July 14, 2023
Aesthetic Differentiation: Questions from Eurobusiness
The business class seats offered by European carriers for flights within the continent and elsewhere on their shorthaul networks are very unusual, globally speaking. Rather than offering a full premium cabin — two bigger recliner seats on each side of a narrowbody aisle, like US domestic first class or business class elsewhere — they use standard economy class seats, but with the middle seat kept free.

Embraer E-Jet, KLM Interior

From there it varies: in past years, some seats were convertible to add extra width. British Airways’ previous Club Europe seats, for example, were winched so that the middle seats shrunk and the aisle and window seats expanded. Some airlines, including Aegean, Air France and Lufthansa, had armrests that could be adjusted laterally towards the middle seat to add space. Some had fold-down tables from the back seat cushion, and still today some have tables that either fold up from under the seat or are temporarily installed prior to flight.

But fewer and fewer of these physical changes are taking place, which poses a differentiation issue for airlines: if the business class seats are too similar to economy, what’s the benefit of buying up to business class? At the same time, the low-cost carriers on their heels mean airlines are keen to reclaim inches from pitch at the back of the plane.

TAP Air Portugal Recaro Seat

Enter the differentiated Eurobusiness configuration, with two separate kinds of seats onboard the same aircraft, a more fully featured (many would say comfortable) seat, often with extra pitch, in the area that can be used for business class, and a more slimline seat in the part that’s always economy.

Take TAP Air Portugal as an example. Recaro’s fuller-featured SL3710 seat features ahead of the first emergency exit, featuring a professional grey leather, extra pitch, a full table, five inches of recline and a natty red trim around a movable headrest. Behind, the seat changes to the slimline BL3710, offering a neon yellow-green trim around the grey, a slimline structure, less pitch, no headrest, no recline, and a smaller table.

TAP Air Portugal Recaro Seat

KLM does something similar — with exactly the same Recaro seats — starting on its Embraer E-Jets. The first half-dozen or so rows have a more fully featured seat with a light blue surround to the movable headrest, while after that it’s the slimline with a medium-blue surround.

British Airways even uses an entirely different seat type on its latest aircraft: Collins Pinnacle up front and Recaro’s slightly different SL3510 behind, although the visual distinction is more structural than colorful.

This all poses a fascinating set of market segmentation questions.

First off, how can airlines use aesthetics to differentiate in market positioning, both upping the experience for business class passengers and avoiding making economy class passengers feel as if their custom is not valued?

Which colors communicate “I am a well-priced economy class experience on a legacy carrier”, and not than “I am Blah Airlines”? How do these colors fit into an airline’s brand palette, and how are they used elsewhere in the passenger journey?

Embraer E-Jet, KLM Interior

As a related bonus question: how also do these colours differentiate economy — and business — from premium economy, now present on a growing number of longhaul flights? And to what extent does a visual differentiation without the middle seat free mean that airlines could offer a premium economy product with extra legroom in the “could be Eurobusiness” zone, either for connecting passengers in premium economy or as ancillary revenue?

What materials does it make sense to use in the “could be Eurobusiness” and “always economy” sections? What elements need to be there to deliver the brand’s premium promise, especially for passengers connecting to and from longhaul, and what might no longer be necessary (looking at you, little middle seat table).

And, indeed, with both legacy network airlines and low-cost now using some of the same seats at the same pitch, how does an airline say — and, crucially, deliver — “premium” compared with a lower cost competitor?

TAP Air Portugal Recaro Seat

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