and the breaking of the Joint Service Agreement (JSA) between Qantas and British Airways for services between the UK and Australia, the question begged as to what would happen to British Airways' one remaining daily service to Sydney?

Two leg long haul routes

These sorts of routes are rare, if only because there are few routes that need two long haul hops to be accessible and are operated by "end of the line" airlines anymore.  For Australasia, only Qantas, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand operate such services.  Elsewhere, the nearest equivalents are the likes of Singapore Airlines services from JFK to Frankfurt to Singapore, where the point is to service a high profile high yielding destination, or the various services from south east Asia to the United States via Japan, because the alternatives are few and markets are sizeable and growing.

However, for Australasia the reasons for such services are partly historic and partly driven by tourism promotion for Australia and New Zealand.  No continental European airline flies to Australia (or NZ) because they can more economically service the market by feeding into partner hubs in Asia (or North America).  Qantas and Air NZ service London because the UK is a major source of tourism traffic to their home countries, and as such both airlines are key sources of marketing for their home countries as a destination in their own rights.  The cost of doing this is to maintain crew and require additional aircraft to serve the second hops, and to face trying to backfill the London to midpoint hops with traffic that would otherwise have little interest in Australia or NZ.  Qantas did this through three hubs until this year when it dropped Bangkok and Hong Kong in favour of Singapore, now its dropping Singapore in favour of Dubai, purely because Emirates can offer a stronger feed into Europe than was ever possible flying to London and Frankfurt.  

Quite simply, Qantas couldn't attract high yielding business traffic between London and Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore, as the UK based traffic would largely be loyal to BA and the Asian origin traffic to Thai, Cathay and Singapore Airlines.  So why does Qantas retain services to London at all?  Because there is sufficient Australia-UK business traffic and reasonable yielding tourism traffic for it to be important, and because Qantas sees itself as key in growing the UK origin tourism market to Australia.

Air NZ has the same reason for retaining an almost 2x daily service, with daily service via LAX and 4-7x weekly service (depending on season) via Hong Kong.  However, the LAX service does have significant point to point traffic between Heathrow and LA, in part because the route was heavily protected until recently under the Bermuda Agreement that limited competition between Heathrow and the US.  Air NZ has long attracted high yielding (compared to other routes) traffic on that sector, bolstered by its Star Alliance membership meaning United frequent flyers see it as a high quality option that still earns miles.  This makes the AKL-LAX-LHR route worth running.  The Hong Kong-LHR sector does not have much high yielding point to point traffic for the same reason Qantas didn't, but for Air NZ it is about competing with the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Cathay and other Asian carriers to Europe.  The LAX route is particularly unattractive to frequent flyers and some tourists because the transit stop requires all through passengers to queue up to clear US immigration and sit in a pokey transit lounge for 2 hours, even if they have no intention of entering the United States.  Still, the economics of the Hong Kong route remain marginal and Air NZ may be hoping that the arrival of the 787 in two years will change this.

Virgin Atlantic's services to Sydney seem harder to justify.  It is hardly a key player in attracting tourism to the UK (nor from the UK to Australia), and its 49% shareholder, Singapore Airlines, offers ample capacity between Australia and the UK, servicing five major Australian cities (and reciprocal frequent flyer privileges meaning Virgin's small but loyal UK business traveller clientele have plenty of options via Singapore).  It does have a significant domestic feed in Australia from its partner Virgin Australia (which itself has partnered with both Singapore and Etihad, for codesharing to Europe and the UK) and Trans Tasman (with Air NZ offering it as an alternative to its direct service from Auckland).  As such, Virgin may get enough point to point Sydney- Hong Kong traffic from Virgin Australia's growing customer base.

BA also isn't in Australia to attract tourists to the UK, it has two OneWorld partners (albeit one that has just demoted its relationship significantly) and while a useful feed from Qantas for domestic/Tasman traffic, its not significant (partly because Sydney is an unattractive airport to transit from domestic to international).  BA is also not likely to attract significant Singapore-Sydney traffic as Singapore is no hub for any of its partners.  So the while there has been a declaration from British Airways that it is retaining its direct (via Singapore) service, the bigger question is what does this all mean for the future? 

Where does BA stand now?

It's worth recalling a number of facts before speculating on future business decisions by BA on this route.

1.  Qantas is concentrating all of its services to Europe through Dubai, removing Singapore as a transit point but not a destination: This will mean Qantas will now hub into Dubai and use Emirates' extensive network of routes into Europe for connectivity to that wider market.  It wont mean Qantas will not also feed BA at Heathrow, but it is likely such a feed will be far more limited.  Qantas is betting passengers to locations other than London would rather transit the new Emirates terminal at Dubai than Heathrow.

2. Qantas will still fly into Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok, where flights are likely to still be able to interline with BA:  Remember that a year ago Qantas flew four times a day to London, with one daily flight from both Melbourne and Sydney via Singapore, another from Sydney via Bangkok and one from Melbourne via Hong Kong.  BA also flew a service from Sydney via Bangkok.  There will still be options to connect with Qantas services, but as Qantas will not be actively marketing this, it wont be a strong option for BA to retain connectivity to Australia.  Note Qantas also flies to Hong Kong and Singapore from Brisbane and Perth, and Singapore from Adelaide.  

3. Qantas and BA will both remain in the OneWorld alliance: What this means is that frequent flyers from both airlines still have reasonable incentives to fly on each others' airlines.  Although Qantas Frequent Flyers will earn status credits flying Emirates flights which carry Qantas codeshares, they will continue to earn status credits on ALL BA flights.  This maintains a key advantage for BA in retaining and growing market share down under.  For BA frequent flyers, there is no incentive at all to fly Emirates to connect with Qantas or as an alternative.  The real alternative for OneWorld frequent flyers is Cathay Pacific.

4.  Emirates will have the bulk of the capacity between Europe and Australia compared to Qantas: Compared to the one daily flight from both Melbourne and Sydney to Heathrow via Dubai, Emirates will have far more options to both London and other European destinations than Qantas can offer.  

5.  Heathrow-Singapore-Sydney is a unique service operationally for BA, with poor aircraft utilisation and specific costs for additional crew:  Whilst BA has a few double hop long haul international routes, all of the others involve a relatively small sector and so do not involve the need for an additional aircraft or crew to service it.  By contrast, whilst the existing LHR-SIN-SYD service would only need two 747s to maintain a daily service to Singapore, it needs a third to cover the Sydney sector.  During that sector it spends around 12 hours on the ground in Sydney before returning to LHR via SIN.  If BA is concerned about utilisation and needs aircraft to expand services at LHR now that it has slots due to the BMI purchase, it may decide that there is better use to be made than servicing the SIN-SYD leg.  This is especially the case if it does not think it can win SIN-SYD point to point traffic.   It also needs a separate crew to staff that one long haul segment. 

6.  Cathay Pacific has a lukewarm relationship with Qantas, because they are arch rivals on high yielding routes between Australia and Asia, but may offer BA a partnership option:  LHR-HKG is an important high yielding route for BA and Cathay, because of both cities' roles as financial centres.  Qantas recently exited the route, and the remain direct competition (Virgin and Air NZ) do not have sufficient frequencies to affect BA and Cathay's role as capacity/price leaders (in fact the real price competition is from the Lufthansa group and Air France/KLM who offer far cheaper one stop hops from LON to HKG).  However, BA already partners with Cathay to service Auckland (one stop instead of two stop via Australia), and could partner again to service Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.  

7.  BA is actively courting Qatar Airways into either a formal partnership or full membership of OneWorld:  This is no secret and could offer BA some of the same opportunities Qantas sees with Emirates, only in reverse, as Qatar Airways serves many cities in Asia that BA does not (in China, Vietnam, Philippines etc).  However, Qatar Airways only services Perth and Melbourne in Australia, leaving obvious gaps that it either would need to cover, or BA would need to reach by other means (whether its own service to Sydney or not).  This partnership is not driven by connectively to Australia, but would be handy in contributing to this.

8.  BA sees growth in servicing Asia, Australia is of second-order priority compared to retaining and growing the market between the UK/Europe and Asia:  This is simply a matter of market size and growth prospects.  Whilst historic ties and sentimentality may mean there is a specific flavour around UK-Australian services, they are not likely to see meaningful growth in demand in the medium term, as leisure and business traffic between the countries is likely to remain stable.  By contrast, the growing middle classes in east and south Asia will seek more travel to Europe and business travel will grow with it.  

9. Malaysian Airlines is seeking to join OneWorld, and has been withdrawing lower yielding services to Europe:  Malaysian Airlines is a key competitor on services between Europe and Australia.  It services Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.  However, in Europe it is now down to London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.  Its forthcoming OneWorld membership will make it attractive to both BA and Qantas frequent flyers, and as such it can readily service Australia via its Kuala Lumpur hub. 

10.  The BA/Qantas JSA was not dominant, and certainly not a price setter on the UK-Australia market: Aggressive marketing and pricing by the likes of Singapore Airlines (for which Australia-Europe is a core route) and more recently Emirates, Etihad and China Southern/China Eastern has rendered the Kangaroo route less and less a route that has been owned by Qantas/BA.  The amount of competition is significant, with airlines hubbing through Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Jakarta, Bandar, Seoul, Taipei and elsewhere from Europe to Australia.  With BA only accessing Australia from its heavily constrained Heathrow hub (with a somewhat undeserved poor reputation for reliability and quality of transit), and Qantas likewise (except for Frankfurt where it can't compete effectively with multiple Lufthansa routes into Star Alliance partner hubs like Singapore, Bangkok, Seoul and Tokyo), Europe was becoming increasingly under-served by the JSA, which is why Qantas opted for Emirates - with a superior transit experience and extensive network feed from Europe (and neutralising a key competitor). 

However, BA wont retain the Sydney route just to avoid Sir Richard Branson claiming BA is abandoning Australia, but it needs to be business minded about it.  

So what options does BA have?

1.  Status quo:  In this case, BA hangs onto the Sydney route and does nothing about servicing other cities in Australia once the Qantas codeshare ends.  This only works if BA can rely on Qantas connections to BA at Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok (not Dubai), which will be inferior to what exists now.  Not really a long term option.

2. Partnership with Cathay:  To do this, BA would need to agree to concentrate on Hong Kong as a hub for services to all major Australian cities.    In effect it would have to mean a closer relationship on LHR-HKG which would likely need some competition authority approval in the UK (as the two airlines together would dominate the route).  The key advantage of this option would be to enable BA retain good connectivity to all major Australian cities, could open up a new relationship with Cathay to service a wider range of destinations in Asia (especially if it included subsidiary DragonAir). By Asia I mean north-east and south-east Asia, it would not help for south Asia. It would also have an obvious advantage of neutralising competition on a critical high yielding route.  For Cathay, the latter effect would be the key benefit, but it would also give Cathay a new stronger partner to battle the Gulf carriers into Europe, although that effect shouldn't be overestimated.  In this scenario BA could retain its direct Sydney service via Singapore, or reschedule it through Hong Kong (joining Virgin Atlantic), although again it seems like an orphaned route.

3. Partnership with Qatar Airways:  This is likely to mean an increase in services from Heathrow to Doha to connect with ongoing services to elsewhere in Asia.  However, it would need to be combined with new QR services to Brisbane, Sydney and possibly Adelaide to really deliver the Australian market.  If QR also joins OneWorld (which would be slightly awkward for Qantas, but not unexpected), this would help, but then this partnership wont be primarily about Australia, but Asia.  Australia is a spin off.  Unless and until QR reaches Sydney (and BA may give up its daily service to facilitate this), BA would remain in Sydney.  Given the low frequency of Australian services, QR is inferior to CX as a partner to Australia (and north-east Asia where Doha is far away from direct for routes from Europe to the likes of Japan and China), but not for servicing south and south-east Asia.  The other dimension is the courting Emirates is undertaking of American Airlines, which may well mean it seeks to attract US-Middle Eastern traffic away from the current AA-BA hubbing through Heathrow, although the key Emirates interest here is access to AA's extensive domestic US network for feeder traffic.  Bear in mind also that QR offers more than Asia, it also connects to the Middle East and parts of Africa that it is not economic for BA to service in its own right. QR also offers access into Europe, including IAG's Madrid hub, meaning Doha could be a base from which BA accesses feeds from the rest of Europe into a service that could fly London-Doha-Sydney.  Why do that?  QR has five daily services from Heathrow to Doha now and will be constrained in growing at Heathrow like all other airlines, it could usefully codeshare with BA flying to Doha and onto Sydney at a time that feeds other QR services into Doha.  Bear in mind that this partnership is likely to occur regardless of intentions for Australia, so what this means is whether it affects the chances of other options being chosen.   

4. Partnership with Malaysian:  Membership in OneWorld will beg the question.  For BA it also offers strong connectivity throughout south-east Asia, although it is far from helpful for north-east Asia or south Asia.  Similarly, Malaysian would benefit from a strong relationship with BA at Heathrow to feed its services, which are to be uplifted to A380 capacity.  The downside is that BA does not fly to Kuala Lumpur, and whilst Singapore is a relatively high yielding source of business traffic, Kuala Lumpur is not in that league.  BA would not benefit from transferring capacity from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and would be even less likely to maintain a direct service to Sydney via Kuala Lumpur.  However, it may initiate the route in its own right if it abandoned the Singapore-Sydney route, which would strengthen its Asian presence into a growing hub in the region.  

5. Some combination of the above:  Let's remember that as BA is actively courting Qatar Airways, this partnership is likely to happen regardless, but will be inadequate for Australia on its own, but will deliver benefits in servicing south Asia and south-east Asia.  The obvious supplementary partner will be Cathay, as it can serve China and north-east Asia, as well as having a long established presence in Australia with a good reputation.  In such a scenario, the logic behind retaining a direct London-Singapore-Sydney service is unclear.

6. Abandonment of Australia: As much as this seems to be going to far, it remains a viable option if BA decides it simply isn't worth it.  It may maintain codeshares with Qantas and Cathay through Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong, and could attach codeshares to Qatar services, but also withdraw from Sydney and not actively seek to partner up with a focus on Australia.  Bear in mind this is a ruthlessly competitive market, with Qantas/Emirates and Singapore Airlines both delivering substantial capacity to it, and a wide range of carriers ranging from Malaysian to Korean, Asiana, Cathay, Thai, Etihad, Virgin Atlantic, China Southern, China Eastern, Air China and Garuda almost all with cost advantages seeking a part of a market that delivers fares that are little higher than direct services from London to Asia.  BA neither has the premium hard products to compete with the lavishly appointed A380s of some of them, nor the cost advantage to undercut the Chinese and Gulf carriers.  Expect Indian carriers to eventually emerge to do the very same in the longer term.  It may be better to focus on Asia, Africa and North America.


For now, BA will retain services to Sydney, but unless this route generates the sorts of yields and feed advantages that justify the costs, it seems difficult to envisage that it has a long term future.  It could be a candidate for the 777-300ER because this would offer a superior hard product and savings on fuel (and increased cargo capacity), but it really is only going to be worth it if can find a suitable partner to market the service alongside others.  The likelihood is that the strategy for Australia will complement that for Asia, which is the real prize.  My bet is that Qatar Airways will be a key part of this, but that it wont be adequate for BA's long term strategy into Asia.  

The logical other partner that can achieve this is Cathay Pacific/Dragonair.    This partnership would be superior to others for accessing China, but also Australia, as well as other north and south east Asian markets, and would consolidate BA and CX's hold on a critical high yielding route that will face growing indirect and lower cost competition.  A BA/CX partnership could enhance each others' brands and offer complementary feeds.  BA's need for such a relationship is clear, but CX also faces the threat of new Chinese airline competition, with far lower cost structures, support of vastly growing domestic networks and longer term views on capital returns, plus LCC competition heavily eroding regional yields to and from Hong Kong.  It could do with reducing the volatility and increasing feeds for its London services, and a boost to its regional services and Australasia with more BA feeder traffic (and likely BA commitment to operating A380s on the Hong Kong route), as it also will see the Emirates/Qantas partnership as a negative.

However, one thing is certain in this industry which is the cliche that nothing is certain.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Air NZ upgrade of Boeing 777-200ERs will have pluses and minuses

This report and press release from Air New Zealand about upgrading its Boeing 777-200ERs should be welcomed by some of its frequent flyers.

However, it is worth noting that while the airline touts it as an upgrade, it isn't an upgrade for everyone.

For a start, don't hold your breath.  The airline is starting the upgrade process in early 2014, so there will be no sign of any change for nearly two years.  It appears to be scheduled to match the arrival of the first Boeing 787 for the airline, which ought to be more interesting in itself.  

This is a shame, because the aircraft have been looking increasingly tatty and substandard compared to the Boeing 777-300ER in the premium cabins.  The time for a refit is now, but clearly the airline has timed its capex to be optimal, and let's be honest, it faces limited competitive pressure on any of its routes.

What routes will it affect?

A key point about the 777-200ER upgrade is that this confirms that Air NZ is not seeking to replace these planes with 787-9s as of yet.  The 787s have been clearly earmarked as replacements for the Boeing 767s.  Air NZ has also stated that the arrival of the 787s will enable retirement of the last 2 Boeing 747s, which at present are almost entirely dedicated to the Auckland-San Francisco route (occasionally covering Vancouver too).  Although 10 787s have been ordered (and there are only 5 767s), it will be some time before enough arrive to do more than replace the 767s, so we can assume that the refurbished 777-200ERs will continue doing the job they do now, and (as they are larger than the 787s) replace the 747s on the San Francisco route.

Current 777-200ER routes are long haul routes:

Auckland-Hong Kong-London Heathrow
Auckland-Shanghai Pudong
Auckland-San Francisco (some days)
Auckland-Los Angeles (NZ3/4 only)

and short haul some services Auckland-Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and to Rarotonga and Nandi.

Air NZ has already stated it intends to put the new Boeing 787s on the routes to Asia first, so it is expected that this means Shanghai will shift to the 787, but Hong Kong may remain a 777 route, because it is a staging point through to London.

It's difficult to presume what routes refurbished 777s will first operate on, but I expect initially some short haul hops for crew familiarisation, then the priority will be NZ3/4 (so LA is serviced by a consistent product) and then through to Hong Kong/London.

What will be an upgrade?

The Panasonic eXlite entertainment system will be a significant leap forward, as the Rockwell Collins system currently on board dates back to 2004, and functions far more slowly than the systems on the Boeing 777-300ER or the Boeing 767s and Airbus A320s.   This should mean more choice, less rebooting, a touch screen interface, the ability to order drinks and snacks through the system and, perhaps, on board internet access (although this hasn't been mentioned).  Definitely a plus.

Air NZ Business Premier 777-300ER

Business Premier will be upgraded to the improved seats seen on the Boeing 777-300ER, which feature larger entertainment screens, softer sleeping surfaces, new decor and... that's about it really.  It is a shame that the airline hasn't (or perhaps is not able to have) chosen the new Virgin Atlantic Upper Class hard product, which is wider and has deeper recline.  Business Premier passengers should be happy with this upgrade, but it is no great game changer.

Air NZ Premium Economy Spaceseat

Premium Economy will be a significant leap forward.  Currently, premium economy on the 777-200ER is inferior compared to the 777-300ER and the 747s.  It consists of four rows of 3-3-3 sets of seats which are identical to the economy class ones in the back cabins, with the same seat width, but with double the recline and 9 inches more seat pitch.  The extra recline is welcome as is the legroom, but this makes the current seats more like "Economy Plus" on United rather than a distinct premium product.  Of course Air NZ also offers superior soft product, with better meals and drinks service, but some frequent flyers have commented that they wouldn't pay for premium economy on the 777-200ERs because there is no more elbow room.

Current Air NZ premium economy on 777-200

Air NZ premium economy Spaceseat on 777-300
That will change.  The new premium economy SpaceSeats will be in a 2-2-2 configuration, and so will offer more room sideways, about the same seat pitch and more comfortable seating than economy.  However, it is fair to say that some don't like it because the recline is not significant and a bit fidgety.  Yet I would wager that far more will be happy paying for a SpaceSeat than the current premium economy.

The introduction of the SkyCouch will be a positive option for some.  Couples, parents with small children can find that the SkyCouch offers a reasonable option to stretch out in economy and have a more pleasant trip.  It isn't much good for tall couples, but it is definitely positive as an option.  

Air NZ Economy Skycouch

What wont be an upgrade?

Economy class wont be getting an upgrade in real terms, it would appear.  The new Air NZ economy seats installed on the 777-300ER do have advantages over the existing ones, with the new tray table, larger entertainment screen, design of the seat pocket and armrests that fold all the way in.  These are all positives.  If you're a waif, you'll find it is an upgrade, but otherwise Air NZ is making the same step backward in passenger comfort on the 777-200ERs as it did with the 300ERs, by squeezing another seat into the row, narrowing the other seats and the aisles.

10 abreast in Air NZ 777-300ER

The 3-3-3 configuration will become 3-4-3. The effect of this will be to knock an inch off of the seat width, which is a negative, but also noticeable is the narrower aisles.  For those who sit on the aisles (4 out of 10), this means being bumped and hit throughout the journey.

Air NZ 777-200 in economy now 3-3-3 soon to be 3-4-3

Air NZ has not stated the seat pitch in economy, which at present on the 777-200ERs is usually 31-32", the 777-300ERs have 33", which if necessary for the SkyCouch may mean a slight improvement if that is followed again.  

Who does 3-4-3 on a 777?

Air NZ likes to spin that the 3-4-3 configuration is an industry norm.  Well it isn't quite like that.  A scan of Seatguru to look at major airlines with 777s demonstrates that.

Airlines with 3-3-3 in economy (or 2-5-2)

Aeromexico (34" seat pitch)
Air Canada (32")
Air China (32-34")
Air India (33")
Air NZ (31-32" 777-200ER)
Alitalia (32")
American (32" 777-200ER)
ANA (31" 777-300ER)
Asiana (34")
BA (31")
Cathay Pacific (32")
Delta (31-32")
El Al (32")
Etihad (32-34")
EVA (33")
JAL (31" all but 777-200 domestic)
Jet Airways (32")
Kenya Airways (32")
KLM (31" 777-200ER)
Korean (33-34")
Malaysian (34")
Qatar (32-34")
Royal Brunei (32-34")
Singapore Airlines (32-34")
Thai (31-34")
Turkish (32")
United (31")
Virgin Australia (32")

Airlines with 3-4-3 in economy

Air France (32")
Air NZ (33" 777-300ER)
American (31" 777-300ER)
ANA (32" domestic 777-300 only)
Austrian (31-33")
China Southern (32")
Emirates (34")
JAL (31" 777-200 domestic only)
KLM (31" 777-300ER)
TAM (32")


No need to get excited, but for Business Premier and Premium Economy customers, it looks pretty good.  It is good also if you are likely to want to choose the SkyCouch.  However, for conventional economy class passengers it will be more of a crush, as there will be more of you, with less seat width.  Of course on most of the routes these planes will fly, there wont be an alternative.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Qantas and BA halve London-Australia direct capacity

Today's announcement from Qantas is ominous for those who like having a choice of through services between London and Sydney or Melbourne on Qantas and British Airways.

At present there are four direct one-stop Qantas/BA services between London and Sydney, and two direct one-stop Qantas services between London and Melbourne.

The London-Sydney route is operated via Singapore and Bangkok, with Qantas and BA each flying a service through each airport.  The Singapore route has Qantas operating an A380, with BA operating a 777-200ER.  The Bangkok route has Qantas and BA both operating 747s.

The London-Melbourne route is operated via Singapore and Hong Kong, with Qantas operating an A380 via Singapore, and a three-class 747 service via Hong Kong.

The changes will see:
- The termination of through London-Bangkok-Sydney services by both Qantas and BA, although Qantas will maintain a Bangkok-Sydney service, and BA a London-Bangkok service, these will connect, so whilst passengers can still travel Qantas/BA via Bangkok, they will not get the same airline the whole way.

- The termination of through London-Hong Kong-Melbourne services, although again Qantas will maintain a Hong Kong-Melbourne service, and BA its frequent London-Hong Kong service (increasing in frequency).

- The single remaining BA service to Australia (LHR-SIN-SYD) will be upgauged to a 747.

- The two remaining Qantas services to London will both be full time four-class A380s via Singapore.

- Qantas will install a new First Class lounge at both Singapore and Hong Kong airports.

Effectively with Qantas cutting two daily flights to London and BA one to Sydney, it is a halving of the current six daily to three daily.  Qantas will obviously try to avoid concerning frequent flyers by still selling tickets London-Bangkok-Sydney as a codeshare, and the same London-Hong Kong-Melbourne and Sydney.  Yet it has implications for different classes of travel:

First Class:  Both Qantas and BA have new First Class products, but these will only be available for sure on the direct routes.  The indirect routes may or may not have first class cabins on the Qantas side, as Qantas has said it is removing First Class on all aircraft except A380s.  This would appear to be a reduction in first class capacity on the Kangaroo route.

Business Class:  Both the Qantas A380 and BA have lie flat seating in Business, but will the Bangkok/Hong Kong services by Qantas have the fully lie flat Skybeds that are on the A380s? Qantas has announced a refurbishment of some 747s to install this, but it appear they are intended for routes to the Americas.  The lack of fully lie flat products on connecting services would be a negative.  It may also be considered a negative for passengers to have considerably different products between BA and Qantas.

Premium Economy:  Qantas is generally considered to have the superior product because of newer seating and having a distinctive catering offering, unlike BA which has economy class service in its World Traveller Plus cabin.  This means connecting services will be different for passengers.  Although it may be expected that BA's refurbished World Traveller Plus cabin might be made available on the route, it will still be inferior soft product to Qantas.

Economy:  Little real difference should be noticed here as the airlines have broadly similar products.

It is obvious that by cutting the second leg of three daily flights, the airlines can save a lot of capacity.  Qantas can make four aircraft available (as it takes three aircraft to maintain a daily service between Australia and London), BA will have two free (although one will be used to boost London-Hong Kong).  The cost savings in capital, and in staffing will be considerable, and in an age when they compete with state owned airlines with bottomless pits, low tax structures and far more flexible labour conditions, they need to make such savings.

Yet it will mean both are a shadow of their current selfs at both ends. BA once flew to multiple Australian airports, and will be down to one daily flight - like its chief rival Virgin Atlantic.  Qantas with its current four daily flights, sees Heathrow inundated with three A380s/747s at once.  It will be down to half of that, only slightly more than Air NZ (which is double daily four days a week), from a country with a sixth of the population.

However, if you only have 18% of the outbound international market from your home country, you do need help, especially since the once lucrative Pacific route (where it was only Qantas and United a couple of years ago) now has two new competitors.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

American Airlines in 2011 : it's ok...

With the formal alliance between BA and American Airlines now allowing codesharing and reciprocality in frequent flyer points, it is now more attractive than ever before for UK based flyers to choose AA. Of course, other OneWorld frequent flyers have long had AA as their option for flying in North America.

Its major upgrade as of late has been improvements to its lounges at Heathrow Terminal 3, but its on board product has been unchanged for sometime. Its long-haul business class is still touted as “new” although it was launched in 2006. Its long haul products are not extraordinary.

The First Class Flagship Suite is a fully flat bed, but with a small entertainment screen that is not competitive.

Business Class is an angled lie flat seat, adequate (and was chosen to maintain seat numbers so AA could still offer enough upgrades to frequent flyers) but increasingly less competitive, not just with Asian and British carriers, but even US ones like United/Continental and Delta. Entertainment only on the longhaul Boeing 777s includes an on-demand system.

In short, it is about time AA got a refresh, at least for economy and first in long haul, and be planning when it should have business class that is competitive.

So what is there?

Long Haul First Class:    

A flash presentation of both long haul first and business classes

Business Class

Focus on angled-lie flat business class

Economy Class

Wifi on domestic US flights

Premium dining on long haul flights

Flagship lounges and Arrival Lounge at London Heathrow

Lounges at London Heathrow

Sunday, January 02, 2011

2011 - what will it bring?

Happy New Year all.  To start the year off, I thought I'd summarise what I think will be the highlights and themes for the airline industry, in terms of customer experience, for 2011.  These are not centred on any particular markets, but trends I am observing more widely, plus events to be watched.

Connectivity:  Internet access, live news and other broadcasts (e.g. sport), email, SMS and phone calls are going to be the order of the day.  Whether it is driven by domestic business travellers (US) or long haul, the big issues are going to be managing bandwidth, regulating content (e.g. how many don't want to be sitting beside someone accessing adult content) and most of all the nuisance aspect of mobile phone use in the air.   Let's hope security also does not become a problem.

Low cost airlines chase premium traffic:  It is already seen now with Air Berlin becoming a full service carrier, Virgin Blue with premium economy and lounge access, and Easyjet offering fully flexible fares.  As business travel re-emerges, but low cost leisure travel remains flat, the low cost airlines will see more potential in taking on full service carriers where viable.  Watch Aer Lingus pursue premium traffic as it joins a major alliance, again.

Low cost long haul finds a niche:  Low cost long haul airlines have come and gone before, but Air Asia X may have found a model for niche players.  Flying from secondary hubs to secondary hubs.  It requires a very low cost base, but also a competitive premium product offering business class seating at premium economy prices.  Jetstar is adopting a similar model to replace Qantas on lower yielding routes, but don't expect it to take off under the current market environment.

Mergers and alliances continue:  Following United/Continental, it looks like others from SAS to Virgin Atlantic are next for full takeover.  Expect more alliance membership from Asia, Africa and Latin America.  Lone full service carriers have a more limited future outside the Gulf carriers, but also watch airline alliances change on the edges, as carriers start switching.  Some of the most intense competition between carriers is within alliances.

Boeing 787:  The first majority composite airliner, which for passengers will herald in flights with higher humidity, higher air pressure and bigger windows.  ANA should have put the first into service by the end of year (fingers crossed), and if passengers really do notice the difference, it will be a noticeable step up in long haul flight comfort.  However, for airlines they will care far more whether Boeing can address rather serious weight and range issues.

Cuddle Class:  Air NZ's revolutionary new "flat bed" in economy class on its new Boeing 777-300ERs will be launched on the Auckland-Los Angeles route in the next month or so.  If successful, expect Air NZ to expand it on its long haul fleet and for others to follow.  It might work for couples winning to spoon, or families, but most importantly it is the biggest leap forward in economy since personal TVs.  As a side note, expect Air NZ's introduction of freshly cooked food to see in flight catering become a new attraction, if successful.

Premium Economy grows and improves:  Whilst established for some years in the UK and Japan, it has more recently been successful for Qantas, Air NZ, SAS and Air France.  Expect more European and Asian airlines to adopt it as a way of winning long haul premium leisure customers,  and business customers knocked back by travel budget cuts, as well as being able to plug the gap between cattle class and flat bed business class and be a step ahead of the Gulf carriers (none of which offer it).  Carriers in the Americas are most likely to fear it will cannibalise business class.   Premium economy will get better catering, more recline, more legroom, more privacy and will look a lot like business class did 20 years ago...

First Class continues to disappear from more and more routes:  Quite a few carriers have upgraded First Class, whilst dropping the routes which carry it.  Beyond the vanity factor for some carriers, first class as a product has to provide outstanding privacy, catering and ground service to compete with the best fully flat business classes.   However, few routes have enough very high yield travellers who demand this privacy.  Even the Beckhams are known to use Air NZ Business Premier between LA and London.  In other words, business class is looking in many ways a lot like first class did 10 years ago. 

Fuel efficiency above all else: Oil prices will keep slipping skywards, putting more pressure on new engine technology and for the composite fuselage aircraft to deliver.  The Airbus A320 NEO will put pressure on Boeing to decide on its next project once the 787 programme is bedded down, it will be driven by whether it thinks it can get more of a fuel efficiency advantage from updating/replacing the 737 or the 777 first.   However, don't expect Boeing to move fast whilst it want to make the 787-9 work and launch the 787-10.  Airbus will seek to make the A350 the 777 killer, meanwhile the A340 and the 747 will both be a bit less common as both are replaced by more fuel efficient alternatives.

Finally, Boeing 747-8i appears in service:  Boeing's final version of the 747, for passenger service, has had very limited interest (with only Lufthansa, Korean and a handful of VIP orders).  However, the proof will be in the flying.  Lufthansa is expected to launch its fully lie flat business class on this aircraft, which isn't extraordinary in itself (more "about time" really), but the bigger proof will be whether Boeing can meet and exceed expectations of fuel efficiency and overall performance.  If it goes well, it might just pick up a few more orders, which are desperately needed. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thai to completely refurbish fleet by 2017

As reported before on this blog, Thai Airways has announced new seating for economy, business and first classes that will appear on all new Airbus A330s and the Airbus A380s when they arrive, and will be retrofitted on existing A330s.  However, Flightglobal has reported that up to 12 of Thai's Boeing 747-400s will also be retrofitted with the new products over the next three years, with 8 Boeing 777-200s to get new in flight entertainment systems (although not apparently new seats).  However from 2012 to 2017 Boeing 777-200ERs and Airbus A340s will get new products (which is a very long period to retrofit, as well as seemingly reversing the assumption that the A340s are to be disposed of).

As I said before, the new first and business class offerings are to be welcomed, although tightening up the seat pitch in economy is a big step backwards.   However, most concerning must be the incongruity of Thai's aim to compete with the likes of Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines, Malaysian and Cathay, but taking 7 years to get its product up to spec across its fleet.  Thai should be aiming to have its long haul fleet converted as a priority by 2013 with medium haul by 2015.  

Its current image is of a carrier that is relatively cheap, is below the standards of the airlines it seeks to compete with, but has good in flight service.  The main disadvantage of Thai is inconsistency.  No personal in flight entertainment screens in economy class is a big disadvantage when almost all other carriers have them.   However at the premium end, passengers can't be sure to get fully flat beds in first class or even angled lie flat seats in business class.   Consistency is all, then Thai can focus on those little touches it can easily do, like service, catering and good lounges at Bangkok, to make a difference.

However, until I know what I am getting, Thai will always be a matter of "it's good if it is cheap, but if it is the same price as others..."

Meanwhile Thai has announced it is recommencing daily direct flights between Bangkok and Auckland with its Boeing 777-200ER aircraft.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Air NZ receives first new Boeing 777-300ER with new long haul product

Air NZ's first new Boeing 777-300ERs, intended to replace its Boeing 747-400 fleet, has arrived equipped with its new long haul product.

Air NZ's first Boeing 777-300ER
The term "cuddle class" has been unofficially coined for Air New Zealand's new economy class offering, which promises to be the most revolutionary change to economy class since personal in flight entertainment screens.

Sample of Air NZ's new premium economy and economy seats

Details about the new products were outlined on this blog before with the key points being:
- The front Economy Class cabin having the window portions of rows convertible into SkyCouch, with three seats convertible into a bunk/sofa across the width of the seats;
- A general upgrade of Economy Class seating, except for squeezing in a 10th seat into the 777 making the seats less than an inch narrower than on existing 747s and 777s;
- Premium Economy in a 2-2-2 configuration in new private hard shell seats;
- A refresh of Business Premier with a softer mattress side; and
- Induction ovens to enable fresh food to be prepared.

The new Boeing 777-300ER will initially fly only on routes between Auckland and Melbourne and Brisbane for staff training and trials.  The SkyCouch wont be sold, neither will Premium Economy, although Air NZ frequent flyers with status in economy class may be upgraded to the new cabin at the time.   From mid January it will be introduced on the Auckland-Los Angeles route (NZ6/NZ5) although it will not be guaranteed until February when the second aircraft arrives.  From 1 April the third aircraft will allow deployment on the Auckland-Los Angeles-London Heathrow route (NZ2/NZ1).

Images of the interior are now available and it shows a fair bit of attention to detail.  Airline Reporter has an excellent collection here, with highlights being:
- Fully made up Skycouch;
- Another view of Skycouch with pillows, blanket and underlay;
- New Economy Class cabin looking forward, Skycouches on the side sections;
- Another view of new Economy Class cabin;
- New Premium Economy cabin looking back;
- Another view of new Premium Economy cabin;
- New Premium Economy seat;
- New Business Premier in sleep configuration;
- New Business Premier in seat configuration;
- New Business Premier cabin looking forward;
- New Business Premier amenity kit and table;
- New Business Premier cabin looking back.

Business Traveller also has an excellent Facebook photo album of the product development.

My view is that Skycouch is a revolutionary leap forward for couples or a parent with child travelling together who want to sleep.  It takes what some economy class passenger enjoy when flights are empty, a flat surface of several seats, and expands on it to guarantee it, by selling three seats for the price of 2.5.   That alone should be a revolutionary change for passengers in the back, and I wonder in particular, how popular it will be on the highly competitive Los Angeles-London route.

The rest of economy class passengers will have seats that have been redesigned with new headrests, pillows to slip over the headrests, fully retractable armrests, larger in flight entertainment screens (to the same size as business premier today) and the ability to order drinks and snacks on demand.   Pitch will be a compromise between the 747's 34" and the 32" on the existing 777s, at 33", but sadly seat width is being compromised to a tight 17", less than an inch narrower than existing seats (although as important, aisles are getting substantially tighter).  You see going 3-4-3 in a 777 is tight, and a step backwards compared to many airlines such as Singapore, Cathay and BA.   Still the proof will be in the trying.

The new Premium Economy seats are a leap forward, offering unprecedented privacy in this class, with the centre seats allowing people travelling together to share a table and face each other to eat.  The side seats offering particularly higher levels of privacy facing outwards towards windows.  The 36" seat pitch can't be the measure of legroom, as the staggered layout provides significantly more.  Also to be noted is the generous 2-2-2 configuration in terms of width, which is reportedly at 20", as much as some business classes.  The 9" recline is the same at present, but as with economy, the proof as to the comfort will be in trying it.   Again, enhanced entertainment screens and catering (with properly cooked food) should add to the experience.  I expect this will have to easily claim the title as the best premium economy class in the world today.

Business Premier is an upgauge of the current product.  Whilst I'll enjoy softer surfaces and small enhancements, the big change is fully on demand eating, with fully cooked food as well as fresh toast and eggs.   For me the one thing that Business Premier will lack is the ambience of the nose cabin on the 747 or the front of the upper deck, but that is what happens when 777s replace 747s.   I expect the improved seat and the vastly improved catering will keep Air NZ as one of my favourites in business class.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Air France's lousy update of business class

Air France has launched a new business class (L'Espace Affaires) seat on its latest Boeing 777-300ER aircraft.  The publicity material indicates the following improvements on the existing seats:
- New integrated fixed footrest;
- New relaxation positions allowed for takeoff and landing with footrest extended;
- Softer headrest;
- More storage;
- Easier to use seat controls;
- Longer structure (over two metres in length) and now 61cm width;
- New 15 inch 16:9 ratio inflight entertainment screen (which also launches a new AVOD entertainment system with USB interface);
- Improved hard shell design with more privacy;
- Multi-standard power sockets.

Air France new business class in full sleep mode

The video is here showing the layout of the new business class on the 777.

All very nice right? Well, except for one point.  It remains an angled lie flat seat.  
When will Air France catch up with its competitors?  With US carriers such as United/Continental and Delta moving towards fully lie flat business class, fully lie flat now being rolled out among the big Gulf carriers like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, fully lie flat on Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific, let alone the likes of British Airways, does Air France think this remains competitive?  Is the soft product that much better?  I don't think so.

Admittedly, continental European airlines have been slow in moving to fully lie flat seats in business class, but today Iberia, Swiss, Finnair and even Alitalia have either fully or partly rolled out fully lie flat in business class.  Is it that Air France has the French-based premium traffic so well sewn up in terms of corporate contracts that it can continue to be sub-standard in business class seating?

The aircraft to be retrofitted includes the 777 fleet (those with business class), Airbus A380s and A330s.   Airbus A340s are not to be retrofitted, nor are Boeing 747s (the latter are due to be replaced with A380s).

So a nice upgrade, but Air France still can't be said to be up to the standards of many of its competitors.   Will it take Lufthansa (which also has an angled lie-flat product) to go fully lie flat for Air France to do so?  Will it take a lot more of Air France's customers to choose competing airlines?

Air France has a reasonable soft product, reasonable lounges, including an arrivals lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, but if business class for you is about getting a good night's sleep, then you might be looking at other choices.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Thai to make 2 steps forward and 1 step backward with new products

Business Traveller reports that the Bangkok Post has published an article showing Thai Airways is planning a complete revamp of its aircraft cabins.  Thai has been notorious for inconsistency in products to the extent that it has used older 747 aircraft on some routes and selling old first class seats as business class and old business class seats as premium economy!  As passengers have often not had certainty about products or aircraft, premium travellers have not rated its First Class and Business Class highly as a result.   Even when there is some consistency (e.g. London Heathrow-Bangkok) some aspects of Thai's product remain lacklustre (e.g. no personal IFE screens in economy class).  

Thai claims it will address this inconsistency, which is in part because it has a very diverse fleet.  Beyond that the judgment is very mixed.  Thai seeks to be up with the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Cathay Pacific, and to be fair its soft product and on board service standards are good.  Its Bangkok hub has reasonable lounges (although the airport itself is an uninspiring concrete mass).  

The new products will include AVOD for every class with screens ranging from 10" in economy to 23" in first.  Thai also intends to offer internet connectivity and mobile phone access for premium customers (the latter being a reason to avoid the airline in my view - last thing i want in business class overnight from London are to hear ringtones, beeps and loud conversations).  

How about the seats?  My verdict is mixed.

Well the image from Bangkok Post appears to depict the new First Class, which looks identical to the new Korean Air product, with mini-suites and 23" inch wide fully lie flat seats.   This looks a winner, and also parallels the latest product from Swiss.  

Business Class (which is currently ranges from angled lie flat seats to recliners) is to be fully lie flat, minimum 20" wide with added privacy.   The new seat is shown below and described by Bangkok Post as a toned down version of the newest Emirates product, which would appear to be quite an improvement.  Regional aircraft will have recliners replaced with angled lie flat seats, which probably means the existing long haul product (which is competitive for flights of up to 6 hours given Singapore Airlines's new A330s which have such a product in Business).

Thai concept for new fully flat Business Class
There is no mention of premium economy, which admittedly is only available on certain routes at the moment (again variable product), but economy class is a major step backwards as Thai surrenders its best in class 34" seat pitch for 31-32".   In other words it is certainly joining Singapore, Cathay and Emirates with tight seat pitch, but is losing one of its competitive advantages - legroom!  I'd argue that it could sell itself as the roomiest economy class on almost all of the routes it services, so this is NOT a winner (although most economy travellers are driven by price).  

The other issue is how long it is going to take to do the retrofit.  The new products will be available on Thai's Airbus A380s (which will replace the old configuration Boeing 747s) and new A330-300s (which are replacing Airbus A300s).   The A380s will replace 747s on the London, Paris and Frankfurt routes so will mean some key premium routes will have new product.   Beyond that who knows? 

The Bangkok Post article indicates the retrofit programme could last to 2023, which is clearly absurd.  

Thai's A300 and A340 fleets' days are clearly numbered,  but it has 20 of its own 777s and another 11 on order (excluding those leased from Jet Airways and Air India).   They are the backbone of a significant number of lower density routes including routes to various Australian airports and New Zealand.   However, it is assumed the combination of A380s and 777-300ER aircraft spells the eventual end of the 747 fleet, although Business Standard indicated the 747 fleet will be refurbished.

Setting aside economy class (!), it is important that Thai makes it clear what its retrofit schedule is and it should not be longer than 2 years.  Anymore than that and any publicity about new products is heavily devalued every time a passenger finds him or herself on an aircraft with old (or even elderly) products. 

So good for Thai for acknowledging product consistency is an issue and for upgrading its first class product and going fully flat in business, but brickbats for making economy class tight and narrow and for not making it clear what is happening to the rest of its fleet.   This goes some way to raising Thai up to the standards of the best Asian hub airlines and its competitors from the Persian Gulf, Europe and Australasia, but what prospective passengers want is certainty and a relatively quick rollout of new products (with a priority given to replacing the products that last were seen elsewhere in the 1990s).

Continental Airlines progress on fully lie flat business class install

Flightglobal reports that Continental Airlines has completed its installation of fully lie flat business-first seats in its 777 fleet.  This will be welcome, as the airline appears to have the best business class product of any North American airline, and also brings it closer in line to United (which is, after all, the same airline) which has fully installed its entire 747 and 767 fleet (but still only partially installed the 777 fleet).  Continental's website claims the 757 fleet have 68% installation (in a 2-2 configuration with 23" seat width but 58" pitch).  A seat map of the 757 is here.  Continental has earlier claimed that all flights to London Heathrow are with aircraft equipped with the fully lie flat seats.  However, it is important to note that none of the Boeing 767-400ERs are equipped with the lie flat seats, but rather fairly old fashioned recliners seen here.   As can be seen below, they are rather impressive seats, all facing forward, with adequate width and privacy.  They remind me of what the American Airline ones might be like, if they had more pitch and went fully flat.
Continental BusinessFirst fully lie flat seats.

The full description of these seats is here.  They are 6'6" (198cm) long, 22" wide and 60" pitch between rows, and in the 777 are in a 2-2-2 forward facing configuration as seen here in this seat map

The previous product varied considerably.  The old 757 recliners that are being replaced are depicted here. The 777s had an angled almost flat type of seat still depicted on the Continental website.

For some time US carriers have always been seen as well behind Europe, Asia and Australasia in having the best hard product, but of those carriers Continental has been highly rated on soft product.  Continental's new seats make it more competitive than most continental European carriers (only Swiss, Iberia and Finnair have fully lie flat products outside the UK).   It is a chance for Continental to ensure its entire experience makes it a serious rival for non-US carriers.   The question is whether the merged United/Continental can meet those standard or whether the haphazard soft product of United will win the day.

Continental says by July 2011 all of its 757s will be equipped with the new seats, but it will be July 2012 by the time the 767 fleet is fully equipped.

By contrast, United only has 6 out of 46 777s equipped with its new lie flat business class.  To be fair to United, its Suite Dreams website does indicate exactly all flights and routes that are equipped.  

Blue 1 introduces business class

Finnish based subsidiary of SAS, Blue 1, is introducing a short haul business class product showing once again that the European airline sector is moving full circle into upgrading service standards on board flights.

Blue 1 Premium replaces the Economy Extra product and includes the usual premium checkin, fast track security, lounge access, full hot meal and bar service, with fully flexible tickets.  It claims to be up to 30% cheaper than competitors and has first been rolled out on services to London using the newly acquired refurbished Boeing 717s (the replacement to the MD80).  

Seating is 3-2 in both economy and Premium, although it is unclear if the middle seat of the 3 will be blanked out as is standard in competing European business classes.   

Blue1's main competitor is Finnair and so is clearly aiming at gaining more high yield business travellers.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Cathay Pacific launches new long haul business class four years after last one

In October 2006 Cathay Pacific launched a major upgrade of first, business and economy classes, the details of which were published on this blog.   Today Cathay Pacific launched a new business class only.  The reason?  A strategic mistake in 2006 that saw it take the cheap option in moving to fully lie flat seats.

The new first class has been widely acclaimed and is still seen to have been a success.   It is a big seat with enough room for a guest which folds down to a bed.  There is little good reason to change this and Cathay's high yield First Class business seems assured.
The economy class has been revolutionary in having fixed frames which the seats slid forward within for recline.   The benefit was meant to be that passengers would not face seats reclining into their faces, but there were many reports of discomfort and cramped conditions.  Not exactly a success, but economy passengers are mostly price sensitive.  

The business class has been a bit of a flop.  The intention was to catch up with the likes of Singapore Airlines and British Airways in replacing the angled lie flat seats with a fully lie flat seat.  What was chosen was an option that is a version of the herringbone seats seen on Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand, yet there were two crucial differences.  First the Cathay version reclined into a fully lie flat bed, whereas the Virgin/Air NZ version flipped over into a flat bed surface.  Secondly, and more importantly it is a lot narrower.    The Cathay seats are 20" wide, the Virgin and Air NZ ones are 22" wide.  The Virgin and Air NZ ones are considered a success and widely acclaimed, the Cathay ones have been compared to coffins and claustrophobic.

Enough anecdotal reports of the Cathay product, compared to the competition, kept some business class travel from Cathay, which otherwise has excellent ground product and soft product.  From London, for example, BA, Virgin and Air NZ all offer fully lie flat seats.   Singapore Airlines and now Qantas (A380 only) both have better products for the Kangaroo route as well.   So Cathay listened and has come up with this:

Cathay Pacific New Business Class

The press release states that it has both privacy and openness.  The configuration is 1-2-1 for Boeing 777-300ERs and Airbus A330-300s for long haul routes.  Key features listed are:
- Added storage, including a Side Cabinet that doubles as privacy screen with vanity mirror;
- Side seats are outward facing towards windows;
- All seats continue to have direct aisle access.

However, the best to judge is to see it.  This PDF file from Cathay compares all of the dimensions of the current seats with the new ones.

Business Traveller also has some excellent photos on its Flickr site.  It also notes no announcement yet of a rumoured premium economy class for Cathay.

It is notable that Cathay has not announced that it is retrofitting either the Airbus A340s or the Boeing 747s with the new seats.  The A340s can be expected to be replaced by 777s and A350s in due course, but the 747s are the workhorses of key routes such as London-Hong Kong.  Cathay has not ordered replacements for these aircraft as of yet, nor indicated that it is in a hurry to do so.  Maybe it will be announcing a retrofit once it has made decisions on premium economy, or perhaps there are issues with sacrificing the number of seats on 747s given the configuration must be 1-2-1 in a rather wider cabin than exists on A330s and 777s.

The Wing lounge at Hong Kong is also to be refurbished, and added to Hong Kong hub is the new Cabin lounge, of which few details have been announced.   Also launched is a new uniform.

UPDATE Australian Business Traveller has perhaps the best write up about it.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Korean Air's A380s will have the least seats of all

Korean Air Airbus A380 artist's depiction
With Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qantas, Air France and Lufthansa all operating Airbus A380s (and despite the debacle of RR engines on the Qantas A380s), the next airline to start flying A380s in service will be Korean Air, which has ordered 10 of the type.   The aircraft will operate routes from Seoul to the US and Europe from August 2011, with some short haul training services in the interim.

Korean Air has worked hard in recent years to improve its reputation both for inflight service and safety, and it will be taking things further with its recent announcement that its A380s will have the lowest number of seats of any A380s in service to date - 400 to 450 seats.   What this should mean is more space, on average, for all passengers compared to others with A380s.  Qantas at present has the lowest seating density on A380s with 450 passengers in a four class configuration.  Korean Air will have a three class configuration, so it is better comparing with other A380 operators with similar configurations.   Of those Singapore Airlines has 471 passengers.   

Korean's on board product will include its latest first, business and economy class products as follows.  It has graphic displays of the first and business products on its website here.

Korean Air, Kosmo Suite First Class
First Class is the Kosmo Suite, a 79inch long, 26.5 inch wide seat that becomes a fully flat bed in a semi private suite with a 23in LCD monitor.  Easily a competitive product up there with the best, perhaps only surpassed by Singapore Airlines Suite Class on A380s.  Entertainment for all classes will include AVOD with 50 movies and 50 short documentaries.  There will be premium restrooms and complementary sleeping suits.   Food is apparently prepared by a dedicated chef.

Korean Air, Prestige Sleeper Seat
Business Class is the Prestige Sleeper Seat, a fully lie flat seat with some privacy dividers.  21.6 inches wide and 71 inch seat pitch puts this seat up among the best as well.  15.4 inch AVOD monitors, and catering also prepared by the first class chef.  Beyond that are the standards of business class service that are to be expected, which with Korean is typically high.

Even Korean's economy class is far from shoddy.  Industry leading 34 inch seat pitch, 10.6 inch IFE screens, and power at every seat.  That is fairly difficult to beat.

Korean might not have the very best first and business class products, but it is likely to have the best on the routes it services.  Its economy class will be difficult to beat as well.   Certainly compared to Air France and Lufthansa, which squeeze 538 and 526 passengers in their A380s, Korean Air will appear spacious in all classes, and perhaps deserves to be called the very best Skyteam airline!