Bringing a new class of service online is a major effort for any airline. Doing it network-wide across more than 100 destinations in under six months adds another layer of complexity to the effort. For LATAM Airlines the new premium economy offering deployment is staggered, but still getting to the entire operation less than half a year after the decision was made. Keeping the options simple overall helps the airline to reach this goal.
It is so easy for us as humans to get more complicated than a situation requires. We simplified everything as much as possible… From the moment we made the decision to full deployment was less than six months. Much has to do with the conscious effort to simply the implementation.– Juan Ordoñez, VP On Board Service for LATAM Airlines
Premium Economy became available on 100% of hub-to-hub routes from 15 January 2020. By the end of January the new offering could be found on all the regional international destinations. And by 16 March 2020 the service will fly on the domestic routes, completing the transition. Speaking at the APEX TECH event in Los Angeles two weeks ago LATAM’s VP On Board Service Juan Ordoñez spoke to some of the challenges the new offering brought to bear, and also how the carrier accomplished the effort so quickly.
Skip the seats for simplicity
Most notably, the carrier is not rearranging any seats on board with the new product. Premium economy passengers will have the middle seat blocked, similar to the EuroBiz concept, on the carrier’s single-aisle fleet. Ordoñez admits this was a critical part of the deployment speed, “If it were hardware reconfiguration we could not have done it so fast.”
The program, triggered at least in part by trying to realize commonality with new strategic partner Delta Air Lines, also was able to take advantage of some prior cabin upgrade efforts. In 2018 the carrier announced plans to retrofit 200 of its aircraft, including much of the A320 family fleet. That work brought the fleet very close to a common configuration, with work expected to complete later this year.
Leveraging that retrofit framework, including the cabin modifications, helped bring the program to bear quickly, “We are building on a different project that had started eighteen months ago. We took all those existing tracks that were already planned and built on top of them. Some of the aircraft might be delayed a little more than others on small features like the curtain separating the cabins. But those will catch up because the previous track for modifying the cabins .”
We had a premium economy service but only on selected routes and timings. Maybe you could find it or maybe not.
Changes to priority check-in, boarding and baggage allowances are mostly a digital challenge. Adjusting the benefits associated with the booking codes and updating some procedures or announcements in the airports comes relatively easily. Other changes, such as the on-board service adjustment were more challenging.
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Ordoñez noted that the catering shift brought some of the greatest challenges to the plan. Some markets are able to take advantage of the existing buy-on-board service, for example. Premium economy passengers receive complimentary catering from the same cart, a move that eases the aircraft load and service processes. But that’s not the end game for the program. Ordoñez expects to see the overall catering level increase on these routes, with the benefits eventually carrying over to other passengers on board, “To deliver a simple version of the premium product we will initially just deliver free products from the same catalog to premium passengers. And then we hope to gradually improve quality and then sell those new offerings in economy.”
That approach worked where LATAM’s catering was a for-sale service. On most international routes the catering is complimentary, changing the stakes for the carrier. Ordoñez described the rapid menu development and deployment, accomplished across 35 different catering companies, as a “crash-course part of the implementation.” But the teams pulled it off, with the updated service now live.
How personal can an airplane seat be?
Separate from the premium economy details, Ordoñez also spoke to how LATAM balances the needs of passengers and personalized service against the realities of running an airline, “We have maybe 200 people sitting together and none of them is similar to another, none of them expects exactly the same thing. How do we maximize the amount of options and customization and personalization. That’s the problem we’re trying to crack.” Simplifying the offerings works against the personalization, while using that simplification to deliver more variety works in favor of it. The challenge is complex and not necessarily one that LATAM fully solved. But the past five months delivered significant change. And the future with Delta is certain to continue that process.