Are Premium Cabins On Planes About To Get Smaller?

For many airlines, premium cabins are a key source of income. While they generally seat far fewer passengers than economy class, the higher prices that premium seating demands mean that the front of the aircraft is a big money-spinner. However, as the airline industry navigates through its post-pandemic recovery period, are these cabins set to downsize?

JetBlue Airbus A321neo
As smaller aircraft like the Airbus A321LR begin to penetrate the long-haul market, premium cabins may be set to get smaller. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Slower recovery in business travel

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered several facets of what we previously thought to be everyday life. As many of us will have experienced, the health crisis has seen remote work replace in-person, office-based roles. This shift has been made in an attempt to reduce unnecessary travel and, with it, the spread of coronavirus.

With the pandemic now beginning to subside, working in a physical workplace rather than at home is becoming the norm once again. However, for many people, the health crisis has been an eye-opener that has highlighted that the viability of remote work might be greater than previously believed. This also has implications for business travel’s recovery.

United B737-800
United will focus more on leisure going forward. Could this see it downsize its premium cabins? Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Advances in digital communications that have been made during the pandemic have allowed international meetings to take place live and online from the comfort of workers’ homes. COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that, while in-person meetings are important, it might not always be necessary to travel around the world for them

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Following this digital revelation, business travel is predicted to recover slower than leisure travel. While this doesn’t worry American and Delta, United has responded by placing a greater emphasis on its leisure footprint. This is one reason that could suggest that premium cabins, which have a strong business connection, will be smaller in the future.

Subsequent reconfiguration projects

Over in Europe, a reconfiguration project at Virgin Atlantic has also seen it downsize certain premium cabins. The headline of this onboard reshuffle is the fact that it will replace the ‘Loft’ social space with ‘The Booth,’ a two-person area, on certain Airbus A350s.

Virgin Atlantic, Airbus A350, The Booth
Virgin Atlantic will install The Booth on certain A350-1000s. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

However, a by-product of this new leisure space will be a reworking of the A350’s seat map. As Simple Flying reported at the time of Virgin Atlantic’s announcement, the newly configured aircraft will feature just 16 Upper Class suites. Behind them will be a far larger economy class section, which can accommodate up to 325 passengers.

In contrast, SeatGuru reports that Virgin’s standard A350s have a larger 44-suite Upper Class Cabin, and just 235 economy seats. Both configurations have the same 56-seat premium economy section. Small premium cabins are not new to Virgin Atlantic. Indeed, the 747s that flew its leisure routes had just 14 Upper Class suites in the plane’s nose.

Smaller aircraft = smaller cabins

Another aspect to consider in terms of the future of premium cabins is the movement away from larger aircraft. The advent of long-range narrowbodies like the Airbus A321LR has allowed carriers like Aer Lingus and JetBlue to redefine transatlantic operations.

Are Premium Cabins On Planes About To Get Smaller?
Carriers such as Aer Lingus are becoming increasingly able to offer long-haul comfort on smaller, narrowbody aircraft with correspondingly smaller premium cabins. Photo: Aer Lingus

With the future of long-haul narrowbodies looking bright, it seems probable that premium cabins will indeed become smaller on average. To use Aer Lingus as an example, its transatlantic A321LRs have a 16-seat lie-flat business class cabin. Meanwhile, its widebody A330s seat between 23 and 30 premium passengers.

As such, if more airlines follow suit and implement long-haul narrowbodies on intercontinental routes to allow greater point-to-point connectivity, smaller premium cabins, as are natural on smaller aircraft, seem a certainty, especially when combined with the factors discussed earlier. Of course, smaller premium cabins might also feel more exclusive, and thus may prove to enhance passenger experience in such business class sections.

What do you think the future of premium cabins holds? What’s the nicest one that you’ve ever traveled in? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!