Premium Economy Gets Better, and More Predictions for Air Transport in 2019

Dec 27, 2018

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Things are going great for airlines worldwide. This year, commercial air traffic may grow by as much as eight percent, and next year, while slowing down, it’s still expected to post a healthy six percent growth rate in terms of passenger demand. There are many thousands of unfilled orders for aircraft — Airbus, Boeing and the regional-jet makers have decades of work already booked up by customers. Even as the prospect of a global economic slowdown looms larger, air transport is still doing fine. So, what can we expect to see from the industry in 2019? Here are five predictions.

Premium Economy Gets More Premium

Premium economy is not a new class of service, but only now seems to be really hitting its stride. American, Delta and United have all finally joined the party, while many European and Asian airlines have offered for decades the product, which sits between economy and business class on long-haul flights. But while business class products have steadily evolved, becoming more and more luxurious and even offering closed suites, premium economy trends more towards economy than business these days.

Premium Economy on Lufthansa (Image by Brendan Dorsey/TPG)

2019 may be the year when an airline takes a premium economy product to the next level, helping to close the widening gap between economy and business. Angle-flat seats, which don’t quite go the full 180 degrees down, are pretty much gone in business class, but might find a new home in premium economy, where the best seats now are recliners that offer a little more than 100 degrees. A more compact form of angle-flat seat would be a quantum leap forward in premium economy. The soft product, i.e. mostly the food and service, may not come with all the bells and whistles of full-blown business class, but it may very well hit that sweet spot for passengers looking for a solid night’s rest, without having to spend business-class dollars.

For now, though, you can look forward to premium economy seats — essentially the same recliners found in domestic first class — to appear on more long-haul flights aboard US carriers.

Low-Cost Transatlantic Airlines Dry Up

2018 was a rough year for low-cost airlines. Delays in the delivery of new aircraft, lingering engine issues for those already in the fleet and volatile fuel prices took a heavy toll on airlines looking to transport passengers across the Atlantic on the cheap. Primera Air went bust just weeks into its operation, while WOW Air remains teetering on the edge of collapse. Norwegian is still flying its full schedule across the Atlantic, but continues to lease expensive (and subpar) aircraft to take the place of the Boeing 787s it has to ground while they have their Rolls-Royce engines fixed.

A Wow Air Airbus A330 in San Francisco in 2017 (Photo by Brendan Dorsey/TPG)

As legacy US airlines like Delta and United launch basic-economy transatlantic fares and major European groups create low-cost subsidiaries like LEVEL and Eurowings, the smaller independent airlines may be squeezed out, and when that happens, prices will rise. Enjoy those $350 roundtrip Transatlantic fares while you still can.

Boeing Finally Launches the 797

The last 757 rolled off Boeing’s Renton production facility in 2004, leaving a gap between the single-aisle 737 and twin-aisle 787. While the 737 has grown and stretched into its newest incarnation, the 737 MAX, there’s still that sweet spot that no aircraft manufacturer currently fills. A little more than 200 seats, the ability to cross the Atlantic easily even against the wind on westbound trips from central Europe to the US East Coast, and great economics: That’s what Boeing’s lineup is lacking now. The 737 can’t quite do it, and the 787 is way too much plane. Airbus has something that might fit the bill with the A321LR, but that’s still not a perfect match for the role.

A Delta Boeing 757-200 at the San Francisco Airport in October 2017. Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy
A Delta Boeing 757-200 at the San Francisco Airport in October 2017. Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy

The 757 is a powerful and capable aircraft, and as the older frames prepare for retirement, airlines need to start planning their replacements. Delta alone operates 127 of the type of various age, and multiple airlines have expressed interest in the 757’s successor. Boeing has dropped hints and nuggets of info about the so-called “middle of the market” aircraft, or MOM, but may finally make it official at the 2019 Paris Air Show in summer. The aircraft would seat somewhere between 200 and 260 passengers, and in 2016 Boeing projected a possible market demand between 4,000 and 5,000 units. As for what it will be called, Boeing isn’t saying, but the naming convention is obvious — so get ready to say hello to the 797.

Gogo Gets Snatched Up

Gogo was once the only game in town when it came to inflight Wi-Fi. The times have changed and Gogo now faces stiff competition while it attempts to cut costs to stay afloat, while simultaneously managing some recent execution errors. WIth its stock hitting an all-time low of $3.22 recently, an acquisition of the company in 2019 may be likely, whether it likes it or not. To be fair, it seems as if no company in the connectivity space can actually make money offering the service. Satellite equipment and bandwidth is expensive and passengers just don’t seem to be willing to pay for it.

Tougher Drone Legislation and Penalties Will Be Passed

Last week’s drone invasion of London Gatwick Airport has shown the world that airports around the world aren’t nearly as prepared for this type of event as they thought they were. For three days in the runup to the major Christmas holiday, Gatwick Airport was under siege by a mysterious drone or drones violating its airspace, causing multiple prolonged airport closures, the longest of which lasted for an entire day. The economic impact of Gatwick’s drone intrusion will balloon into the millions of pounds.

An information board displays flight information follwing disruption, in the South Terminal building at London Gatwick Airport, south of London, on December 21, 2018, as flights started to resume following the closing of the airfield due to a drones flying. - British police were Friday considering shooting down the drone that has grounded flights and caused chaos at London's Gatwick Airport, with passengers set to face a third day of disruption. Police said it was a "tactical option" after more than 50 sightings of the device near the airfield since Wednesday night when the runway was first closed. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP) (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
An information board on December 21, 2018, as flights started to resume following the closing of the airfield due to drones flying (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

While the UK already has legislation in place to prevent drone use near airports, 2019 may see even tougher restrictions passed to prevent the airspace from being crippled once again. Restrictions may be placed on the purchase of consumer-grade drones, along with better tracking of purchasers. In the US, rules on flying drones near airports have been relaxed this year, but that trend may change. Airports around the world will scramble to invest in expensive drone-tracking and disabling technology, but it will take time to implement such systems.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG

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