It’s taken a long time but premium economy has come of age. Introduced 20 years ago by Taiwan’s Eva Air and Virgin Atlantic, the more spacious seats in this superior economy cabin bridge the gap between regular economy and business class.

For many years, what premium economy stood for remained a mystery to most people. Travellers in North America, the world’s largest market, were only vaguely aware of such a cabin because not a single local carrier provided it.

Because no US airline had premium economy, it meant that the global, but US-based, online agents did not list it on their booking pages. So booking premium economy, even if a traveller knew about it, wasn’t straightforward.

The breakthrough came only in the past few years, when American Airlines, Delta and United embraced the concept with a simpler, hybrid-type product. Air Canada will join in the summer but with an enhanced cabin to differentiate itself from its rivals across the border. And at the end of March, Germany’s respected Suddeutsche Zeitung newpaper revealed that Lufthansa has decided to install premium economy on its long-haul fleet, set to launch in the spring of 2014.

Although travellers can book premium economy with most major carriers, standards vary hugely from airline to airline, route to route and even within an airline’s own fleet. Book Air New Zealand’s premium economy on one of its flagship B777-300ERs and you might believe you’ve booked business class in error. At the other end of the scale, choose Delta or United and you might wonder what all the fuss was about. These carriers mainly add more legroom to economy class.

But that’s not to denigrate what the US airlines offer. Premium economy pricing relates to the comfort and space that a particular airline provides. So when you book Air New Zealand, you will be paying far more than if you were to choose a US carrier on the same route.

Still, despite its global acceptance, two major carriers – Emirates and Singapore Airlines (SIA) – remain aloof from the concept. Speaking to Business Traveller Middle East editor Dominic Ellis in Dubai in February, Emirates president Tim Clark appeared to rule out adding the cabin to his airline any time soon.

“I would never say never but we continue to pride ourselves that our economy cabin would be premium economy for many airlines, particularly on the A380,” he said. “I don’t know what economy seats on another airline offer a TV [up to 12.1 inches in size] with thousands of movies, or who spends as much we do on food.

“If we were to go to premium economy I would suggest we leave our economy cabin as is, and create a section that’s economy and compress pitch and put more seats across, do less on in-flight entertainment, food and so on – and we don’t want to go down that path.”

In previous years, SIA has maintained that its economy cabin is a match for other carriers’ premium economy classes. But with its market share under pressure, can the carrier afford to be complacent? Speaking to The Australian newspaper a few months ago, Tan Pee Teck, SIA’s senior vice-president of product and services, said: “Although premium economy is not a closed matter for us… we are not getting the sense that it’s a truly successful product.”

Still, aviation analysts based in Asia feel that SIA needs to reinvent itself seeing as its profits are being squeezed by travellers choosing cheaper alternatives, both within the region and on long-distance routes that criss-cross Singapore. Shukor Yusof, an analyst at Standard and Poor’s, told in February: “SIA has always done exceptionally well with its offerings of premium products. But perhaps it’s time for it to revisit the premium economy segment, an area where many other competitors are looking.”

So what are the drawbacks? As I have said on these pages many times, space on a plane is precious. So as premium economy improves then one or two things will happen – either fares will rise or those seated in standard economy will have to sacrifice space. In some cases, both scenarios occur.

Andrew Solum, director at travel and event management company TIA Global, says: “Space is being taken from general economy to create these zones. It means some carriers are switching from nine-abreast to a 10-abreast layout on their B777s. This means a reduction in seat width of up to an inch, if not more, which is quite tough if you are the unlucky individual in the middle seat. Perhaps the higher density of economy is a method being used by the airlines to encourage people to pay more money and fly in premium economy.”

It can also be a costly class to fly. Solum says: “Premium economy used to be a relatively obtainable product for those willing to pay 20-30 per cent more than economy class. But now the airlines seem to be raising their fares considerably. On the Virgin Atlantic website for a flight from London to San Francisco (at the time of writing) shows economy flights priced at £539 (US$822) and premium economy almost double, at £1,142 (US$1,741). But the latter comes with restrictions so a fully flexible ticket would cost over £3,000 (US$4,572). Not many will pay this rate but a company booking last minute and with no corporate deal just might.”

With fares being so high, it’s tempting for canny travellers to shun a direct flight in premium economy and instead shop around for discounted business class fares with indirect carriers.

When I checked in February, a return nonstop London-Tokyo premium economy flight with JAL for the next month cost £3,110 (US$4,740, without a weekend stay), whereas business class returns were available with Air France, Asiana, Emirates, Finnair and Qatar Airways through for between £2,400 (US$3,658) and £2,800 (US$4,268).

Solum says: “Premium economy certainly adds a great alternative for those willing to pay more for greater in-flight seating comfort but who cannot make the great leap to business class [for nonstop flights]. Or for those whose companies’ travel budgets prohibit business class.”

But he laments the fact that higher prices do not lead to a rise in catering standards. “I wish more carriers would invest in offering an improved food and beverage selection like Air New Zealand does, which makes it a different experience from regular economy. But I also understand the reluctance on the part of the airlines to make it too much like business class so as not to encourage downgrading. But I do feel premium economy is here to stay and fingers crossed it will only get better and better.”