“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 domestic premium economy in the United States 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, United’s Economy Plus, etc.). 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 slightly higher price, but significantly less than business class – for airlines it’s a way to increase revenue, but for passengers it’s a luxury option without going broke. We’re noticing that international premium economy is beginning to look the same, but we wouldn’t be surprise if airlines start upgrading their products to one-up the competition.
U.S. airlines had lagged behind their global counterparts in this sector, offering the same product as they do in domestic flights. But things are changing. American Airlines was the first to up the ante with an improved premium economy class on international routes that competes against established players. Not to be outdone, Delta is also adding a sophisticated premium econ cabin to its fleet, while United is following suit with a luxe product to be unveiled sometime in 2018.
If you can afford to splurge a little for a more relaxing long-haul flight, here are some of our favorite premium economy classes.
Called World Traveller Plus, BA’s sleek 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. But it’s the brand-new premium economy product on Air France’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner (shown) that has us excited. Each seat has a recline of 130 degrees with improved back support. The tray table even has a “reading rest” for your book or tablet.
ANA’s Premium Economy cabin and service is comparable to the other airlines here: A more spacious seat with power ports and a large seat-back display, and better food and drinks. It’s even developed an exclusive menu for this cabin that features ramen from the highly regarded Ippudo chain of restaurants. But what grabs us is the complimentary lounge access prior to boarding. Lounges offer a great respite from the rest of the airport, and ANA Lounges are some of the best — a modern space with extensive refreshments (the food is highly substantial). It’s a nice bonus you won’t find with other airlines’ (except Japan Airlines) premium economy.
While Lufthansa’s 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. We’ve tried Lufthansa’s product on its Boeing 747-8, and while we found its location on the plane awkward (it’s wedged within the standard economy cabin), we enjoyed the nicer seat and attentive service.
Norwegian Air Shuttle
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 as well.
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 of any airline, at 21 inches; more legroom is always welcome, but it’s seat width that makes a comfortable ride. Onboard Virgin’s Boeing 787-9 aircraft, you’ll find the Wander Wall, a social space filled with snacks and where you can mingle with others.
Japan Airlines offers two seat versions in its premium economy class, but it’s the JAL Sky Premium that you should seek out, which you’ll find on its U.S.-Japan routes. JAL also offers a generous amount of leg room, a big leg rest, and footrest. Of course, not to be outdone by rival ANA, premium economy passengers also get lounge access, including those operated by Oneworld partners.
Delta Air Lines
Delta launched its Premium Select cabin in its new Airbus A350-900 jets. The cabin has a two-four-two layout, which means each seat has easier access to the aisle. Each seat has 38 inches of legroom and a 19-inch width, and while it doesn’t turn into a full bed, it has a deep recline and both headrest and leg rest. But Delta isn’t stopping there. Besides a Tumi amenity kit and noise-canceling headphones, passengers have access to a large 13.3-inch LCD, power ports, priority boarding, and elevated dining service.
Available on its Airbus A380, Airbus A350, and Boeing 777-300ER, Singapore’s premium economy cabin has modern, stylish seats with ample leg and elbow room, as well as a 9-inch recline and leg rest. It’s not as lavish as the airline’s first and business classes, but one thing it has in common with those cabins is the “Book the Cook” option, where you can pick your meal before you take off. Each seat has two USB ports and power outlet, 13.3-inch display with on-demand content, and noise-canceling headphones. Perhaps the biggest perk is Singapore’s excellent service.