John Geigert, president of BioPharmaceutical Quality Solutions based in Carlsbad, Calif., figures he has flown more than 200,000 miles and about 20 premium-economy flights in the last year. In fact, he spends so much time on airplanes that he will not fly economy. “As a frequent flyer of United and American Airlines, I automatically get seated in Economy Plus [United] or Main Cabin Extra [American Airlines],” he says. “When I fly internationally on other airlines, if I don’t purchase business class, I purchase premium economy.”
Premium economy first hit the scene when Virgin Atlantic Airways introduced an upgraded economy fare in 1992. Many international carriers followed suit by offering roomier seats, upgraded meals and additional amenities for a price point geared toward gap service: the delta between business and economy. It didn’t take long for carriers to recognize premium-economy service as a marketing opportunity catering to cash-constrained business travelers and cramped economy travelers looking for just a bit more. Though Lufthansa initially resisted the move over fears that premium economy might dilute business-class revenue — concerns shared by Emirates, Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines — it is slated to roll out premium-economy service in 2014.
Features in premium economy differ depending on airline and plane type, but generally speaking for international flights, the class usually translates to one to two inches more seat width than economy class, with two to three inches more recline and a larger personal video screen with power ports for laptops. Meals are upgraded and usually include complimentary drinks. So, should it be called “business minus” or “extra legroom” — or is it a “class in between”?
For some travelers, premium economy is nothing more than an economy seat with more legroom. This may be particularly true for domestic flights, where even JetBlue calls its domestic service “Extra Leg Room.” (This does not necessarily equate to additional seat width.) In fact, some feel legroom in economy has decreased over the years and is the basic reason premium economy emerged. The bottom line is not all seats are created equal, and seat pitch and width vary widely from airline to airline, with international flights usually offering better benefits, food and service.
Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic call their in-between class Premium Economy, while Delta Air Lines calls it Economy Comfort. British Airways labels it World Traveller Plus. Whatever the name, travelers should be prepared to pay a premium for trans-Atlantic flights. According to a SeatGuru.com study, by booking in advance, these seats can cost 85 percent more than normal economy-class tickets. However, by booking closer to departure, a premium-economy ticket can drop to about 34 percent more than economy. This is not true for premium economy on cross-Pacific flights, where you can expect to pay about 95 percent more despite when booked. Yet because of the time in air, the long haul to Asia/Australia may well be worth the price.
The reasons Geigert chooses premium economy have more to do with comfort and productivity, as well as maintaining his frequent-flyer status on United and American. Next he focuses on the price, then on seat pitch. “Amazing what every inch of added space can mean to a long flight. Not being a tall person, I don’t need the legroom, but the extra inches mean the difference between using a computer or not during the flight.”
For Ted Bravos, president and CEO of the International Tour Management Institute, purchasing premium economy is something he sees as a vetting process based on a combination of convenience, price, service and reputation. Foremost, Bravos books a flight on the basis of convenience, such as direct flights and potential frequent-flyer upgrades. He wants to spend the least amount of time in the air as possible. And though he says “inches and meals” are important, Bravos acknowledges his love of Virgin’s flights because the plane has a mood.
However, for the year 2013, Skytrax World Airline Awards selected Air New Zealand as the best for all three premium-economy categories: Best Premium Economy Class, Best Premium Economy Class Seat and Best Premium Economy Class Onboard Catering. The World Airline Awards represent the global benchmark of airline excellence and are determined through surveys of more than 18 million airline passengers from more than 160 countries. The study covers 200 airlines and measures customer satisfaction on 40 key performance indicators such as onboard seat comfort, food and service.
There may be unintended consequential benefits to purchasing premium economy not obvious at first blush. Bruce Tepper, a partner and marketing consultant with Joselyn, Tepper & Associates, found himself flying from Chicago to Warsaw in March of this year on board LOT Polish Airlines. He purchased a premium-economy ticket because of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, scheduled for inaugural service in February. Later, when the 787 was pulled due to battery design issues, Tepper was upgraded to business class for the price of a premium-economy ticket.
Yet Arthur Painvin, director of operations at The Orchard in New York City, doesn’t feel the price for premium economy is worth it. “The difference in price is about midway between business and economy, but the service and comfort is much closer to economy. The price difference is not met with the experience that one would desire or expect.” Though he has flown premium economy multiple times on Air France international flights, he says, “In all honesty, I would not pay the going rate for premium-economy seating.”
According to Painvin, there is the good, the bad and the ugly side of premium economy. “The seats are more comfortable and the additional space is a great plus, especially when traveling internationally.” That’s the good. As for the bad, “The food and overall quality of service is similar, if not identical to economy.” But the ugly? “Companies market this as a ‘premium’ service, making travelers believe that the service and overall experience is far superior, but in reality it really isn’t.”
Annemarie Osborn, a consultant based in Germany, says, “On a long flight it is worth the extra expense.” However, she also cautions, “You will be extremely disappointed with the service and that the ‘premium’ experience has been ‘over-promised.’ ”
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