Etihad Launching Extra Legroom Economy Cabin

Abu Dhabi carrier, Etihad, has announced plans to offer a new premium economy option on its Airbus A380 by December this year. This will make the airline the first of the ‘Middle East three’ to offer an option somewhere between cripplingly expensive Business and cripplingly cramped Economy.

etihad airbus A380
Etihad plan to fit their ‘extra legroom’ seats to their A380 initially.

The Etihad economy extra seats will be retrofitted to 10 A380s initially, with plans to fit the seats to 12 Boeing 777s and 21 787 Dreamliners by the end of 2019.

The initial refit will take the number of Etihad extra legroom seats from 20 to 80 in the Airbus. If the additional refits go ahead as planned, the number of Etihad economy extra seats will increase by 560%.

A spokesperson for the airline commented that:

“While many airlines have been squeezing more seats into economy class, we continue to focus on providing our guests with exceptional products and services that meet and exceed the demands and budgets of different types of travellers.”

However, when you dig into the offering by Etihad, it’s clear that this is far from the same level of premium economy product offered by its competitors. It’s also a little unnerving that they’re investing in some sort of half baked PE upgrade, when all signals suggest they could be struggling for money.

What can we expect from Etihad extra legroom seats?

Dubbed the ‘Economy Space’ seat, this is Etihad’s attempt at breaking into the lucrative premium economy market.

Although Etihad has not yet released it’s floorplan, we do know there will be 80 of the seats and that, essentially, they will be the same seats as every other economy passenger sits in. Right now, there are 20 additional legroom seats on the A380, located at bulkheads and exit rows; what the carrier is really doing here is simply increasing the number of these seats.

However, this is really more of a premium economy lite, as the extras offered by Etihad are going to be nothing like as generous as we’re accustomed to seeing in the PE class. Typical premium economy amenities can include:

  • 1 – 2 inches of additional seat width
  • 2 – 3 inches of additional pitch
  • Adjustable headrests, lumbar support, leg rests etc.
  • Larger TV screens
  • Power ports for laptops and mobiles
  • Premium catering
  • Upgraded amenity kits

As the Etihad seats are essentially just regular economy seats with extra legroom, there’s no additional seat width here. The pitch on the Etihad extra legroom seats will come in at 36 inches, making them among the least generous in the industry.

For comparison, Norwegian’s premium economy offers 46 inches of pitch, and Japan Air Lines 42. BA’s World Traveller Plus cabin only has 38 inches of pitch, but it does come with better fabric, a footrest, a winged headrest and a larger touchscreen TV.

Norwegian's premium economy
Norwegian’s premium economy has one of the biggest pitches (legroom) in the entire industry

As far as we know, Etihad’s PE product will not have any improvements to fabric, ergonomic features or additional power ports. TV screens will be the same ones as Economy have, and catering hasn’t been identified as having any notable improvement either.

At what cost?

Although details of the charges planned by Etihad to secure it’s extra legroom seats have not been detailed, some indication can be given by the levy currently placed on its existing extra legroom seats.

But evaluating this is not all that eas, as prices for Etihad extra legroom seats vary considerably by flight. Actual fees will depend on the route travelled and general ticketing prices. However, as a guide, we priced up a London – Abu Dhabi – Sydney flight to get an idea of the potential costs.

etihad a380
Etihad plan to add 60 more ‘extra legroom’ seats to their A380… and to charge plenty to sit in them too

On this particular route, the extra legroom option came in at a shocking $261 per passenger. It was $110 on the first leg of the route, and $151 on the second. Etihad provided information says extra legroom or ‘preferred’ seats are available from $141.56. That appears to be a ‘per leg’ price.

To be the first

It seems almost as it Etihad have rushed to be the first Middle East airline to offer a premium economy product, in light of the announcement by Emirates that they will add PE to their services in the next few years.

For years, the Middle East three – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar – have stoically refused to add PE to their cabins. Emirates finally caved in earlier this year, despite president Sir Tim Clark’s concerns that it would ‘cannibalise’ their business class product.

Speaking in 2017, the Emirates chief admitted that his airline had potentially ‘underestimated the demand for premium economy’. Emirates premium economy will be hitting the skies by 2020.

To compare products, it’s clear from the outset that Emirates premium economy will be a world away from Etihad’s PE lite. Although full details are not yet available, we do know a few things.

emirates premium economy
Although we don’t exactly know what the Emirates premium economy will look like, it’s sure to be a class act

For example, Clark has said it will be ‘special’ and is designed to ‘feel like an upgrade’. They are clearly planning to separate premium economy from the main economy cabin, as he has also commented that the entire cabin will be quieter and more comfortable, with a dedicated bathroom. The seats will get an upgrade too, with Clark suggesting they are designing their own railway inspired ‘sleeperette’ style seats.

Undoubtedly the final design will be in line with Emirate’s typically luxurious finish, which really begs the question… why are Etihad even bothering to reconfigure cabins for 60 extra legroom seats? Clearly, if they want to keep up with their neighbour, they’re eventually going to need a real premium economy product sooner or later.