The launch of Air France-KLM's new premium economy product on its long-haul flights was not originally planned to coincide with the global economic downturn but the timing has unwittingly worked out well, says the carrier's vice-president of marketing Patrick Roux.

Air France-KLM recently announced that tickets for its new Premium Voyageur product will go on sale on 1 April, and the new cabin will be introduced throughout its long-haul fleet from this autumn. Premium Voyageur, which will feature an average of 22 fixed-shell seats offering 40% more space than Air France-KLM's economy cabin, will be available on all long-haul flights by the end of 2010.

The product was not intended as a response to the downturn, which has seen demand for business class travel plummet, but Roux says it could help to absorb some of the shocks of the crisis. "The initial purpose was to offer a product to passengers travelling for leisure who want to pay for extra comfort, or to small and medium-sized enterprises that don't have a corporate contract with Air France-KLM," he says. "Since then, we believe that Premium Voyageur could be a good alternative to business travellers [who might have otherwise downgraded from the front of the cabin to the back]."

Air France Premium Voyageur 
 ©Air France-KLM

Roux describes Premium Voyageur as an "opportunity for us to compete with other carriers that have a premium economy product, and also with new entrants such as OpenSkies, which offer medium-class comfort at a medium price". Other airlines that offer premium economy cabins include Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Japan Airlines, Air New Zealand and United Airlines.

If demand for Premium Voyageur is strong, Air France-KLM could look at expanding the size of the cabin in the future. "The first reactions from the market have been very promising and we plan to enlarge the cabin if demand is high. It can be expanded by one or two extra rows," says Roux.

Air France-KLM hopes its new premium economy cabin will enable it to steal market share from competitors that do not currently offer a similar product. Because the carrier made the investment in Premium Voyageur before the market turned sour, Roux believes it will be difficult for competitors to catch up by introducing a similar product. "I'm not sure if competitors will have enough cash to introduce it," he says, adding that the investment for Air France-KLM represented "tens of millions of euros".

Roux describes the standard of comfort offered in Premium Voyageur as "the one we had 10-15 years ago in the industry". The 48cm-wide (19in) seats will be configured with a 97cm pitch and a 123-degree recline. Passengers will be offered priority check-in and a 30kg baggage allowance, and fares will start from €1,038 ($1,409) for a roundtrip between Paris and New York, inclusive of taxes.

Source: Airline Business