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Premium Economy Update: Where it’s Worth it

If you’re tired of the bone-crunching, ultra-tight seating in typical coach/economy cabins, take heart: Several additional airlines have adopted some form of premium economy this year. That’s a class of service between regular economy and business- or first-class … with in-between prices. And whether you need a bit more personal space, or need enough room to work on your laptop, premium economy offers you an escape from the cattle car at prices well below the cost of business- or first-class tickets.

Premium economy comes in two basic flavors:

  • Semi-premium economy (my term) provides additional legroom but retains the ultra-narrow seats of regular economy.
  • True premium economy provides wider seats as well as more legroom than regular economy — typically, more than semi-premium economy. 

With either system, some airlines provide additional perks, such as improved meal and beverage service, a checked bag at no extra cost, early boarding, and such; others give you only the extra seat space.

The three giant domestic legacy lines, American, Delta, and United, as well as JetBlue and Frontier have opted for semipremium economy. Typically, these lines provide three to four inches greater legroom than in standard economy. On most, that means a seat pitch (front-to-rear spacing of seat rows) of 35 to 36 inches rather than the general standard of 31 inches.

Installation is complete on Delta and United and a work in progress on American. On JetBlue, it means an increase from the already outstanding base 34 inches to a generous 38 inches: a clear standout in the domestic market. Other lines sell bulkhead and exit-row seats at a premium price (a huge premium on Virgin America, smaller on most other lines) but do not provide separate rows of premium seating. So far, Alaska, Hawaiian, and Southwest haven’t introduced any type of premium economy, but chances are they’re taking a hard look at semipremium. Among the lines based outside the United States, El Al, TAM, and WestJet have adopted semipremium economy; Air New Zealand has semipremium economy in its 747s and 777-200s but true premium economy in its 777-300s only.

Pricing varies a lot, from as little as 20 percent more than regular economy to as much as 50 percent. Typically, travelers on full-fare tickets and high-ranking frequent flyers get semipremium seats at no extra charge. Some lines auction off available semipremium seats at departure times, at prices that vary by route and demand.

Other than KLM, top-ranking Asian and European lines have adopted true premium economy, generally in all their long-haul, wide-body jets. Typical seat pitch starts at 38 inches, with either one or two fewer seats in each row than standard economy. Among the lines that have taken this approach are Air China, Air France, Air New Zealand (777-300s only), Alitalia, ANA (777-300s only), British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, EVA, JAL, Qantas, Thai (340-500s only), Turkish, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. Typically, travelers enjoy improved cabin service and other perks.

Unfortunately, prices for true premium economy are high. In some ways, the Air France blurb says it all: It hypes “40 percent more room” but charges about 100 percent higher fare than regular economy. That’s about par for the course; when I’ve looked, EVA offered the lowest markup over regular economy. To me, it seems apparent that airlines are positioning true premium economy as a trade-down from business class rather than a trade-up from the cheapest economy.

Oddly missing from either list, at least so far, are Lufthansa, Singapore, and the big Middle Eastern lines, all of which compete directly with the several lines that do offer premium economy. Presumably, they’re looking.

A few charter lines that normally provide worse-than-regular economy seats label a few regular economy seats as “premium.” And some lines charge a small premium for aisle seats in the front of coach cabins but with no extra room.

Premium economy, especially true premium economy, is not an attractive value proposition for many leisure travelers looking for an escape from the cattle car. But some of you might find semipremium worth the extra cost, especially if you can get it at a reasonable “auction” price.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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