Airlines can’t add high-end seats fast enough as travelers indulge in first class

Airlines have spent decades cramming as many seats as possible into their coaches. Now they’re focused on creating roomier seating in a global hunt for high-spending travelers like Natalie Rasmussen.

“I will not fly to Europe in 36B. 36B is a bra size, not a flight seat,” said Rasmussen, an applications scientist who lives near San Jose, California.

Rasmussen said she will not fly the standard bus on long-haul flights. Instead, she opts for business class or premium economy, a newer cabin that sits between business and coach and offers more legroom, a larger seatback screen and other benefits, but not the reclining seats you’re familiar with on the plane’s front deck.

Premium seats offer multiples of regular bus fares, making them even more important for airlines as ticket prices generally fall and business travel’s recovery from the Covid pandemic slows. Airline executives said customers have shown a willingness to pay for more space on board amid the pandemic.

Rasmussen said she recently paid $500 for an upgrade on her way home from Europe to forego Premium Economy and fly in Delta Air Lines’ highest-end cabin, Delta One, which has a daybed, a large entertainment screen and a privacy door.

“I clicked ‘yes’ so quickly,” said Rasmussen, 43, who visited London, Germany and the Czech Republic on her recent trip, purchasing a Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy class ticket along the way.

Expensive tickets

Airlines are in an arms race to fit thousands of new planes with quality seats – and more of them.

According to aeronautical data company Cirium, economy seats account for 79.3% of US-Europe seating, down from nearly 81.9% in 2018, before the pandemic. The share of business class seats in seats sold increased slightly, from 12.9% to 13.5%, although the share of premium economy seats increased even more, accounting for 6.4% of seats sold, compared to 4.2% five years ago, while the proportion of first-class seats has increased even more cases.

Delta, JetBlue Airways, United Airlines, American Airlines, Finnair and Lufthansa are among the airlines that recently announced upgraded first-class seats, suites with sliding doors or premium economy cabins.

Some of the newer first-class cabins, like Singapore Airlines’, have floor-to-ceiling doors, joinable beds for companions, and the space of a small hotel room. Emirates even offers an onboard shower for First Class passengers on some aircraft.

“Getting from A to B isn’t necessarily what they’re selling anymore. Anyone can do that,” said Edward Dryden, president of the interiors division of Collins Aerospace, the leading aircraft seating manufacturer and part of aerospace and defense company RTX.

“It’s that experience in the dressing room,” he said.

The price differences can be huge. A premium economy ticket between New York and Paris, departing on September 22 and returning a week later, recently cost $3,015 on Delta Air Lines. The same route in regular economy class cost $980. At competitor United Airlines, a similar itinerary cost nearly $1,850 in premium economy and $912 on a standard bus. Business class on this route easily tops the $5,000 mark.

More high-end seats

Upper seats are just part of the aircraft seating market, which consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory estimates at $2.6 billion. But it’s growing.

A Delta spokesman said 9% of seats sold in 2009 were premium seats. In 2019, that percentage was 28%, and in 2024, the company expects to be 30%.

Delta expects premium ticketing revenue — from extra legroom seats to international business class — to account for 35% of the record $19 billion in revenue the company is expected to post this year, up from 24 % of 2014 revenue of $10 billion.

American Airlines, in turn, plans to replace its flagship first-class cabin on some Boeing 777 aircraft and build a 70-suite business-class cabin with sliding doors next year. Fort Worth, Texas-based American said premium seats on its long-haul aircraft will grow more than 45% through 2026.

Delta and United have also unveiled new first-class domestic seats that feature Privacy Wings, which is becoming a popular feature post-pandemic.

According to Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss, finding the right balance between seating options is crucial. The London-based airline offers a variety of configurations, including more economy seats on routes more popular with leisure travelers, such as London to Orlando, Florida, and a higher concentration of upper-class seats on routes where travelers are willing pay more for the flight.

“It’s not like you can just wake up in the morning and change it, especially in the premium cabins,” he said.

Leave a Comment