By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency
United Airlines finally started offering true premium economy, making it the last of the “big three” to start offering a product their Asian and European competitors have been offering for years. To date, all three giant lines have outfitted only a limited number of planes with premium economy: Delta on only its new A350s, American on A330-200s, 777-200s and 787-9s United on a few 777s. All three lines expect to add premium economy throughout their wide-body fleets by the end of next year. In addition, all three can provide true premium economy on code-shared flights operated by partner lines based outside the U.S. But premium economy is confined to wide-body planes, which means you’re likely to see it mainly on intercontinental routes, although U.S. lines may use them on a few premium transcontinental routes.
Until recently, the big U.S. lines focused their “better than economy” option to what I call “stretched” economy: three to six inches more legroom, but the same narrow seats as in regular economy. Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United all offer some version of stretched economy, Southwest is the lone holdout among the large lines. Some lines add upgraded cabin and meal service; others treat stretched economy the same way they treat regular economy.
True premium economy is quite a bit different. Seat pitch — front-to-rear spacing — is typically at least 37 inches, compared with 33 to 36 inches on stretched economy and 30 to 31 inches in regular economy. But seats are also two to three inches wider at shoulder level, with armrests wide enough to share. Typically, true premium economy seating is seven-across (2-3-2) on 787s, A330s, A350s, A380 upper decks, compared with eight or nine across in conventional economy, and eight across (2-4-2) on 747s and 777s compared with 10-across in conventional economy. True premium seats also recline quite a bit more than regular economy seats, although certainly not to anything close to business class. Most lines also offer upgraded cabin service and, often, dedicated check-in lines and other forms of differentiation.
Many Asian and European lines, including low-fare lines, along with Air Canada, have offered true premium economy for years. The true premium economy experience is rather like domestic first class. It’s not luxurious, compared to today’s opulent business class, but unlike today’s economy, you can accurately say it’s comfortable even with an overweight seatmate. As far as I can tell, all three big lines intend to retain stretched economy along with premium economy, resulting in four-class and even some five-class planes. Fares are inconsistent. The last time I compared the cheapest economy and premium economy fares for 21 airlines on a primary intercontinental route touching the U.S. or Canada for peak-season summer travel, the average fare surcharge over regular economy was 78 percent. A quick check of fares this summer indicates it remains about the same.
True premium economy is not an easy value proposition for many travelers, especially families on vacation. Close to double the fare for a more comfortable seven- to 12-hour intercontinental trip can be a tough sell, which explains why the premium economy cabin on many lines consists of just a few rows. At regular prices, then, premium economy seems to be pitched mainly at very high-end leisure travelers and business travelers whose companies don’t pay for business class travel but do allow premium economy.
Price-conscious leisure travelers can sometimes cut the price spread, either when an airline puts premium economy on sale, as some lines often do, or when they sell or auction upgrades at departure. Real premium economy fares are not as seasonal as regular economy, either, so the spread narrows during summer and holiday peak travel times. And AARP members can discount premium economy on British Airways by $130.
(c) 2018 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.– July 3, 2018
Ed Perkins is a nationally syndicated travel columnist, with weekly columns appearing in three dozen U.S. newspapers. He was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter and has written for Business Traveller (London), Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, The New Yorker, and National Geographic Traveler.