Premium paying passengers have long been legacy carriers' highest margin customers, particularly on long-haul routes. Many full-service airlines have come under stiff competition from low-cost operators on short-haul routes over the last decade. This has meant that many incumbent airlines now operate many regional routes on a largely loss-making basis, to feed passengers into their long-haul, profitable operations.
Low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet in Europe have long flirted with the idea of long-haul, low-cost flights. Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary even claimed if Ryanair was to operate flights from Europe to New York, that the airline would sell tickets for as low as $10 each way.
Until recently, low-cost, long-haul travel was a pipe dream. AirAsia tried this 10 years ago, operating routes from their Kuala Lumpur hub to London with an A340-300, but found the gas-guzzling aircraft was not profitable on a low-cost model.
However, the game has recently changed. More fuel-efficient aircraft such as the A330neo and Boeing 787 have meant that long-haul budget airline flights have become a realistic reality. Norwegian have pushed price competition on routes across the Atlantic, and meanwhile, airlines such as Scoot and Jetstar have been pushing aggressive price competition in Asia.
The question has always remained though-whether passengers will be willing to book low-cost for longer flights, despite happily saving money on short-haul flights. However low-cost carriers are now starting to target the premium end of the market, or perhaps those passengers in economy on full-service airlines that are willing to pay a little extra, for some additional space and comfort.
Several low-cost airlines have now introduced a business class premium product, that often compares very closely with that of economy class seats on full-service airlines. It is generally worth paying for this extra space versus an economy class seat on almost any low-cost airline, but which of the budget airlines offer the best product and value for money?
ScootPlus on their newly delivered Boeing 787 aircraft is certainly more comparable to what business class was about 15 years ago on many legacy carriers. Adjustable headrests and relatively spacious armrests in a 2-3-2 seating layout transpires to this hard seating product being preferable to most economy class seats.
Scoot doesn't pretend to be full business class, and with a 38-inch pitch, the product is more akin to most premium economy seats, but with fares from their Singapore hub to Sydney for as low as A$399 one way, which is a 9 hour flight time, Scoot is well worth the money for those looking for a slight upgrade over the economy cabin. The airline also allows economy passengers to upgrade onboard for as little as A$160, depending on availability.
Jetstar also operates the new and fuel-efficient 787 and has a "value-driven" business class product in a 2-3-2 layout. The seats are again similar to many premium economy products, but it's well worth looking out for premium fares on Jetstar over full-service economy tickets which are comparatively priced.
Mostly serving the Australian market, where Jetstar sets itself apart from the other low-cost airlines on this list is that fact that food and even alcohol are included in the premium fare. The small details such as priority check-in and priority boarding make the experience a pleasant one, even though the seat is nothing special. The Jetstar premium cabin is often priced a little higher than some of the other airlines on this list, however, other carriers such as AirAsia will provide passengers with a better seat, but little to no additional amenities, which include drinks.
With one-way tickets on Jetstar in business class from Australia to Asia regularly running at between A$750-$950 each way, for a very similar hard product to Scoot, I think that value for money is lacking on JetStar compared to other low-cost competition on this list, but still a reasonable option versus some of the full-service airlines.
If you're flying between Europe and North America, it is always worth searching for a fare in premium on Norwegian. The carrier has had its difficulties recently as I outlined in aForbes article, however, with one-way business class tickets between London and New York for as little as $450 each way, it's tough to argue against flying this no-frills carrier versus full-service economy.
With more space to stretch out on Norwegian's 787s versus economy class on other airlines plying the Atlantic routes, value for money is exceptional here. With a massive seat pitch of 43 inches, this is neither Premium Economy nor full business class, but a very respectable middle-ground option. Passengers are offered a meal and even alcoholic drinks on Norwegian, and even with the airline pushing its cost-cutting program hard, the Norwegian premium experience should always be a competitive option rather than searching for regular economy class on other carriers.
AirAsia possibly offers the very best hard product out of any of the low-cost airlines on this list. AirAsia's A330s are fitted with just two rows of fully flatbeds. With the possibility of bagging a long-haul flight on a lie-flat bed for just $320 in Asia, such as the fare that I recently found from Osaka, Japan to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the value for money is truly exceptional.
Termed the "Premium Flatbed" the seat is a value-for-money dream come true, and although the airline could perhaps offer a little more in terms of soft product-with just one standard meal and a bottle of water being included in the fare-it's tough to dispute the phenomenal value for a lay-flat bed offered.
The regular priced fares that I have found on AirAsia are around $500 for their long-haul flights, and with airport upgrades available for around $200 dependent on destination and availability, AirAsia not only offers one of the best Business class products for a low-cost airline, being a fully lay-flat bed, but also arguably the best value for money.