American Spiffs Up Coach Cabin (and Fares) to Win Fliers Abroad

  • `Premium economy' seats add perks without business-class price
  • Consultant sees `huge demand' for extra-comfort offerings

American Airlines is challenging foreign rivals by creating a “premium economy” cabin on international routes that boasts some of the perks of business class but a lower ticket price.

Debuting late next year on wide-body aircraft, the new section will have dividers separating it from the rest of coach and wider seats that are comparable to those in first class on American’s domestic planes, Chief Marketing Officer Andrew Nocella said in an interview.

The strategy will give American a way to court travelers now opting for the plusher offerings found on carriers outside the U.S., including transatlantic partner British Airways. With fewer frills than in business class, the unit of American Airlines Group Inc. could charge more without triggering red flags for some corporate fliers’ expense accounts.

“There’s a huge demand,” said Jay Sorensen, a former Midwest Airlines executive who is now president of airline consultant IdeaWorksCompany. “Any time that you can provide consumers with a choice to spend a little extra money for some extra comfort, a good number will choose that.”

A one-way flight from New York’s Kennedy airport to London’s Heathrow on Thursday would run $1,157 on American in coach, and $7,877 in business. British Airways’ premium economy section, “World Traveller Plus,” would cost $2,463.

Nocella wouldn’t talk about pricing for American’s service, which is being announced Wednesday and has been dubbed simply “Premium Economy.” However, he said a fare may be comparable to those on British Airways’ similar offerings. American and British Airways lead the Oneworld alliance and have a joint venture on routes across the Atlantic.

American, Delta

American is taking a different approach than Delta Air Lines Inc., which is sprucing up its extra-legroom offering on U.S. jets with partitions to highlight that service.

While Delta’s “Comfort+” will use the same seats as in its economy cabins, American plans purpose-designed units that are 19 inches (48 centimeters) wide and boast a 38-inch pitch -- the distance between one row and the same place on the next row. That compares with an 18-inch width and 36 inches of pitch for the extra-legroom section of coach on American’s flagship Boeing Co. 777-300ERs, according to travel website SeatGuru.

“This really adds a completely new seat type on board the aircraft,” Nocella said. “It became obvious to us that there was a need for us to bridge the gap between business class and the main cabin.”

Other upgrades in American’s new class include enhanced food and complimentary spirits, beer and wine. American is also promising “upscale headphones” and a free amenity kit, the giveaway bag now handed out in business class with a sleep mask, ear plugs and grooming items such as toothbrush.

Sorensen said U.S.-based airlines have lagged behind in creating a true premium economy product, and what they pass off now as premium economy amounts to little more than extra legroom. Carriers overseas have offered a fuller array of perks, starting with a wider seat, he said.

“The U.S. carriers really pale by comparison,” Sorensen said. “The international carriers are offering an economy/business-class hybrid. Call it a poor man’s business class.”

American will introduce the new section in its international fleet with its first delivery of the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in late 2016, Nocella said. The airline will phase it in other planes during the next three years, he said.

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