United joining transatlantic carriers in the premium league
United Airlines is joining the growing band of airlines that will be offering a premium economy class across the Atlantic from Ireland. Depending on the airline, the class offers advantages for the corporate traveller - typically extra legroom, priority boarding and better in-flight catering. What's more, while some companies will baulk at the price of a business fare, premium economy is often allowed in travel policies.
Untill now, the two big players in premium economy have been Air Canada and American Airlines, with Delta Air Lines offering a hybrid Comfort+, which, although in the same cabin as economy, offers priority boarding and extra seat space.
United's own product, Premium Plus, on international routes is now on the way, with the first aircraft featuring it "before the end of this month", Bob Schumacher, United Airlines' managing director Sales, UK and Ireland, told the Sunday Independent. He said the separate cabin will feature business-style frills, including "Chinaware meal service, free open bars as you'd expect, and Saks Fifth Avenue accoutrements".
He said "it's really a case of getting the critical mass of aircraft loaded" with the product, which will be fleetwide "absolutely" by 2019. Full marketing begins next year, after fine-tuning, and while he believes fast-track security is "unlikely", Premium Plus will offer priority boarding to passengers.
For a Western world carrier, it's unusual in its strong focus on the business class market, with a fleetwide rebrand and makeover to its new 'Polaris' class. "The corporate market will always be a core part of what we do," said Schumacher. "Bread and butter - well, more than bread and butter", alluding to the fact that profitability relies heavily on the higher-spending passenger.
Polaris brings direct-aisle access seats, new exclusive airport lounges and Saks Fifth Avenue bedding. "We opened the Polaris lounge and got one in Chicago, one in San Francisco, one in Newark and next week we'll open one in Houston as well. It's business-class customers only, (so no access for frequent fliers or those who want to pay to get in)", featuring full bar, day beds and showers.
He believes it's "a unique facility on the western seaboard - a chance to dine before you fly".
Schumacher said the company needed an overhaul following the merger of United and Continental in 2010 - "they were different products flying in the sky and it was time to get them onto one wavelength". More than 12,000 hours of research was carried out with consumer groups and frequent fliers - and one demand came back. "The biggest piece that came out of it was the need for sleep and for rest, assuming you've got a comfortable lie-flat bed with privacy and direct aisle access."
The project is ongoing, with one aircraft every 10 days featuring the full Polaris experience. For now it's being drip fed on Irish routes, with older aircraft being retrofitted, and the complete makeover in place by the end of 2020 at the latest.
The company is celebrating 20 years in the Republic, moving 2.7 million on Dublin routes in that time, and 1.9 million in and out of Shannon.
But its decision to downgrade its year-round service from Shannon to Newark was met with dismay in the Munster region.
"We, for the first time, took a step down over what we call the winter trough in Shannon and for the first time didn't offer a year-round service out of that market," said Schumacher. "You're talking to a salesman here so that hurts, and we're sorry we are in a position where we had to that."
He blames a number of factors. "Given the price of oil where it is today we always have to look at the metrics and we have a fiduciary duty to our shareholders to continue to make the right calls. There is more summer competition down there, it means some of the fares are very low."
He said the summer season remains profitable and the airline is hoping to "rebuild the length of the season there" as Shannon "are hell-bent on getting back to a full-year service - but the market will decide".
n Speaking of connectivity, Transport Minister Shane Ross has been warned that Ireland's in danger of becoming a one-airport nation, with Dublin taking 87pc of all passenger traffic. Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune has voiced opposition to talk of a third terminal at Dublin Airport as the Department of Transport examines the future of our airports up to 2050.
She told this column that while airlines might not see the need to fly into Cork or Shannon due to our motorway access, "motorways work the other way as well - you can have easy access to Limerick, Shannon or Cork", with smaller airports taking some of the passenger load off the capital and off the pressurised M50.
Sunday Indo Business