When Vishal Mehra arrived at Mumbai's terminal 2 (T2) to board Vistara 996, bound for Delhi, he already had his boarding pass with him. He had collected it while boarding the morning inbound flight from Delhi, as his return was scheduled within the next 48 hours. Boarding was a comfortable experience because Mehra received priority and T2 was occupied exclusively by Vistara when it launched in January.
But the sense of exclusivity did not last long. In a review post on his blog, Mehra says he was disappointed when, unlike for business class fliers, there was no separate call for premium economy passengers like him. Once on board the aircraft, he did not “feel” the extra seat padding that was promised. The food was the same as in economy class. Yes, there was a good 33 inches of legroom, but since Mehra is not given to reclining, he could not enjoy the 4.5 inches of seat recline. And, there was no setup for in-flight entertainment.
“I paid roughly 2.5 times the cost of my economy ticket to be in the premium economy... but the value proposition is still not attractive enough for short-haul domestic flying,” says Mehra.
While Vistara is the first airline to aggressively push premium economy as a distinct category in Indian aviation, it is not exactly a first mover. Low-cost carriers SpiceJet and GoAir have been selling front-row seats at a premium under the brand names SpiceMAX and GoBusiness, respectively. While GoBusiness leaves the middle seat vacant, SpiceMAX has additional legroom. Air India ran a premium economy service on the Delhi-Guwahati-Imphal sector for about a year, but eventually discontinued it and deployed a business class configuration on the sector.
So what is the differentiator for Vistara's premium economy category? “Besides dedicated check-in counters, an exclusive cabin, more legroom and better meal choices, Vistara’s premium economy features specially designed and tested cushioned seat bottoms for enhanced comfort,” says a Vistara spokesperson. The appeal of its premium economy offering is growing, she says, and an endorsement of that is that companies have begun to offer premium economy as a category in their travel.
But experts are not too sure if there is a market for premium economy in India. “You are either flying business or economy. In this, you are just getting some extra legroom.” says Dheeraj Mathur, partner, aerospace and defence, at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. “Unless it is a long flight, why would you bother?”
Fliers seem to agree. Rajarshi Majumdar, a media professional who has flown SpiceMax and GoBusiness, says: “The idea of legroom being more in the upgraded class is the first thing that comes to one's mind and that was not there in SpiceMax. Also, the staff inside the aircraft is meant to pay added attention to Max flyers, which did not happen either,” he says. “GoBusiness was still manageable and somewhat better.”
Debojo Maharshi, acting chief marketing officer at SpiceJet, however, says, “Many of our customers choosing SpiceMAX are repeat customers. They enjoy the extra room and the complimentary meal and all the other perks that come with it for a nominal add-on fee.”