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Stepping Up: Premium Economy Takes Off as Customers Seek Elevated Comfort and Amenities

by Eugenia Lazaris

Oct 9, 2023

© Air Canada

October 2023

The demand for travel has steadily risen since the world began its slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. With that rise came a dramatic increase in the desire for comfort, dignity, privacy and pampering on airplanes. Recent trends show travelers are not just eager to get back out to see the world, but their values also shifted as they seek more meaningful travel that includes embracing and expecting more humane and accommodating travel conditions.

Today’s travelers are no longer satisfied with spending long hours crammed into uncomfortable, cramped seats, especially on long-haul international flights, and are willing to pay more for the chance to enjoy the flight in order to be better rested when they arrive at their destination. While first class and business class can cost a small fortune, premium economy cabins offer a happy medium, enabling passengers to enjoy some of the creature comforts and conveniences of business class without getting the full experience or full cost of a cabin upgrade.

Premium economy cabins, which exist under different names depending on the airline (such as Premium Comfort Class offered by KLM and World Traveller Plus on British Airways), include many appealing features that create a high demand, even with the additional cost. The seats are often bigger, have more legroom, more cushioning and feature upgraded food and entertainment options compared to those offered in basic economy cabins. In our annual survey of the premium-economy products of airlines around the globe, we take an in-depth look at these elevated passenger cabins to understand how they provide upgraded flight experiences and why they have increased in popularity among travelers.

KLM

© KLM

As airlines recognize passenger demand for a more comfortable and privileged cabin, more and more carriers offer some form of premium economy cabin and even add additional rows of seats to existing premium economy cabins located in a designated space between business and economy. Air France offers a premium economy cabin on international flights including voyages to Caribbean and Indian Ocean destinations. In addition to added space, these seats come with a comfort kit — something usually reserved for business or first class cabins — plus blankets, pillows and a bottle of water awaiting each passenger upon boarding.

United Airlines, which offers its Premium Plus cabin on several of its aircraft such as the Boeing 777-200, Boeing 767-300 and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, includes several extra conveniences with its Premium Plus seating. Passengers not only get larger seats and extra legroom with chairs that recline further than basic economy seats but also access to power outlets and USB chargers, free alcoholic beverages in addition to standard beverage service, and hot meals including snacks and desserts. Similar to the airline’s business-class seats, these fares on United also include priority boarding and allow guests to check two bags rather than the standard one. In addition to these in-flight perks, Premium Plus passengers have the option to purchase discounted United Club passes, thus extending the benefits of their upgraded seats to the airport experience.

Air Canada, which offers premium economy cabins on its wide-body aircraft servicing both North America and international destinations, offers a host of features designed to give passengers the feel of flying in business class. Premium economy cabins on all flights offer coat service; warm, scented towels; water bottles waiting at your seat upon boarding; and paper menu presentations for hot meal selections. By placing premium-economy seats in a separate cabin space from the other classes, as with other airlines in our survey, passengers feel as if they are receiving the treatment usually associated with flying in a luxury cabin like business or first class.

Swiss

© Swiss

For all flights exceeding two hours throughout North America, Air Canada added a pre-meal bar service for passengers in premium economy. For these flights, an exclusive wine selection allows passengers to choose from two reds and two whites poured fresh from full-sized bottles. This is in addition to the pre-flight service of orange juice or sparkling water offered to boarding passengers on all of the airline’s long-haul international flights.

Earlier this year Swiss International Air Lines unveiled its latest answer to increasing passenger demand for more comfort and space with the first of its new premium economy cabins. All four of its Airbus A340s have been equipped with the new class, and the airline plans to extend the class option to all 12 of its Boeing 777-300ER long-haul aircraft.

Air New Zealand also takes passenger demand into account with the recent addition of a Sky Pantry. This upgrade to the airline’s premium economy cabin extends to economy class and gives passengers a chance to stand up and stretch their legs while they help themselves to snacks and beverages during the flight.

premium economy

© Swiss

The airline will introduce other improvements as it works toward a more sustainable design for its aircraft in an effort to reduce overall carbon emissions. Premium-economy seats will soon be made with modern fabrics instead of leather, reducing the weight of the seat by approximately 2 pounds, and service ware for the cabins will be 20 percent lighter. Together with seats that offer passengers more privacy than economy class and the ability to recline without interrupting the person behind them, Air New Zealand intends to create a world-class environment for passengers to get their best rest while flying.

American Airlines, the first United States-based airline to introduce a premium economy cabin into its long-haul international flight repertoire in 2016, continues to lead at the forefront of recognizing passenger demand with its aircraft design. The airline is in the process of increasing premium seating by more than 45 percent by 2026, with its redesigned new Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A321XLR deliveries starting in 2024.

premium economy

© American Airlines

These new premium-economy seats will more closely resemble business-class seating with added personal seat space and double the amount of personal in-seat storage space than is currently available with existing premium-economy seats. With a reimagined aircraft interior, these new planes will not only feature elevated design elements to create a more elegant aesthetic for passengers but also will include a total of 32 premium-economy seats on the Boeing 787-9 aircraft, an increase from the 21 currently available on the airline’s existing Boeing 787-9 planes. The seats will feature larger in-seat entertainment screens and headrest wings that will not just provide added comfort but also added privacy.

Passengers across the globe are responding positively to the opportunity to fly in comfort and style without having to spring for the high cost of a luxury-class ticket. While the cost of premium economy is understandably higher than basic economy, it is often significantly lower than business class, and today’s traveler appears willing to pay the extra money to fly in comfort and experience a taste of what usually comes with the high cost of a business- or first-class fare. While travelers continue to demand more comfort and better treatment when flying, the number of premium-economy products will likely grow in the future as airlines continue to consider the desires of their customers.

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