Friday, February 06, 2009

Premium Economy Overview

Does anyone remember when airlines offered “Coach” seats instead of “Economy”? Prices were at one time regulated, seat pitch was usually 34-36”, the word “Coach” held a modicum of cachet, and in-flight service was actually personal and attentive. Airlines (and their employees) still had the words “customer service” in their vocabulary back then.

SAS DC-6. Hats, suits, service. Photo by L'Écolier on Wikipedia.

Today, there aren’t many travel experiences worse than Air-Sardine-Can. Yes, we know there wasn’t any in-flight video back in Coach days, but most U.S. carriers don’t offer anything more on domestic flights now anyway.

If you are as dissatisfied with airline Economy seats and service as we are, yet can’t seem to justify the cost of Business Class tickets, there’s an in-between option you may want to consider. Called various names by the different airlines (Economy Plus, Premium Economy, Economy Comfort, etc.), this between-Economy-and-Business service aims to provide more leg room, better in-flight amenities, and sometimes additional on-the-ground benefits that can make life easier at check-in and boarding. We’ll call it PremEcon.

The PremEcon concept is well established, but changes are always ongoing (some airlines are adding the service, amenities change, etc.), so do your specific research to confirm all this with the airline you’re planning to fly.

Prices for PremEcon vary widely, from as little as $15-30 additional (some United and JetBlue flights, depending on route) to as much as four times regular Economy. In many instances, PremEcon seems to be about twice as expensive as regular Economy. By comparison, Business Class fares can easily be five times or more the cost of Economy. As for amenities, the best PremEcon products today are roughly comparable to what international Business Class was a dozen years ago, and the best PremEcon is often very similar to current domestic First Class seats.

In the broadest terms, we have found three different “flavors” of PremEcon: 1) Just more leg room (and the same physical Economy seat), with no added amenities over regular Economy; 2) The opposite, with quite a few amenities (including better seats themselves) but not much increase in leg room, and; 3) Airlines offering both significantly increased leg room and added amenities. Most of the airlines in the latter two categories offer a physically separated PremEcon cabin, while in the first category the seats are generally within the main Economy section.

Seat pitch numbers (the distance from one seat anchor to the next, which is not the amount of leg room) were compiled from the airlines’ websites as well as from independent seat-rating resources such as SeatGuru. We have not taken tape measures to any seats ourselves. As for seat width, we do not mention it unless it exceeds the industry standard of 17-18” for most Economy seats.

For comparison purposes, most domestic First Class seats today have seat pitch of about 36-38” and are 18.5-21” wide. International Business and First seats are much bigger and more luxurious than that. Note that, in general, domestic flights on U.S. carriers have two cabins: economy and business/first. The domestic PremEcon seats listed in the first section below are pretty much just regular Econ seats with a bit more legroom. International flights, especially on international carriers, may have as many as four classes in separate cabins: economy, premium economy, business, and first.

In the first category (more leg room only) are:
United – Economy Plus offers 34-36” seat pitch (roughly 3-5” of additional legroom over United’s and the industry’s standard Economy seat pitch of 31-32”). The upgrade price varies by route and distance.
JetBlue – All seats have at least 34” pitch (on their primary aircraft, the A320), and some seats with pitch up to 38” are available for additional fees.
Midwest – Signature Seats have 34-36” seat pitch and are 22” wide, at an up-charge from the standard 32”-pitch Econ seats.
Virgin America – A few 38”-pitch seats are available for an additional charge. These Main Cabin Select seats also offer complimentary food and drink, priority ground services, and other extras. (We couldn’t decide if Virgin America should be in this category, or below where we list airlines offering enhanced services. We left it here because it’s only a few seats in exit rows, and not a separate cabin.)

The second category (better seats and added amenities, but not all that much more leg room) includes: (Amenities might include extra baggage allowance, lounge access, priority check-in, complimentary beverages, better meals, better entertainment systems, or refundable fares.)
Icelandair – Offers a PremEcon product that has only 33” of seat pitch, but the seats are 21” wide and amenities include lounge access, priority check-in, enhanced meals, and more. This appears to be their Business seat but with less leg room than in the Business cabin.
Virgin Blue – PremEcon seats offer only 33-34” of pitch, but amenities include lounge access, better meals, more entertainment options, extra baggage allowance, and more.
Air Tahiti Nui – Air Tahiti doesn’t claim to have a PremEcon product, but their standard Econ seats and service may offer comfort and in-cabin amenities equivalent to that of the above two airlines. These standard Econ seats have 33” pitch and are 19” wide.
(Like Air Tahiti, above, Thai Airways seems to have several planes with up to 34” pitch in their standard Econ seats. Thai’s regular services and amenities are reported to be exceptional.)

Finally, the third category of additional leg room, better seats, and added amenities: (We have emphasized a few of the amenities each airline offers, but many have additional perks – priority boarding, better meals, lounge access, comfort kits, complimentary drinks, better entertainment, extra frequent-flyer miles for booking PremEcon, extra baggage allowances, and more.)
Open Skies/L’Avion – This British Air subsidiary has the greatest seat pitch of any PremEcon product at 52”, with a seat width of 20”. Excellent seats, easy boarding (the airline only offers PremEcon and Business classes), but not lounge access. (Some reporters have speculated about the future of Open Skies with the falloff in business travel in the current economic environment.)
British Airways – Seat pitch 38”, width 18.5”. Average number of added amenities, mostly in the cabin.
SAS – Seat pitch 37”, width 18.3”. A few extra amenities, but mostly just a better seat. SAS’s product has seemed to be on the high-end price-wise in our research.
bmi – Seat pitch 49”, width 21”. Not as many “other” amenities beyond the seats, but look at that seat pitch and width. (bmi has recently announced reductions in U.S. service.)
Virgin Atlantic – Seat pitch 38”, width 21”. Nice in-cabin amenities, plus lots of other perks, including check-in, lounges, etc. A long-established, well-respected product.
EVA Airlines – Seat pitch 38”. Benefits seem mostly in the seat itself, but typical Asian airline on-board amenities appear excellent.
Air New Zealand – Seat pitch 38-40”, width to 18.5”. Additional amenities (many) appear to be on the plane, not at the airport with check-in, etc.
Qantas – Seat pitch 38-42”, width 19.5”. Priority check-in and boarding; wide range of in-cabin amenities. (Not available on all planes nor all flights. SeatGuru reports the 42” pitch as being on some seats on the new A380.)
ANA – Seat pitch 38”, width 18.5”. Benefits seem mostly in the seat itself (including leg rests!), but normal Asian airline on-board amenities appear excellent. This seems to be only offered on some routes.
Japan Airlines – Seat pitch 38”. JAL has added their PremEcon product to more North American routes. Incredible-looking PremEcon seat design and in-flight amenities, plus lounge access.
Air France – While a different type of PremEcon product is currently available on a few non-U.S. routes, Air France is adding a new PremEcon section to nearly all aircraft in late 2009. Seat pitch for the new product is announced to be 38”.
V Australia – Keep an eye on this new one from the Virgin folks. PremEcon seats are 38” pitch, 20” wide. Better seats, better on-board amenities, but no on-ground benefits. The first flights from Australia to the U.S. are scheduled for early 2009.
Thai Airways – Only on the Los Angeles-Bangkok route with their A340 aircraft. 42” pitch, 19” wide, many extra perks.

Air Cubana does not appear to offer Premium Economy. Photo by Chalmers Butterfield on Wikipedia.

There may be other PremEcon products out there, but it may take some digging on your part to find them, especially as some are only regional products. As examples: China/Mandarin Airlines appear to offer a PremEcon product on some inter-Asia flights, but we can find no details. LAN has introduced PremEcon on some flights within South America – it appears to offer a lot of amenities but also seems very expensive. KLM offers Europe Select seats with 2” more legroom and additional perks, but only for inter-Europe flights.

We’ve written enthusiastically about Premium Economy before, and remain convinced that it can be a high-value product for travellers seeking more comfort without the expense of Business Class. We’d also love to hear of any updates, additions, or changes that our readers are aware of.