Bruno Matheu, executive vice president of marketing, revenue, and network management for Air France-KLM gave an exclusive interview to eTurboNews explaining the reason behind the launch of a Premium Economy class for its airline.
eTN: Will your new product “Premium Voyageur” help to stop the decline in your premium passengers market?
Bruno Matheu: For many years, we have seen a widening discrepancy between economic and business classes, the latter becoming more and more spacious and luxurious, especially with the introduction of seats convertible into beds. At Air France, we realized that there was a gap in terms of both products and pricing. This is why we created “Premium Voyageur.” The new class will offer a more comfortable product than the traditional economy class at very competitive prices. We want to target customers looking for additional comfort without having the will to pay business class fares. It is a perfect product for example for SMEs, which do not have [a] contract [with] Air France and cannot have access to negotiated fares.
eTN: Does this product, however, not bear the risk of permanently diverting business travelers from higher premium products such as Business and First Class?
Matheu: With the crisis, we have seen companies moving away from the business class to reduce their cost. Our “Premium Voyageur” is a defensive element, a real anti-crisis weapon, which helps us to avoid a downgrading of our business clients to the back of our aircraft. We certainly see a potential risk that some of those clients will not be back immediately in business class. However, the fact that this traffic will not be diluted into the economy class is already something positive!
eTN: Is Premium Voyageur available on most long-haul flights? What is the calendar to equip aircraft in 2009 and 2010? Are perspectives for Premium Voyageur better in Asia than in some other markets?
Matheu: Until the end of 2010, Premium Voyageur will equip all long-haul aircraft, except for [the] Boeing B747 – which will soon leave the fleet – and [the] Boeing B777 in service on our Caribbean/Indian Ocean network. It is possible currently to buy our “Premium Voyageur” product to Beirut, New York, Tokyo, Singapore, Beijing, and Hong Kong. As you can see, a large number of Asian destinations are among the first to enjoy the new product. Asia has seen this “Premium Economy” concept for already a couple of years, and we feel that the market is mature for this kind of intermediary class of service.
eTN: In case of a strong economic recovery and a return of Premium passengers, could you reduce the number of seats in “Premium Voyageur” to the benefit of the business class?
Matheu: “Premium Voyageur” is a flexible product in terms of offer as it brings an answer to markets’ expectation in times of crisis, as well as in times of economic growth. During a crisis, it becomes the intermediary product business class passengers are looking for if they need to downgrade their travel habits; in more prosperous times, our product is an affordable mean to upgrade travel habits. Air France looks then at attracting especially SMEs but also Senior and leisure travelers looking for more comfort. When we launched this project in 2007, demand was still very high for premium products in front of the aircraft. We then decided to replace on average 40 seats in economy class by 22 seats in “Premium Voyageur.” The “Premium travel” offer is up compared to before. We will then evaluate if we need to further adjust capacities in our various cabin segments, once we are back to a pre-crisis activity. We are very pleased with our first booking, especially for the Christmas/New Year holiday.
eTN: Will the Airbus A380 be equipped with “Premium Voyageur?”
Matheu: We just put into service our first Airbus A380, and we expect to integrate two more aircraft until summer 2010. However, these are aircraft without a “Premium Voyageur” class as Airbus did not have sufficient resources to proceed with modification prior to the delivery of the plane. However, they will be configured with our new product at a later stage. We plan to install 38 seats in “Premium Voyageur” for the Airbus A380. Our other aircraft have on average between 21 and 28 seats.
eTN: Does “Premium Voyageur” provide additional in-flight service?
Matheu: “Premium Voyageur’s” biggest asset is a real improvement in comfort thanks to a generous seat configuration providing 40 percent more personal space than in traditional Economy class. The seat is also protected by a shell for more intimacy and comfort and integrates a plug for [a] PC, a larger table tray, headsets with improved hearing quality, and larger individual video screens. We also provide [a] Business Class toiletry kit, pillow, and blanket. The service is, however, similar to Economy class. It means a menu prepared by our Chef Michel Nugues, champagne for a starter, and one of the best wines cellars of any airline. On the ground, “Premium Voyageur” passengers enjoy priority check-in and baggage delivery, a bigger luggage franchise, and the possible access to Air France business class lounges around the world for 35 Euros on average. And we also give higher mileage rewards!