“Premium economy? Sounds like a pen for dirty animals.”
That memorable quote comes from Rose Byrne’s character in the film, Spy, upon hearing about this class of service for the first time, while flying in her private jet.
While funny, there is some sad truth to it. What passes for premium economy is nothing more than an ordinary coach seat with a bit more leg room. Alaska Airlines recently added a Premium Class option, but it’s no different in concept to other domestic carriers’ products (Delta’s Comfort+, American’s Main Cabin Extra, and United’s Economy Plus). There are some perks, like priority boarding and perhaps a free glass of vino, but it’s really just another way for airlines to charge more for the same product.
Unless you’re flying internationally, that is. On those routes, premium economy starts to live up to the name. Some even rival the business or first-class seats offered on domestic flights. An intimate cabin, more comfortable seats, larger seatback displays, and priority services are just some of amenities that come with the higher price – luxury without going broke.
U.S. airlines lag behind their global counterparts in this sector, offering the same product as they do in domestic flights. But American has upped the ante with an improved premium economy class on international routes that competes against established players.
If you can afford to splurge a little for a more relaxing long-haul flight, here are some of the best premium economy classes.
If you weren’t told, you could easily mistake Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy “Spaceseat” for business class in its Boeing 777-300ER planes. A two-two-two configuration means there’s no middle seat, allowing for easier access to the aisle. A pod-like design offers a bit of privacy, which helps to differentiate the product from other airlines’. The Spaceseat is not available in all planes, however. Update on August 29, 2016: Unfortunately, Air New Zealand will be phasing out the Spaceseat, Business Traveller reports. The airline will replace them with standard premium economy seats.
American’s new premium economy is filled with wider leather seats with ample leg room and adjustable leg and head rests. Slotted between business and economy, the cabin resembles what used to pass for business, and should be less hectic than the back of the plane. You don’t get lie-flat seats, but you get a lot of the same amenities, like noise-canceling headphones, large displays, power outlets, and USB ports. American plans to roll out the new cabin in its wide-body planes in the next three years, starting in late 2016.
Called World Traveller Plus, BA’s sleek-looking premium economy cabin was first introduced on its newest planes, while older aircraft are being updated with the new product. The seats have a 10.6-inch screen that’s 60-percent bigger than the old ones (imagine just how tiny those were), more recline, and AC and USB power for your gear. While the offering is very similar to American’s, it just looks clean and refined.
Not only is Air France’s redesigned premium econ stylish, the seats have large 12-inch touchscreen displays, which makes viewing movies from a distance a lot easier. Even the silverware and dishes get a bit of extra attention.
While Lufthansa’s new premium economy is similar to other airlines’, with larger screens (11 or 12 inches) and seats, the cabin in its Airbus A380s are located at the front of the plane and separated from the rest of standard economy by the galleys and its own lavatories. This makes it feel more like an exclusive area of the plane.
Norwegian is a low-cost carrier that operated primarily in Europe, but with the acquisition of Boeing’s new 787, it started long-haul operations to the U.S. and other parts of the world. While Norwegian remains a budget airline that offers low fares, it added a small premium cabin. Seats have some of the largest legroom in a premium econ product, and come with lounge access too.
Although it’s owned by British Airways, the OpenSkies subsidiary, which flies between Paris and the U.S., is a different product. While the Prem Plus class looks similar to World Traveller Plus, it actually has the most legroom of any airlines’ premium economy cabin, plus a nice 180-degree recline. Rather than seatback displays, every passenger gets an iPad loaded with content.
Virgin Atlantic was one of the first to offer a premium economy cabin, and, in the early days, it was comparable to other airlines’ business class. While the competition has caught up, Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy has the widest seats; more legroom is always welcome, but it’s seat width that makes a comfortable ride.
Is premium economy worth the extra fare? It depends on the type of traveller, the product, and the route. It may not matter for a quick flight, but the $75 (pricing varies) fee for extra legroom could come in handy on a transcontinental trip. But there are also other things to consider, besides the chair.
“It definitely depends on the airline but most of the time you are getting things beyond the seat itself, as well – extra baggage allowance, priority boarding, extra drink/meal service, more miles earned, etc.,” says Charles Barkowski, author of the travel site, Running with Miles. “If you are on the fence, it can be good to do a cost analysis and you may find that those things make the upgrade in price completely worth it – even without taking the seat into account.” Barkowski says this cabin has its benefits on flights longer than seven-to-eight hours.
Seats have greater recline, with better food and other amenities that used to come standard with flying, like free checked luggage.
As we mentioned at the top, premium economy is a general term used to describe two different products: a domestic version that is essentially a standard coach cabin with some extras, and a true premium product on long-haul flights that borders on business class. On domestic flights, premium economy is usually a perk given to elite frequent fliers or as one of the many extras customers can add on, like priority boarding and checked luggage.
On international flights, however, premium economy has become a “fourth” cabin, a different fare class that’s significantly more expensive – as much as $700 to $1,000, or more – that regular economy (airlines are also branding it differently, dropping the “economy”). Seats have greater recline, with better food and other amenities that used to come standard with flying.
Some airlines have eliminated first class on select aircraft, elevating business class to the top. For an airline like Lufthansa, its enhanced business class product created a much wider gap between economy and business, the airline says, and allowed for the creation of a new cabin. Besides more profit, this new cabin gives business travelers a more affordable option (particularly those who can’t fly in premium cabins due to corporate restrictions), while offering economy passengers a chance to upgrade to something nicer without taking out a mortgage. Essentially, on some routes, premium economy is the new business class.
“Two that I think are really good for comfort would be Turkish Airlines and Cathay Pacific,” Barkowski says.
Expect more airlines to not only roll out premium economy on international routes (according to Airways News, Airbus says 27 airlines now offer the product, a 300-percent increase from 2008), but enhance the product. American’s new premium economy, while nice, isn’t anything innovative (Runway Girl says the airline missed an opportunity to create a better product), but as this new cabin type becomes more prevalent, we can expect the competition to heat up. Singapore Airlines, for example, is lauching a new premium economy cabin with the largest screens, at 13.3 inches.
According to Seat Guru, premium economy seats can cost 85-percent more than a standard economy seat if you purchase in advance, but can drop to 35 percent when you get closer to the travel date or the day of the flight, when airlines may offer it at a discount due to unsold seats. So, if you’re flying long-haul, be sure to check for upgrade options.