Hawaiian’s New Premium Cabin Flat Bed and Additional Extra Comfort Seating is a Calculated Mov

Earlier this week, Hawaiian Airlines announced it would be rolling out flat beds in its premium cabin (sold as First domestically and Business internationally), and it would double the size of its Extra Comfort section. This might seem like the airline is just catching up to what other carriers have done, but there’s a lot behind this move. The airline’s shifting fleet, its changing network, and specific requirements for a flat bed all came together to make this a possibility. I was at the roll-out during Hawaiian’s Global Media Day and learned more about the thinking behind this change.

[Disclosure: Hawaiian provided flights to Honolulu as well as hotel for two nights.]

Today, the flagship of the Hawaiian long haul fleet is the A330. Yes, there are still some 767s around, but that fleet is shrinking, and only a handful will stick around for a few more years. The A330 today has 246 236 coach seats, 30 40 Extra Comfort seats (extra legroom and a few amenities included), and 18 First/Business seats for a total of 294. This is a pretty dense configuration for an A330-200. Air France, for example, has 40 Business, 21 premium economy, and 147 coach for a total of only 208.

The key, of course, is that Hawaiian has only 18 premium cabin seats, and they’re sort of like a domestic recliner-style seat on steroids. Sure it’s better than you get domestically on most other airlines, but it’s still well below what you find as an international standard.

For years, this configuration made the most sense. After all, Hawaiian was primarily a Hawai’i-Mainland US carrier (excluding the short-haul interisland network, of course). And on those flights of 5 to 6 hours, this was a good configuration.

Over the last few years, however, Hawaiian has expanded its footprint dramatically. Yes the West Coast is still important, but it now flies to New York, a full 10+ hours from Honolulu. More importantly it has service to 3 cities in Australia/New Zealand, 3 cities in Japan, Seoul/Incheon, and Beijing. Flights have gotten longer, and the need for a more substantial onboard experience has grown.

After a couple of years of evaluation, Hawaiian has finally revealed its new plans. For those who can afford it, the flat beds up front will be excellent, but there will still only be 18 of them. At the same time, Hawaiian will more than nearly double its Extra Comfort section, going from 30 40 to 68 seats. Coach will shrink to 192. That means the airline will have 16 fewer seats (two rows of coach) than it has today.

How will they make up for the loss of 16 seats? It has to be both in terms of higher premium cabin fares as well as more upsells into Extra Comfort. Even though Hawaiian says space in regular coach isn’t changing, I’m suspicious.

In the forward cabin today, there are 18 First/Business seats and 24 Extra Comfort seats in 3 rows of 8. In this new configuration, there will still be 18 up front but only 12 Extra Comfort behind. That means that in the back two cabins, where there will be the bulk of the Extra Comfort seats, there will only be a net loss of 4 seats. That doesn’t seem possible without cutting space elsewhere. I guess we’ll see.

This seems like a lot of Extra Comfort seating, but they say they sell 85 to 90 percent of those seats today and they expect to be able to fill even more of them. But while Extra Comfort’s expansion is interesting, it’s the premium cabin that sees the biggest change.

Hawaiian’s new First/Business seats will be fully flat beds, but they will not have direct aisle access in the traditional sense. Seating will be 2-2-2 across. This, however, is entirely by design. Direct aisle access is often provided by making each seat its own cocoon. It’s meant for the individual business traveler who wants to be alone. But on Hawaiian, are fewer business travelers and more couples and families. So the airline wanted a seat that could accommodate people who actually wanted to be together.

Now here’s the trick. In the sections on the sides, the end of the ottoman where the bed ends has a gap between it and the seat in front. So the person in the window can sneak out, even if someone is sleeping in the bed position. That gap doesn’t exist in the center section because everyone is already on the aisle there.

Now what you have is a configuration that’s better suited to the long haul traveler with flat beds up front and more Extra Comfort seats for those behind. But how does that make sense for all these flights to the mainland? Shouldn’t they have just created separate fleets? I asked both Chief Commercial Officer Peter Ingram and Brent Overbeek, VP of Network and Revenue Management about that. They studied it, but it wasn’t a good option for several reasons.

First and most obvious, there’s added complexity to having a subfleet. Second, it hamstrings scheduling. Sometimes it makes sense to have an airplane route from Asia to Honolulu and then over to the mainland. They didn’t want to lose that. Third, there are only 18 seats so it’s not an enormous cabin. They think they can still sell this well on some mainland markets.

But possibly one of the biggest drivers here is the impending introduction of the A321neo. This airplane comes in 2017, and will be used for Hawai’i-mainland flying. Some flying will be growth, yes, but it will also go on some routes where widebodies must be used today. So you can expect that thinner routes that might not be able to support an A330 with flat beds will now have the option of an A321neo. And that means the A330s can be better focused on existing and new markets that can support the new configuration.

This whole change has been thought through over and over again. It seems like the airline has made a smart move, but we won’t really know until it goes into service. The first airplane should start flying in the second quarter of next year. Then the conversion goes into full swing after next summer. It’ll be done by mid-2017.


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Muscat,  Oman
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