The number of carriers offering premium economy keeps on growing – but their products can vary considerably, reports Alex McWhirter.
In the coming months, two major US airlines will finally join the premium economy bandwagon. Some 25 years after the class first saw the light of day, American Airlines and Delta will both launch a standalone product. Meanwhile, two newcomers to the premium economy market – Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines – are continuing to fine-tune and install impressive seating across their fleets.
As more and more carriers get involved, using more and more aircraft types, subtle differences emerge between products – not just in regard to the seats themselves but things like the size of the in-flight entertainment screen, in-seat power, seat configuration and washroom access. For example, do premium economy passengers have a dedicated toilet or must they traipse into economy? Airlines also vary in what other benefits they offer to premium economy passengers, such as extra baggage allowance, fast-track security access and upgraded food and drink.
There can be a significant price differential between economy and premium economy, which suggests to some readers that the latter is closer to business than economy class. Alas, that’s not the case. The word “economy” in premium economy must not be overlooked.
It had been thought that Air New Zealand (ANZ) had bucked the trend when it introduced the Spaceseat on its long-range B777-300ER fleet, which operates the carrier’s most important routes, including its daily flight between Auckland and London Heathrow via Los Angeles. At six-across (2-2-2), the Spaceseat configuration is roomier than British Airways’ Club World on the same aircraft, which is disposed eight-across (2-4-2).
When it was launched in 2011, the Spaceseat was tipped as the way premium economy was expected to progress, but this was not to be. The Spaceseat was developed at a time when Rob Fyfe was ANZ’s chief executive. Like the carrier’s economy class Skycouch, it was the sort of innovation that Fyfe brought to what was then a rather staid airline. Since Fyfe quit at the end of 2012, it has taken a more conservative approach, and for its latest premium economy seating on its other long-haul aircraft, it has adopted what one Business Traveller reader calls the “bog standard” approach similar to others.
Air New Zealand has now officially announced the scrapping of the Spaceseat – they will be replaced with standard seating as found on its refurbished B777-200s and new B787s. These are in a 2-3-2 layout on the B787s and 2-4-2 on the B777s, with a 41-inch seat pitch, nine-inch recline, 11-inch touchscreens and in-seat power.
JOINING THE PACK
Delta Air Lines will be launching a proper premium economy cabin next year (it currently offers Comfort Plus economy seats with extra legroom). The product will debut on its new A350s, which will serve transpacific routes from the US to Asia from late 2017. Delta will then extend the new seating to its B777s, as well as its A330-200s and B767-400s.
American Airlines plans to inaugurate premium economy later this year on its B787-9s. The first international routes will be from Dallas to Sao Paulo and Madrid, effective November 4. (Note that ticket sales will not start until early 2017.)
The 21 seats will be in a 2-3-2 configuration with a 38-inch pitch and will have extendable foot, leg and headrests, and larger IFE screens than Main Cabin (economy) and Main Cabin Extra (additional legroom) seats, which are configured 3-3-3. On international flights, customers will receive noise-reducing headphones, amenity kits and an “enhanced meal service” with free wine, beer and spirits.
Cathay Pacific will introduce its A350, which features the carrier’s latest premium economy product, on its new Hong Kong to London Gatwick route this month. Unlike some other airlines’ B787s, Cathay will adopt an eight-across (2-4-2) configuration for its A350s, which is the same as on its wider B777-300ERs.
Why no difference? Paul Cruttenden, the airline’s marketing and digital sales manager, explains: “It’s to keep consistency in our long-haul fleet. Because the A350 cabin is slightly narrower [than the B777-300ER], we have increased the pitch from 38 to 40 inches to provide passengers with more living space. We also increased the recline from eight to nine degrees.” He adds: “The A350 seating sets a new standard for Cathay Pacific. It offers additional features including table holders – so passengers can use their own entertainment devices – power outlets and USB points. Legrests are provided.”
Singapore Airlines (SIA), which launched its premium economy cabin just over a year ago, is still busy installing the seating. So while the carrier’s daily Manchester-Singapore service features the product, only two of the four daily London-Singapore flights do likewise. SIA tells Business Traveller that a third A380 flight will follow in October, leaving the fourth service, operated by a B777-300ER, still to be retrofitted.
The picture is mixed for its flights in mainland Europe. The airline’s services from Amsterdam and Dusseldorf (both operated by the A350) have the new seats, as does its daily A380 flight to Paris CDG. All Frankfurt services are expected to have the new seating this month, and the A380 Zurich route from October. (If in doubt, check the booking pages on singaporeair.com.) Seats have 13.3-inch monitors, legrests, power outlets, USB ports, cocktail tables and extra stowage space, with width ranging between 18.5 and 19.5 inches depending on aircraft type.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Premium economy isn’t a success in every market. Last year, we reported that Cathay had been prompted to withdraw its new seating on routes linking Hong Kong with the Gulf and South Asia. Cruttenden says: “Premium economy is popular on our UK-Hong Kong route as well as from Hong Kong to Australia, Toronto and Los Angeles.”
Despite premium economy now being on a roll, some major carriers still lack the product. In Europe, they include KLM and Swiss. In the former’s case, it can only be a matter of time before it follows Delta, with which it operates a transatlantic joint venture, and its partner Air France in adopting it.
While United says it has no plans to offer a dedicated cabin, in March, Jake Cefolia, its vice-president of sales for the Americas, revealed to our sister magazine Buying Business Travel that the US carrier had been evaluating premium economy for some time.
That leaves the Gulf carriers, none of which have any form of premium economy product. However, at trade body IATA’s annual general meeting in June, Emirates president Tim Clark revealed that it was under consideration. Quoted in the UAE’s The National, he said: “There’s clear and present evidence that this is something we too should take seriously.”
It appears there has been a change of heart at Emirates. Falling oil prices have harmed revenues. The airline’s latest financial report showed a 3.2 per cent decline in premium ticket revenue, and, while small, this is worrying for a carrier accustomed to continual financial growth.
If Emirates were to introduce a premium economy seat, expect its Gulf counterparts to follow suit.
How the carriers compare – Tom Otley rounds up what some of the other airlines have to offer
Premium economy on the B777-300ER is in its own cabin in an eight-across (2-4-2) configuration. The seat pitch is generous – 38 inches, four inches more than regular economy – and 10 per cent wider, at 19.3 inches (49cm).
Each seat has a legrest, footrest, 10.6-inch touchscreen, power outlet, USB port and connection for Apple devices. A reading light comes out from the seat at about shoulder height – useful when the cabin is dimmed but actually quite annoying most of the time, since it rests against your upper arm.
BA’s World Traveller Plus is in a separate cabin and comes in two forms, with a more modern product found on the B787 Dreamliner, A380 and some B777s and an older one on the rest of the long-haul fleet. The pitch (38 inches) is seven inches greater than in economy, while the width (18.5 inches) is only an inch bigger.
Upholstered in navy padded fabric, the newer seat has a footrest, a headrest with wings and a 10.6-inch touchscreen that can also be controlled by a personal remote slotted into the main armrest. Noise-cancelling headphones and an amenity kit with socks, an eye mask, earplugs and toothbrush/paste are provided.
The Taiwanese carrier offers eight rows of premium economy in a 2-4-2 layout on its B777-300ER aircraft. The seat is 19 inches wide with a pitch of 39 inches. The fixed-back shell means you can recline without affecting the passenger behind.
Other features of the seat include a legrest, a 12.1-inch touchscreen, a water bottle holder, a drinks holder and a USB charging port. Designer Ray Chen has incorporated Chinese aesthetic touches throughout the aircraft, with the premium economy cabin featuring walls lined with a wood texturing effect.
China Eastern will be the first of the “big three” mainland Chinese carriers to introduce a premium economy cabin when it takes delivery of 15 B787-9 Dreamliners and 20 A350-900s between 2018 and 2021. All aircraft will be in a four-class configuration with 32 premium economy seats; further details on the product have yet to be revealed.
The Taiwanese airline was one of the first carriers to offer premium economy and its current product has a 38-inch pitch and an 19.5-inch-wide seating space with USB plugs, mood lighting and an 11-inch LCD touchscreen. Toiletries are also provided. The meal is served on chinaware and is accompanied by free wines and beers.
JAL’s Sky Premium fixed-shell seat has a generous 42 inches of pitch, with a legrest and a headrest with wings for sleeping. There is a privacy divider at head height between the seats. The 12.1-inch touchscreen can also be controlled via a handheld remote.
Storage is good – a small pocket between the seats (one for each seat) with a netted bottle-holder. In-seat power (US adapters needed for UK plugs) allows you to power up various devices.
The German airline’s seat is not in a separate cabin but is, depending on aircraft type, up to an inch wider than in economy, with about four inches more room at the side thanks to a wide armrest and a centre console. Seats recline eight inches down to 40 degrees and the pitch is 38 inches. They also have adjustable footrests, laptop power sockets, a USB port under the 11- to 12-inch screen (depending on the aircraft), and a small stowage area for glasses or a phone.
With a seat pitch of 38-42 inches and a width of 19.5 inches, Qantas offers welcome legroom on long-haul flights to and from Australia, along with nine inches of recline and 10.6-inch touchscreens.
Passengers also receive a Rockpool-inspired International Premium Economy menu devised by Australian restaurateur Neil Perry, and a welcome drink of sparkling wine. During the flight there is also access to free snacks and drinks at a self-serve bar.
One of the originators of premium economy, Virgin’s product is still very popular. Measurements differ between aircraft but the seat is 21 inches wide with at least 38 inches of legroom, and 10.5-inch touchscreens. The broad central armrests feature a flat section for drinks to be placed, and passengers either have footrests or, if you are directly behind a bulkhead, a supportive ottoman cushion.