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Does Premium Economy Deliver on Its Ambitious Promise?

SmarterTravel

Premium economy should deliver comfortable seats at a reasonable price. Does it? Consumer advocate Ed Perkins investigates—and he doesn’t like what he finds.

Premium economy is a class of airline service that falls somewhere between economy class and either business class (on long-haul international routes) or first class (on domestic routes). It’s supposed to be a more comfortable version of economy that, on the price scale, falls between regular economy and whatever is the next higher class.

A better seat—and maybe more

The industry has no accepted standard for premium economy. Basically, an airline can put a “premium economy” nametag on whatever service is wishes. However, most lines that offer premium economy present a consistent service package.

The fundamental requisite of premium economy is improved seating. On most lines, premium economy seat pitch (the front-to-rear spacing of seat rows) ranges from 37-40 inches. That compares with 30-34 inches in conventional economy, 34-38 inches in domestic first class, and 42-72 inches in intercontinental business class. Seat width—measured between the centers of adjacent seats—is around 22-24 inches. That compares with 19-20 inches in typical economy and up to 28 inches in domestic first class and intercontinental business class.

Premium economy makes a big difference on a long flight. You’re not constantly rubbing shoulders with the person next to you, and you don’t have to twist your upper body sideways to avoid bumping your seatmate. You don’t have to fight over possession of the armrest. You have adequate space to read or work even if the person in front of you reclines his/her seat.

So far, real premium economy is limited to intercontinental flights to/from the US on a handful of airlines: Air New Zealand (starting this summer), ANA (from Chicago, Washington, and New York only), British Airways, China Southern, EVA, SAS, Singapore (A340-500 flights only), Thai (A340-500 flights only), and Virgin Atlantic. A few other airlines offer a service they call premium economy that does not measure up to these standards. Unfortunately, so far there is no market discipline mechanism to counteract those misleading claims.

Pricing shortcomings

Pricing for premium economy is inconsistent. Some airlines set their rates at a modest increase over ordinary economy. Others price it out of reach of almost all leisure travelers and many business travelers on tight budgets. Ideally, the price for a seat in premium economy should be based on the amount of extra cabin “real estate” it occupies. The amount of extra real estate depends, of course, both on specific airplanes and on how much real estate each line uses for its ordinary economy product.

The “indifference” price level for premium economy—the level at which an airline comes out even whether travelers buy an ordinary or premium economy ticket—runs from 1.23 to 1.45 times the price of ordinary economy. If you exclude the extremes at both ends, a premium economy ticket should cost 1.32 to 1.39 times an ordinary economy ticket. Unfortunately, only a few airlines are willing to sell you a seat in premium economy for anywhere near the indifference price.

Probing the Haystack

Premium economy is rare enough—just finding a premium economy fare can sometimes be a challenge. Only a few major airlines make it really easy for you to locate premium economy fares and to compare them with ordinary economy:

  • British Airways provides by far the best website for checking premium economy. When you enter an itinerary, not only can you specify “Premier Economy” but you can also specify whether you want the “lowest” fare or a “flexible” fare. The display immediately shows the fares for the dates you specified as well as fares on each of plus or minus seven days from the dates. Clearly, that can be important, since the fare during a given seven-day period may vary by a factor of more than two to one.
  • Virgin Atlantic’s site also allows you to select between “lowest” and “flexible,” plus or minus seven days, but its presentation isn’t as convenient as BA’s.
  • Singapore’s website is also extremely informative, noting a choice between premium economy on a nonstop or ordinary economy on one-stop/connecting flights.

Other airlines seem to have decided to make it as hard as possible for consumers to locate premium economy fares. You’ll find it impossible to search for a premium economy fare online on either China Southern or SAS. There is no reference to premium economy at all on those lines’ websites.

Forget about checking premium economy options on any of the major third-party airfare agencies and search engines:

  • None of the big online agencies—Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity—make provisions to search for premium economy.
  • None of the screenscrapers or aggregators, such as Kayak, Mobissimo, Qixo, SideStep, and BookingBuddy.com, provides for premium economy search.

For now, if you want premium economy, you must go through the individual airline websites or phone reservations offices. And with some of them, even their own websites don’t work—you have to call.

Not making the grade

As the last piece of the puzzle, be warned that not all premium economy services really satisfy the requirements. The most notable near miss is on United. Although its Economy Plus service does provide a bit of extra legroom, seats are the same ultra-narrow sardine-can seats that you get in ordinary coach. United limits access to its Economy Plus cabins to travelers on expensive coach tickets or high-ranking members of its frequent flyer program. United agents also occasionally sell upgrades from cheap coach tickets to Economy Plus at the departure gate if the Plus cabin isn’t heavily booked, but you can’t count on that.

BMI, too, provides a cabin with a bit of extra legroom but with the same seat width as in regular economy. And Air New Zealand, which is installing what appears to be an attractive premium option on its 747s, inexplicably plans to use regular-width economy seats for the premium cabin in its new 777s. Strange.

Buyers’ guide

Real premium economy is a good product. You get enough legroom and the seats are wide enough that you aren’t crunched into a space that’s inadequate for even a minimum of comfort. But premium economy is available on only a few airlines, and many of those airlines overprice it.

On most airlines, premium economy won’t yet justify the very high price for most travelers. If circumstances require that you buy a full-fare economy ticket, by all means select an airline that will automatically seat you in premium. But buying one of those overpriced tickets just to get into premium doesn’t make much sense.

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