Once upon a time, all airline seats were identical. Prior to the 1950s, carriers offered the same cabin experience to all passengers, but with a twist: if you wanted better treatment you took a non-stop flight and paid more, while connecting flights were cheaper. Pan Am introduced the first two-cabin aircraft in 1955, and First Class quickly became differentiated from Economy (or Coach, as it was called back then). Flying became more segregated in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Business Class was born.
Very few carriers still have a dedicated First Class Cabin for long-haul international flights. Business Class has become the new First, but a different type of differentiation is now in vogue: Beginning in the 1990s, airlines started introducing Premium Economy, and today’s long-haul flight is likely to have a three-cabin arrangement featuring Economy, Premium Economy and Business.
The hallmarks of Premium Economy are more legroom and personal space, slightly more seat width and recline, better food, a bigger video monitor and (hopefully) better service. According to data supplied by SeatGuru, seat pitch is mostly in the range of 36-38” and goes up to 41-43” on some aircraft operated by Air New Zealand, Japan Airlines, Qantas, United and Virgin Australia (compared to an average of 30-32” in regular Economy). Passengers in Premium Economy are usually treated to a separate cabin between Economy and Business Class.
Creature comforts aside, the main advantage is price. It’s not unusual for long-haul Business Class to cost four or five times the price of Economy. Premium Economy is in the middle, generally priced anywhere between 35% and 65% above normal Economy fares. SeatGuru also reports that Premium Economy on Transpacific flights and early booking on Transatlantic flights costs nearly double the regular Economy fare, while the surcharge can be as little as 10% for close-in booking. It also pays to be alert for deals: I once found and booked a transatlantic Premium Economy fare on British Airways that was cheaper than standard Economy, and these situations do pop up from time to time.
Are all Premium Economy experiences created equal? Not hardly. The top Premium Economy cabins were recently ranked by Skytrax, the U.K.-based consultancy that maintains an airline rating website. It’s important to remember that these results were based solely on voting by consumers:
- Virgin Atlantic
- Singapore Airlines
- Air New Zealand
- Austrian Airlines
- Air Canada
- Virgin Australia
- Air France
- Philippine Airlines
- Japan Airlines
- Azerbaijan Airlines
- EVA Air
- China Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- British Airways
- China Southern
Virgin Atlantic also took the top spot in seat ranking, while Austrian Airlines came out on top for catering. What immediately jumps out is that no domestic airlines appear on this list of the top 20 carriers. Despite the investment and promotion in Premium Economy by American, Delta and United, actual flyers didn’t find them to be better than Azerbaijan Airlines—even with additional seat width and pitch and extra amenities.
Some Premium Economy cabins can be downright luxurious. Passengers on Singapore Airlines receive priority check-in, boarding and baggage handling, along with noise-canceling headphones and an amenity kit. They also have access to Singapore’s Book the Cook program for premium cabins, which allows them to pre-order meal selections from a list of dishes developed by celebrity chefs.
How does the experience of the “poor man’s (and woman’s) Business Class” stack up to the real thing? Most Business Class seats are either lie-flat or angled lie-flat; they average 19-20” in width’ with a pitch of 60-80”, depending on carrier and aircraft. Meals and amenities are obviously superior across the board, and they should be. Remember that in most cases Business is at least double the cost of Premium Economy.
One of the main criticisms of Premium Economy is that the product is wildly inconsistent, so it’s important to do your homework before laying out the extra cash. From the airline’s point of view, it’s a tricky scenario: they need to make Premium Economy attractive enough to inspire regular Economy passengers to splurge, but not so attractive that they cause their paid Business Class passengers to downgrade.
Still, Premium Economy is a good option for someone who wants extra comfort without breaking the bank. It’s also a perfect solution for corporate travelers whose employers won’t allow them to fly Business Class. On a flight lasting eight, ten or twelve hours, the additional legroom and amenities can be priceless.