Op-Ed: COVID Will Revolutionize Premium Economy, Says Cabin Design Expert

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In this instalment of APEX Media’s Op-Ed series, Expert Opinions, Matt Cleary, director of Industrial Design and co-founder of ACLA Studio, explains why the pandemic is a catalyst for innovation in the premium economy cabin. He believes that privacy, personal space and amenities are key factors that will drive new growth in this market segment.

Over the past 20 years, we have witnessed significant investment in the business-class cabin. An outgrowth of this can be seen in the innovations spanning many airlines, starting with lie-flat beds all the way to smart layouts that gain direct aisle access for all passengers, and now most recently to the introduction of individual suite doors.

Premium economy class (PYC) is the next cabin that we will see significant investment in, not only from airlines but most importantly from passengers and businesses. Travelers desire a more private (and distanced) comfortable product offer when compared to the economy-class experience. Businesses will be leaner in their travel expenditure whilst still wanting to offer certain travel benefits employees, which are not available at the back of the aircraft.

When looking at the present benefits of the current PYC cabins, which are in most cases adaptations of domestic first-class seats for wide body aircraft, there is a lackluster appeal in multiple areas. When comparing an economy-class seat to an existing PYC seat, it often comes with a few more inches of legroom and an additional inch or two in width, as well as your own armrest, a cocktail table and occasionally a footrest. This equates to a relatively small percentage increase in real estate gained whilst commanding often more than double the price of the economy-class seat.

It is for these reasons that a future PYC cabin that works harder to offer benefits in privacy as well as comfort, personal space and amenities will drive new growth in this market segment and attract more passengers willing to invest in their flight experience. Similarly, innovation can come in configuration and geometry optimization that will not sacrifice the overall real estate of the cabin, and will therefore transform the novel cabin into a significant profit center for airlines.

When comparing Delta and Lufthansa’s latest A350-900 aircraft, both have a similar total capacity, however Delta has opted for a PYC cabin with capacity for 48 passengers while Lufthansa’s has capacity for 21 passengers. Both airlines opted to maintain similar capacity in economy class and adjust the business-class cabin to add or reduce PYC seats.

Should Delta’s strategy prove to be the right decision and set a precedent for other airlines to follow, we are perhaps at a transition point whereby PYC cabin capacity is on the rise. In many ways this transition is a cyclic process: Since the elimination of first class by many airlines, the business-class cabin is taking the top spot and the PYC of tomorrow will likely become the business class of the future. In my view, this transition will only be seen in full with further innovation in the PYC cabin.

The aviation industry undergirds the fabric of domestic and international travel. I am a firm believer that the industry will rebound successfully after this unexpected shakeup, with the unprecedented upheaval of the industry acting as a catalyst for creative design and innovation that will alter the passenger experience for the better.

Matt Cleary is director of Industrial Design and co-founder of ACLA Studio, a transportation and design studio based in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in the UK studying Industrial Design at Bournemouth University. He gained his experience working in the aircraft interiors industry working for companies such as AIM Altitude and Zodiac Seats UK before moving to California to be part of the Advanced Concepts Team of Zodiac Seats. In 2017 Matt co-founded ACLA Studio with his business partner Victor Carlioz.

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