Thai Airways joins the premium economy trend with initial 777-200ER retrofit trial

Thai Airways has decided to introduce a premium economy product in 2019 starting with its 777-200ER fleet, an airline executive confirmed to a CAPA – Centre for Aviation analyst on the sidelines of last week’s Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) Assembly of Presidents in Jeju, South Korea.


Summary:

  • Thai Airways plans to introduce a premium economy product in 2019 as its 777-200ER fleet is retrofitted;
  • Thai Airways is planning to improve its product on its small 777-200ER fleet by offering lie flat business class seats as well as a premium economy cabin;
  • Thai Airways will become the 14th full service airline in Asia Pacific with a premium economy product and the fourth airline in Southeast Asia;
  • All four Southeast Asian airlines have introduced premium economy in the last four years as premium economy has become more mainstream in Asia – and globally

Thai Airways VP for alliances and commercial Krittaphon Chantalitanon confirmed that premium economy will be part of a retrofit programme for Thai’s fleet of six Boeing 777-200ERs. He said a premium economy seat and supplier has not yet been selected but the plan is to introduce a premium economy cabin in 2-4-2 layout. The retrofit will also include new lie flat business class seat and the intention is to complete the first aircraft in 2019.

Thai’s 777-200ERs are currently configured with 292 seats consisting of 30 angled flat business class seats in 2-2-2 configuration and 262 economy class seats in 3-3-3 configuration. Thai operates 777-200ERs primarily on regional routes within Asia as well as on some thin long haul routes. Following the retrofit the type will be used predominately on long haul routes as a sort of premium economy experiment while the airline contemplates introducing the product on a wider basis.

Thai Airways is also looking at potentially including a premium economy cabin on new widebody aircraft it expects to order within the next few months. Mr Chantalitanon said Thai Airways is aiming to place orders by the end of 2018 for 23 aircraft – a majority of which will be widebody aircraft to replace ageing aircraft including 747-400s, 777-200s and 777-300s.

Retrofitting other newer existing long haul aircraft types (such as the A350, A380 and 777-300ER) is also a possibility should the experiment with the 777-200ER retrofits succeed.

Thai will become the fourth full service airline in Southeast Asia to introduce a premium economy product, joining Singapore Airlines (SIA), Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Vietnam Airlines. SIA and Vietnam Airlines introduced premium economy in 2015 followed by PAL in 2017.

Thai’s introduction should help it compete given that the product has become more mainstream in recent years in Southeast Asia – and throughout the wider Asia Pacific region. Thai will be the 14th full service airline in Asia Pacific with a premium economy product although several of these airlines only have the product on small portion of their fleet.

As The Blue Swan Daily recently reported, Air Tahiti Nui will become in Nov-2018 the 13th airline in Asia Pacific with premium economy as it places into service its first 787-9 (These 13 airlines all have separate a premium economy cabin and seat; airlines only offering an extra legroom product using regular economy seats are excluded).

In addition to the three from Southeast Asia, the other Asia Pacific full service airlines now offering premium economy are: Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, China Southern, EVA Air, Japan Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Australia. All nine of these airlines have had premium economy for longer than their Southeast Asian competitors but several have been relatively recent adopters including China Airlines in 2014 and Cathay Pacific in 2012.

There are also now several European FSCs offering premium economy products. Five of these European airlines serve Bangkok – Aeroflot Russian Airlines, Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa and SAS. EVA Air also serves the Bangkok-Europe market using fifth freedom rights and premium economy-configured aircraft.

Europe is an important market for Thai Airways and offering a premium economy product could help it compete for Thailand-Europe traffic. Thai Airways accounts for approximately 50% of Thailand-Europe seat capacity; airlines offering premium economy products account for around half of the remaining 50%.

Gulf airlines are also very strong one-stop competitors in the Thailand-Europe market. Emirates’ decision earlier this year to introduce premium economy on its A380 fleet from 2020 may have contributed to Thai Airways’ decision to start offering the product. Emirates is the largest foreign airline at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, operating seven daily flights – all of which are currently operated with A380s.