Aviation The future of flying goes on show in Paris

Photo of Geoffrey Thomas

As the aviation industry gathers for the Paris Air Show, there is intense interest in what manufacturers of aircraft and seats have in store for the flying public.

The biennial event, which starts on Monday, is the world’s oldest and largest trade show with 150,000 visitors, 2300 exhibitors and 30 national pavilions. Tens of billions of dollars’ worth of planes and aerospace equipment are typically ordered.

The show will likely reveal more details on Airbus’ efforts to boost the appeal of its A380 super jumbo, while Boeing is considering a new 240-270-seat plane, the 797, which will bring twin-aisle comfort to short-to- medium-haul routes.

Airbus is offering airlines new ways of adding seats to its flagship as it faces competition from more economical twin-engine planes such as the 270-330-seat Boeing 787, which in a Qantas configuration of just 236 seats burns 34 per cent less fuel per passenger.

The European manufacturer has redesigned the interior to open up more floor space.

Emirates, the largest buyer of the A380, has also been pushing Airbus to develop a new model with more efficient engines but the manufacturer has been lukewarm on the cost.

But while Airbus looks to modify its giant, Boeing has spied a new market for a medium-range plane with long-haul comfort.

Boeing is expected to give more detail on the 797, which will have 2-3-2 seating in economy that will get a big tick from passengers.

Pitched at the gap between current single-aisle 180-220-seaters that are cramped at best and the more luxurious twin- aisle 300-seat 787s and A330s, it would be a medium-range jet that would make viable routes such as Perth to Hanoi.

That route is too far for a typical 180-seater but not popular enough to support a much larger 787 or A330, which are engineered for longer routes and so are heavier.

Boeing thinks there is a big market for this type of plane, which would be a mini jumbo.

Comfort, and thus seating, is emerging as a big issue in the war to win passenger’s hearts and wallets.

Low-cost airlines that are price leaders on short-to-medium-haul routes are switching their radars to long-range view. This is a big challenge to long-haul giants such as Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

Scoot and AirAsia X are looming as major threats. Scoot has an all-Boeing 787 fleet and AirAsia X has 66 377-seat A330s on order.

Once the leader in in-flight product, Emirates now finds itself well back in the field with no premium-economy class and a very dated business class.

Emirates gained its market position by offering, for instance, in-flight entertainment at every seat but the industry has caught up.

“The trick now is to price- match and deliver more,” Emirates president Tim Clark told media last year.

“That is becoming more difficult these days because, in the old days, we were the only kid on the block doing what we’re doing. Now, there are others who are emulating us.” 

Not only are they emulating, they are going past Emirates, which retained its dated business-class offering on its huge 777 fleet with the now unpopular 2-3-2 configuration.

However, the airline is upgrading its popular lounge on the A380 (pictured at top). According to AirlineRatings.com’s consumer editor Clive Doorman, Emirates “may even decide to launch two different forms of premium economy at once”: an economy-plus seat similar to offerings popular among US airlines and priced at 20-30 per cent above the best economy discount fares, and a fully fledged premium economy similar to that of its joint-venture partner, Qantas, which usually sells at double the economy discount rate or more.

Virgin Australia has rolled out Economy X seating across its fleet. The airline has reconfigured the first three rows of the economy cabin on most of its Boeing 737 fleet to give passengers prepared to shell out extra dollars an additional 7.6cm of legroom.

Combined with exit-row seating, this means one in five seats in its 737 economy cabin — 30 seats on a B737-800 — are now branded Economy X.

People who fork out extra for the seats on domestic flights also get preferred overhead locker space, priority boarding and priority security screening.

Economy X replaces Economy Space+ on short-haul international flights and includes priority boarding where applicable.

On long-haul international flights, it also features guaranteed first meal choice and premium noise-cancelling headphones.

According to analysts such as Teal Groups vice-president of analysis Richard Aboulafia, it is a great surprise that premium economy and economy-plus products have taken so long to develop. “There has been a massive gap in the market,” he says. 

He also questions why first-class exists today, saying: “It is stupid, when you look at the current business-class product.”

Its excellence was highlighted in March, when Qatar Airways unveiled its new business class. 

Boasting features previously seen only in first class, the Qsuite cabin has the industry’s first-ever double bed in business class and privacy panels that stow away, allowing passengers in adjoining seats to create their own private room.

Singapore Airlines will unveil the latest version of its business-class offering on the next batch of five A380s to be delivered from October.

A total of 31 airlines still offer first class in name — but the offering differs widely from United and American Airlines at one end and Etihad, with its Suites, and Singapore Airlines at the other. But in the sign of the times, 33 airlines now have premium economy.

However, the problem for the traditional carriers is that new long-haul airlines such as Scoot and AirAsia X have premium offerings or regional business class at economy prices.

Scoot is leading the way with the Scoot-in-Silence cabin (where no children under 12 are permitted) and Scoot Biz with black leather seats. 

AirAsia X plans to return to Europe soon, with dates and destinations expected to be announced at the Paris Air Show.

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