As airlines continue to recognise the value of sharp end passengers, one UK airline has dramatically upped the stakes.
Bmi - despite deferring plans to start transatlantic services from London Heathrow under the Open Skies deal next year - has just unveiled a massive overhaul of its business and premium economy product.
Revealing the upgrade at its long-haul base in Manchester last week, bmi deputy chief executive, Tim Bye, said that he was ”almost as excited” about the premium economy development as he was about the significantly enhanced business class product.
And with a 49” seat pitch, 50” recline and 21” width, Bye may have reason to make the claim that the new premium economy is ”world class.”
ABTN tried out both products in Manchester last week as bmi showcased them in a UK demonstration flight and here is no doubt they will give their competitors a very decent run for their money.
The only fly in the ointment is that bmi operates its long-haul services primarily from Manchester and will therefore not be able to trumpet its shiny new products on showcase routes from London, particularly to the US.
However, it does have Heathrow services to the Saudi Arabian destinations of Riyadh and Jeddah, although interestingly, the airline says it will operate business (42 seats) and economy class only, to reflect the dynamics of that particular route. Saudi operates a three-class service of Guest, Business and First, while its Business service offering a 40” pitch.
But back to premium economy. British Airways (BA) World Traveller Plus comes in at 38” seat pitch and 18.5” wide, while Virgin Atlantic”s premium economy cabin also has a 38” pitch and 21” width.
Clearly, both of these airlines offer a vast array of destinations ex-Heathrow, but they will certainly be running a very fine toothcomb over bmi”s upgraded offering to Chicago, Las Vegas, Barbados and Antigua.
Perhaps bmi has its eye on the burgeoning business-only sector that has attracted such interest of late and, with its claim to be price competitive in the premium economy sector, it will give the established carriers - and the Stansted/Luton operators ” a run for their money.
The new premium economy is effectively bmi”s former business class seat, but with upgraded cabins in a 2x2x2 configuration, with a 9” arm stow screen and dedicated cabin crew.
As for business class, bmi has really upped its game, offering a 78” seat pitch and a truly lie-flat bed with 15” TV screen and on-board chef.
”The project started two years ago to raise the standard of our long-haul operation,” said bmi head of product development, Simon Scoggins. ”Our competitor benchmark told us that we had to compete with BA, Virgin and Saudi.
”We wanted to get away from sterile and corporate ” to make the cabin feel like a favourite restaurant ” the overall look is a step up from where we were.”
Bmi will clearly be preoccupied with ensuring its raft of new services through the acquisition of Bmed, takes place smoothly. Some 17 new routes plus aircraft, will have to be absorbed by 28 October ” no mean feat ” and this will undoubtedly mean that the addition of long-haul services will be a gradual rather than immediate process.
But the carrier has further A330 aircraft slated for delivery ” a type with which it is now pretty comfortable ” despite problems on the Mumbai route last year ” and the extra capacity will mean more of a shop window for its shiny new toys.
Just how far can airlines go? Bmi has promised to be competitive, so will BA and Virgin now respond and if so how? BA boss Willie Walsh recently noted that with 84 business class seats on certain transatlantic routes, its product was clearly very attractive to passengers ” and profitable to boot.
Virgin's Upper Class - with access to its extraoridnaryly impressive lounge in the increasingly unimpressive Heathrow Terminal 3 ” continues to set the standard, while its premium economy scores admirably with passengers.
Should Virgin now install similar business class seats in its own premium economy to compete with bmi, or does it judge its expanding route network as sufficient to tempt the budget-conscious business, or more flush leisure traveller?
But bmi has set out its stall and thrown down the gauntlet with a genuinely ground-breaking set of products. The only question is will it exist in its present form should chairman, Sir Michael Bishop decide to cash in the chips.
Bye keeps his cards close to his chest: ”There are no ownership changes at the moment and shareholders expect a return,” he says, although adding: ”You can never say things won”t change.”
Whoever any future owner is, there is no doubt bmi has raised the bar. How the competition responds will be a fascinating one to watch.