Is Premium Economy Worth the Cost?

AskEd & AnswerEd
images/photos/columnists/edperkins.gif
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 10, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Air New Zealand, ANA, AskEd & AnswerEd, British Airways, business travel, China Airlines, Ed Perkins, EVA Air, first-class airfare, Icelandair, Japan Air, OpenSkies, Qantas, SAS, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Virgin Atlantic.

Anybody who has ever flown in a coach/economy airline cabin knows how cramped and crowded the seating is. In fact, according to available anthropometric data, typical coach/economy seats are 2-3 inches narrower, at shoulder level, than required to accommodate American men in a full plane without squeezing. Similarly, leg/knee/working room is probably also 4 to 5 inches less than required for a reasonable degree of comfort. Sadly, most airlines seem to take a "let them eat cake" attitude toward their poor coach/economy product: If travelers want a bigger seat, they can fly first class (domestic) or business class (intercontinental) at up to 20 times the lowest coach/economy fare. Some choice.

A few lines have introduced a new or modified version of coach/economy, "premium economy," that does offer adequate room and comfort—with extra cabin service on some, not on others. However, the pricing on most seems out of kilter with the realities. One reader recently put it this way:

Advertisement

"The seating in the 'cattle car' for a flight requiring nearly 15 hours is a coronary thrombosis waiting to occur. But the prices on the last flight we took went from about $800 for the cattle car to $2,900 for a civilized seat in premium economy. My wife and I are of retirement age and have the modest means for a bit more travel before nature takes its course. The airlines, however, have priced the civilized seats at factors of three, four and five times more than economy. At those prices, we choose to stay home or take a driving vacation. Will the airlines ever get real on this?"

The short answer: "Probably not, at least not most lines." Instead, most lines seem to be pricing their premium economy product to attract business travelers who are not allowed to fly business or first class but whose companies do pay for full-fare coach/economy plus the modest difference to move up from that expensive ticket to premium. Leisure travelers looking for a better flight experience at a modest premium aren't on their radar.

Premium Economy Basics

Today's premium economy is about like what international business class was when it was first introduced, 40 or so years ago. It started off as an automatic or very low-cost add-on option for the (mainly business) travelers who paid full-fare economy, then usually three to five times the cost of a highly restricted "discount" economy ticket targeted at leisure travelers. After a few years, however, Virgin Atlantic unleashed a "business class war" by offering a product that matched—and even bettered—many of its competitors' first class offerings.

Since that time, the world's big lines have been in an unending struggle to outdo each other in business class, while coach/economy remained in its earlier dismal state or even got a bit worse. As business class became ever more opulent, business fares became ever more extravagant, leaving a gap between the lowest and next-best accommodations as wide as it once was between economy and first class. Premium economy fills that gap, as original business class once did.

Today, most premium economy is limited to the newer widebody jets, and—with a few exceptions—is similar among all the lines: Seats provide 3-5 inches more shoulder width and 6-10 inches more leg, knee, and working room than regular economy. Those dimensions provide comfortable accommodation even in a full plane, and are, in our reader's words, "civilized." Pricing on most lines, however, is not so "civilized."

Premium Economy's Stiff Price

Here's what we found in early April for a week-long round-trip, on midweek days, during late May, for all the lines serving the US that offer premium economy:

  • Air New Zealand, Los Angeles-Auckland: $758 in economy, $2359 in premium economy. ANZ is an anomaly, in that in its 777s, premium seats are no wider than regular economy.
  • ANA (All Nippon), Washington/Dulles-Tokyo: $814 in economy, $2894 in premium.
  • British Airways, Boston-London: $516 in economy, $1328 in premium.
  • China Southern, Los Angeles-Guangzhou (Canton): $595 in economy, $3,032 in premium.
  • EVA, Los Angeles-Taipei: $765 in economy, $960 in premium.
  • Icelandair, Minneapolis-Reykjavik: $696 in economy, $1,075 in premium. Icelandair's premium seats are much wider than regular economy but have only the same legroom.
  • Japan Airlines, San Francisco-Tokyo: $812 in economy, $1,702 in premium.
  • OpenSkies, New York-Paris: $1,452 in premium (this line has no regular economy, and its premium product is significantly better than on other lines).
  • Qantas, Los Angeles-Sydney: $719 in economy, $4,179 in premium.
  • SAS, Chicago-Copenhagen: $575 in economy, $1,663 in premium.
  • V Australia, Los Angeles-Sydney: $653 in economy, $2,122 in premium.
  • Virgin Atlantic: Chicago-London, $724 in economy, $1,581 in premium.
  • Singapore and Thai formerly offered premium economy, but both lines subsequently dropped it
.

Most of these lines offer both "flexible" and "lowest" versions of both economy and premium economy; we show the lowest in each case. Clearly, some of the fares were promotions rather than consistent year-round offerings. Just as clearly, there is no consistency in apparent pricing philosophy, with premium increments ranging from 25% to almost 500%.

At current prices, the most realistic option for most leisure travelers is EVA to Taipei, where the additional cost of premium is only 25 percent. Icelandair's price isn't bad, either, but its product is well below the other lines. Premium is just around double regular economy on several lines, including British Airways, Japan, and Virgin Atlantic; Open Skies' fare is competitive with those, with a top-notch product. Most travelers would regard prices on the other lines as outrageous.

Improved (Slightly) Coach

Rather than introduce separate premium economy cabins with both extra legroom and wider seats, three domestic lines elected to offer a slightly-improved version of coach/economy with added legroom but conventional (narrow) coach/economy seats:

  • On JetBlue, seats in the front several rows of its A320s and the exit rows enjoy a seat pitch of 38 inches, comparable to real premium economy, and travelers can reserve these seats at the time of booking for no more than $30 each way, regardless of the base fare they pay.
  • United's "Economy Plus" seats, in the front rows of its coach cabins, are at 35- 36-inch pitch, but regular width. They're available on all mainline flights and some regional jets. You can buy them by the flight (prices vary depending on demand) or for a flat $349 for a full year; high-ranking frequent flyers and travelers on top-priced coach tickets get in automatically. Unfortunately, if you're buying by the flight, all United promises at the time of booking is that you'll get a premium seat, not any specific seat. Thus, you run the risk of opting for what you think is a premium seat only to find out it's a middle.
  • Virgin America sells front-row and exit-row seats, with extra legroom, as its version of "premium economy." Sadly, although the seat isn't very premium, the price is: On a May round-trip from San Francisco to Boston, for example, you can buy an ordinary economy seat for $99, compared with $389 in premium. Sure, the premium fare also includes meals and drinks, but that's a huge increment for such a modest improvement.

What Might Be Coming

So far, I haven't heard rumblings that any US-based airline is considering a premium economy product. To be sure, Northwest charges extra for a few front-aisle and exit-row seats, but beyond that, I haven't even heard of any other lines deciding to emulate either United or JetBlue with a slightly improved option.

Some major foreign lines, on the other hand, are likely to add premium economy—especially those that plan to fly the giant A380 across the Atlantic. I've heard such rumors about both Air France and Lufthansa, the two most likely candidates.

Buying guide

For now, reasonably priced "civilized" alternatives to the cattle car are scarce:

  • JetBlue's extra legroom option is clearly the best extra-room deal going—the price is reasonable, you can guarantee your seat in advance, and even though the product isn't true premium economy, it's pretty good.
  • As long as its price premium stays at around 25%, EVA's deal is the best for genuine premium economy. EVA seems to be the only line really trying to coax leisure travelers into its premium economy cabins, which have about double the number of seats that other lines provide.
  • Although the price is double or a bit more than other lines' regular economy, OpenSkies gives you the industry's top product at a price that's competitive with premium economy on British and Virgin.
  • You might find consolidator discounts on some of the higher-priced transpacific flights.

As far as I can tell, none of the big online agencies or aggregator sites allows a search for premium economy. You have to check each line's own website for fares and schedules.

 
 
Read comments or add your own insight!
Please enable JavaScript to properly view and use this web site.