Who did you pick as your preferred Premium Economy and Economy long-haul airline?

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In January and March we ran two market research surveys on Head for Points, dressed up as competitions.  As I didn’t think of the original idea, I am free to say that the concept was very clever.

An airline approached us to get an understanding of who people would choose to fly with if price, airline miles, status benefits and other perks not included in the ticket price were stripped out.  The easiest way to do this was to create exactly such a situation.  Not a hypothetical situation, but a real one.  We asked readers to name the airline they would choose to fly to New York with if they could pick any carrier.  The winner would get flights to New York, flying the very same airline that they picked.

Today I want to share the results with you.

Virgin Atlantic Premium

Who is your favourite economy carrier?

We had 11,934 entries.  The results were:

  • Virgin Atlantic  55%
  • British Airways 29%
  • American Airlines 6%
  • Norwegian 5%
  • Delta 3%
  • United 1%

Well done Virgin Atlantic!  Whilst I did predict this order before we started, I was surprised by the scale of their win.

Why did people pick Virgin Atlantic?  The top reason was ‘Brand reputation’ (41%) which shows that all of their marketing, customer experience and PR efforts have paid off.  ‘Previous experience’ came 2nd at 29% – so people who fly it are happy to fly it again – followed by ‘Crew and service’ with 18%.  As a reminder, you could only pick one reason so there is probably some crossover between the 2nd and 3rd reasons.

Why did people pick British Airways?  ‘Previous experience’ was the winner here with 43%.  ‘Brand reputation’ was surprisingly strong – given BA’s recent issues – with 36%.  15% picked ‘Crew and service’.

Looked at from the other angle:

  • ‘Brand reputation’ was the most important factor for those people who picked Virgin Atlantic, closely followed by Norwegian
  • Virgin had the best score for ‘Crew and service’
  • ‘Food and beverage’ and ‘In-flight entertainment’ were rarely mentioned by anyone as the key factor.  Norwegian obviously scored highest on wi-fi.

I should mention that we plugged the competition via Facebook and it was picked up via some competition websites, so the results are not exclusively driven by our readers and include the broader travelling public.

Who is your favourite premium economy carrier?

We had 14,746 entries – clearly the lure of the bigger seat encouraged more entries!  The results were very similar to the Economy competition:

  • Virgin Atlantic  56%
  • British Airways 29%
  • American Airlines 7%
  • Norwegian 8%

Well done Virgin Atlantic (again) with a very similar score.

Now, I need to be honest here.  Before we started, I predicted that Norwegian would win.  Because – without a shadow of a doubt – Norwegian has the best premium hard product.  Anika even reviewed it on Head for Points last Autumn.  The seat is far bigger and you get lounge access with Norwegian Premium.

And yet …. either the Norwegian message has not got through, or people have an issue over flying with them. Remember that the winner of the competition got to fly the airline they picked.  I am guessing that it was the former and that Norwegian needs to take a serious look at their marketing efforts.

Why did people pick Virgin Atlantic?  The top reason, again, was brand reputation (37%).  ‘Previous experience’ came 2nd at 27%.  ‘Seat comfort’ came 3rd this time, with 12%.

Why did people pick British Airways?  ‘Previous experience’ was the winner here with 41%.  ‘Brand reputation’ was again strong with 30%.  ‘Seat comfort’ was exceptionally low at just 5%.  This is a surprise, because what this implies is that people are choosing to fly BA World Traveller Plus even though they know the seat is not the best.

Whilst not many people chose Norwegian, those that did, did so primarily due to ‘Seat comfort’ (37% picked this) which is arguably the ‘correct’ answer.  21% picked ‘Brand reputation’ and 14% chose ‘Previous experience’.  12% picked ‘On-ground benefits’ – it was the only airline which picked up a lot of votes for this feature, not surprisingly as only Norwegian Premium gives lounge access.

Looked at from the other angle:

  • ‘Brand reputation’ was the most important factor for Virgin, followed (quite a way behind) by American and Norwegian.  It is a remarkably powerful thing when so many people will choose to fly with you simply because they believe it will be good.
  • ‘Previous experience’ was a big driver of the BA vote compared to everyone else, although there could be an element of ‘better the devil you know’ given that almost no-one picked BA primarily on the basis of its seat
  • ‘Food and beverage’, ‘In-flight entertainment’ and wi-fi were rarely mentioned as the key factor.  Even Norwegian, which offers wi-fi across its long haul fleet, did not pick up many votes primarily for this reason.

We added an extra question to our Premium Economy competition – your age.

The findings here were interesting.  There was very little difference between the age groups in people who chose Virgin Atlantic, Norwegian or American Airlines.  However, those who picked British Airways as their choice of airline were substantially more likely to be aged over 55 and substantially less likely to be aged under 44.

And Virgin Atlantic said …..

I sent these results to Virgin Atlantic for comment.  Daniel Kerzner, VP Customer Experience, said:

“Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Atlantic with the purpose to create a better and differentiated passenger journey.  We remain a challenger brand, always innovating to provide irresistible, great value experiences that our customers love. We’re also fortunate to have the most fabulous crew who bring our brand to life across every cabin.”

I thought it best not to ask for a comment from any of the other airlines ….

What can we draw from this?

There are a few key elements to take away from this, I think:

The Virgin Atlantic marketing, customer experience and PR machines do their jobs well, with the reputation of the airline being a key reason why people choose to fly it.  They also ‘walk the talk’ and, once people have tried it, the high scores for ‘Previous experience’ show that people are happy to go back.

British Airways, despite offering an arguably inferior product, is chosen because people are familiar with it and take comfort from that, even though the low seat scores show that people are fully aware what they are getting.

Norwegian scores well in areas where it clearly does excel – seat comfort and on-ground benefits in Premium, and wi-fi across all classes.  The low score for ‘Previous experience’ is probably driven by the fact that far fewer people have flown it long-haul than BA or Virgin.  If the airline did a better job of promoting its strong points it may do better.  For now I am worried that it is not getting the message across.

No-one seems to put much importance on IFE or food and beverage (or they decided there was little to choose between carriers) – and only a relatively small number of people chose to reward Norwegian’s big investment in wi-fi.

Congratulations to our two winners, Nick G for Economy and Helen F for Premium Economy.  Both chose Virgin Atlantic as their preferred carrier and will soon be heading off with them to New York.

(Want to earn more Virgin Flying Club miles?  Click here to see our recent articles on Virgin Atlantic and Flying Club and click here for our home page with the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

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  1. Mikeact says:

    We, also, tend to look for other ‘alternatives ‘ across the water. Singapore was excellent and we were very impressed with Air New Zealand albeit to LAX and not New York. And in my opinion, Delta have a decent offering as well, particularly with their numerous connections. (nb For what it’s worth there are some pretty impressive AirNewZealand prices…down the back for £337 return from London to LAX next Feb,March but you need to hunt around. )

  2. Mark says:

    Rob, as a relative novice in this game, I don’t know enough to differentiate airlines on seat quality, legroom, pitch etc. Also, doesn’t it vary by plane type, how do you know which plane will be used when you book, and can they change the plane between booking and flight anyway?
    Can we get a layman’s guide please?

    • On ba.com, if you click on the flight number during the booking process it shows the aircraft used. However BA can and does switch them, more than ever at the moment due to the engine issues with the 787 fleet. You don’t have any rights in this case.

  3. The best I had was on Air France. It’s basically a business class seat that doesn’t lie down, with service close to business.

    VA and BA just offer a slightly upgraded economy. Definitely not worth the premium, and certainly not deserving of a first or second place.

  4. Doug M says:

    There’s no layman’s guide to this. BA alone fly several versions of the same type of plane, so you need to know the actual aircraft to know what may or may not have been refitted or refurbished. They can and do change the aircraft at any time. Broadly speaking on BA long haul the B787 and A380 are considered the best premium economy, but the 777 and 787 should be avoided in economy because of the narrow seats and aisles. Having said that those that don’t care about the narrow seat will argue the IFE is better on the refurbished planes, those 777 where the 9 across of economy has changed to a 10 across. To see good info on BA look at http://thebasource.com/seatmaps.html for BA it’s much better than seat guru. As you can see for the 777 alone it lists 8 configurations.

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