More than 50 percent of the long-haul international flights to/from the United States now offer flat seats in business class and about 47 percent offer semi-premium or true premium economy. That's according to a new seating study by Routehappy, the innovative flight search website that calculates a "happiness" factor for each flight. And it's good news for anyone with money or miles enough to escape cattle-car economy on those long-haul flights.
Semi-premium economy is the first step up from the knee-crunching crowding of today's regular economy product. As I reported in my earlier summary of economy seating, all or most flights—domestic and international—on American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, and United offer cabin sections with several rows featuring extra legroom, as does KLM. Seats are just as narrow as regular economy seats, but you get up to five extra inches of legroom. Those semi-premium seats usually go "free" for travelers on expensive economy tickets and high-level frequent flyers. The price premium for folks with cheap tickets is typically less than $100 on a domestic flight and $200 on an intercontinental trip. Some lines lacking dedicated special semi-premium economy cabins sell the few extra-legroom exit- and bulkhead-row seats at a premium.
True premium economy offers more legroom than even semi-premium, with a seat pitch (front-to-rear row spacing) from 38 inches into the mid-40s and seat widths several inches wider. Most lines also provide improved cabin service and better breaks on checked baggage and advance seat assignment. Routehappy reports that only 9 percent of the international flights from the United States have true premium economy, although it's available on 100 percent of the flights on some of the biggest and best known Asian and European lines, including British Airways (all flights except the business-only trips from London City Airport), Cathay Pacific, Qantas, SAS, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia; although Routehappy doesn't show it, all OpenSkies flights also have premium economy. Routehappy says it's available on all Air New Zealand flights, but that's not right: ANZ's 777-200s have only semi-premium. Lines offering true premium economy on more than two-thirds of their flights include Air France, Alitalia, ANA, and EVA. Typically, true premium economy costs about double the regular economy fare, but airlines occasionally run sales.
In business class, some 54 percent of the long-haul international flights provide horizontal lie-flat seats and another 34 percent provide flat seats at a slight angle from horizontal. Lie-flat horizontal is becoming the competitive standard, and airlines that don't have it yet are playing catch-up. Airlines with 100 percent lie-flat seats include British Airways, Delta, and Virgin Atlantic. United has the most lie-flat seat flights, at 105 per day, followed by Delta at 62, British Airways at 46, and Virgin Atlantic and US Airways at 16. Some 26 daily flights from New York-Newark to London have lie-flat seats. Business-class fares typically run anywhere from five to 10 times the cost of the cheapest economy ticket, so business-class seats are not a good value proposition for most leisure travelers. But airlines often discount business class during slow business periods, with very long advance purchase requirements. Consolidators can sell business-class seats for big discounts, often approaching 50 percent. Also, some lines regularly auction off available business-class seats to travelers in economy at the time of departure. But for ordinary travelers, frequent-flyer credit seems the best way to move up to business class, either by upgrading an economy ticket or getting a "free" award seat.
Delta and United offer international-standard business-class or first-class lie-flat seats on the highly competitive transcontinental routes from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a few other routes from major hubs, with American and JetBlue joining the group soon.
A few long-haul international airlines still offer first class as well as business class. The very few seats offered have morphed into "suites" on most lines. And fares are astronomical. But it's there if you have the money—or the expense account. For full details, download the Routehappy report here.
Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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