Premium Economy: The Fourth Choice?

30 Nov 2010

No apologies for singling out premium economy for attention, as it seems that this “fourth” class is here to stay despite economic recovery. The improvements and investments being made in seats from the back to the front of the plane are impressive across many of the national carriers, but nowhere is that progress more pronounced than what is happening in the premium economy.

Although Eva Air and Virgin Atlantic both claim to be the first to have introduced premium economy, one certainty is that until recently this fourth cabin was the preserve of these two airlines and British Airways.

For flyers with BA, it was clear that the product was not well known in Asia, despite being popular in the home market, since the price for an upgrade into premium economy departing the UK was far more than upgrading for the return journey.

BA Traveller

The case for a premium economy cabin grew stronger, however. And ironically, improvements in business class were the cause. The vast improvement in business class seats meant that prices for them had to rise, creating a huge gulf in price between economy and business. In fact, economy tickets have never been cheaper in real terms, but as cash-strapped business travellers will tell you, it’s not much fun flying 10 hours in long haul when you have a business meeting the next day, premium economy fits neatly into the gap.

Invent a seat or, in some cases, a cabin that offers greater comfort, peace and quiet, perhaps even better food and the chance to earn more frequent flyer points without breaking the bank and many flyers said: yes, please.

So in recent years first Qantas and then Air New Zealand have seen great success with their premium economy cabins as Virgin introduced improvements to the seat, and American airlines such as United called some of its seats Economy Plus, and reserved the front of the cabin for these flyers either prepared to pay a little extra, or alternatively those who were high-tier members of its loyalty programme. And later on Japan Airlines introduced JAL Sky Shell Seat, the world’s first shell-shaped seat in premium economy that has garnered an award.  KLM, Air France and now even Turkish Airlines have joined the gang.

One of the latest launches of a new fourth class is Classica Plus by Alitalia, as part of the carrier’s re-branding effort. The product began to be available on flights from Milan Malpensa to Tokyo in July, and to New York and Miami as of August, on the new Airbus A330 aircraft. Other than the usual perks, there are also specially designed pillows and blankets, as well as upgraded food and beverage offerings.

In March, China Southern began to phase in premium economy onto domestic flights served by Boeing 777-A, 737 (Next Generation) and Airbus 319, 320, 321 and 330-200/300 aircraft. Passengers can now book them on flights departing from Guangzhou and Shenzhen to Shanghai and Beijing at the full economy fare. Other than more comfort, there is also the offer of free re-routing between neighbouring destinations (meaning the passenger can choose to take the return flight from another city).

Despite examples of the fourth cabin’s success, there is resistance to it, too. Singapore Airlines seems determined not to feature it. The carrier has just introduced new seating on its long haul fleet and believes – or at least hopes – that the economy will rebound and cash- strapped business travellers will return to business class.

Qatar Airways is also not considering premium coach. But the airline’s senior vice-president commercial East Asia & South West Pacific Marwan Koleilat said that the airline’s general direction is to phase out first class to make room for more business class products that will be upgraded to offer first-class experiences.

Cathay Pacific, however, has been reported as considering premium economy, perhaps an admission that its previous refusal to do so was wrong, or perhaps because it thinks for certain markets the economic downturn has created a permanent shift in behaviour.

But there would be very little resistance from travellers, who are surely happy to have an affordable option of to enjoy more comfort when flying long haul.

With additional reporting by Reggie Ho


The name game

It’s confusing enough that airlines offering economy class seating only do so on selected routes, many of them also name the cabin differently. Here is a list of the variations: Alitalia www.alitalia.com - Classica Plus Air France www.airfrance.com - Premium Voyageur British Airways www.britishairways.com - World Traveller Plus Eva Air www.evaair.com - Elite Cabin KLM www.klm.com - Europe Select Turkish Airlines www.turkishairlines.com - Comfort Class United Airlines www.united.com - Economy Plus  

What you get

The prices of premium economy seats vary from one airline to another, and so do the benefits that come with them. But generally, they would all include:

• Priority check-in

• Extra baggage allowance

• More legroom and large seat-recline degree

• Charging/USB ports for laptops and gadgets

• Extra mileage

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