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Premium Economy: You Get What You Pay for

Premium economy air service of some sort—better than regular economy but not as lush as business class—is becoming the norm for big airlines around the world. Recent announcements by American Airlines and Cathay Pacific highlight the spreading acceptance of the idea. Although the names may be the same, however, the products certainly are not. Instead, airlines use the term to cover two distinct approaches, with two distinct pricing models:

“Real Premium Economy,” in my terms, provides a separate cabin featuring a combination of seats that are wider than regular economy and offer eight to 10 inches more legroom, in most cases with upgraded cabin and beverage service and often with dedicated check-in and boarding and a bigger baggage allowance. It’s really a lot better than ordinary economy; in fact, it’s about like the first iterations of business class before business class became so outlandishly lavish. Airlines can honestly describe it as “comfortable,” a claim many lines falsely claim for their regular economy services.

The downside is the pricing. For the most part, premium-economy fares tend to vary somewhere around double the cost of regular economy. Clearly, the price points are aimed more at enticing business travelers whose policies or budgets forbid business class than at leisure travelers looking to escape the miseries of regular economy. Occasionally, however, the big lines offer “sale” prices that bring fares down to a level that might interest vacationers.

Real premium economy is becoming the norm for long-haul planes on the big airlines based in Asia, Europe, and the South Pacific. Lines that offer or will soon offer real premium economy include Air France, Alitalia, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, EVA Air, JAL, Qantas, SAS, Thai Airways (one aircraft type only), Turkish Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. The most significant holdouts include El Al, Emirates, KLM, Korean Air, LAN, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines.

“Semi-premium Economy” is what I call the approach taken by the big U.S.-based airlines: They have installed (or are installing) a separate forward part of the regular economy cabins with several rows of seats providing three to six inches of extra legroom. The seats are the same as regular economy, which means they’re too narrow to accommodate American adults without crowding. United’s “Economy Plus,” already available fleet-wide, provides standard-economy cabin service; Delta’s “Economy Extra,” available on most long-haul planes and being added fleet-wide, includes superior cabin service and extra amenities; American is just getting started with its “Main Cabin Extra” installation and hasn’t announced details about cabin service. Among the smaller lines, Frontier provides a similar product. Overseas, KLM is the only big line to use this approach—an interesting decision, given that partner Air France offers real premium economy.

The big plus to semi-premium economy is the pricing. Access is generally “free” to high-level frequent flyers and travelers on full-fare coach tickets, and travelers on even the cheapest tickets can move up by paying fees that vary from less than $10 to $110 per flight.

A few lines that haven’t installed separate cabins charge extra for the very few exit-row and bulkhead seats that airplane design dictates must provide extra room. Most charge nominal fees; the main exception is Virgin America, which charges something like four times the regular coach fare.

The main domestic big-line holdouts include Alaska, Hawaiian, Southwest, and US Airways. You shouldn’t be surprised if all but Southwest decide to install the semi-premium option.

Your Choice The choice you get is obvious: Pay a little more for a little better trip or pay a lot more for a much better trip.

  • For domestic travel, semi-premium is your only option.
  • Flying overseas, choose American, United, or US Airways if you like the semi-premium approach; choose a big Asian, European, or Pacific line if you want the real thing.
  • If you opt for real premium economy, look for periodic promotions that bring the price to the point that it can look attractive to even an ordinary leisure traveler.

And don’t be fooled by mislabeling semi-premium as real premium economy.

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

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