A new class of flyer

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Photo Credit: Illustration by Grimgram/Shutterstock.com

Premium economy sections for transoceanic flights are certainly nothing new in the fleets of foreign carriers. In 1991, Taiwan's Eva Air rolled out the first such fare grouping with the introduction of what was called its Evergreen Class.

Virgin Atlantic followed suit in 1992, pioneering premium economy sections in their modern configuration. Today, according to the website SeatGuru, around 28 airlines, including major carriers such as British Airways and Air France, offer the fare class, which bridges the widening gulf between the business and economy sections of airplanes.

But the December announcement by American Airlines that it will become the first U.S. carrier to offer an international premium economy product has some proclaiming that this still-least-established fare class has finally come of age.

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"It's the largest airline in the world putting together an entirely new product," said Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager for the website RouteHappy, which ranks flight amenities worldwide.

Delta and United, he said, are likely to do the same soon.

Other major carriers, meanwhile, have also recently turned to premium economy sections to broaden their offerings to budget-conscious, but not penny-pinching, consumers. American's announcement came at the tail end of a year when Lufthansa completed the rollout of premium economy cabins on its 109-aircraft international fleet and Singapore Airlines launched its first flights featuring a premium economy section.

"This is really a tipping point where we're starting to see a lot of airlines offering it," Rabinowitz said. "Lufthansa and Singapore, these are major airlines. They don't take transforming their seats lightly."

Photo Credit: Source: SeatGuru.com

Premium economy defined

For purposes of clarity, it's necessary to precisely define premium economy. On domestic routes, many airlines offer seats at the front of their economy cabins that have extra legroom. These products typically come with early boarding, complimentary beverages and perhaps other perks, including upgraded stowage and entertainment offerings.

Delta calls this product Comfort+, United calls it Economy Plus, American uses the name Main Cabin Extra and Alaska plans to unveil its Premium Class late this year.

Such products, however, are not to be confused with true premium economy offerings. Jami Counter, senior director of SeatGuru, a TripAdvisor brand, said that premium economy sections are their own fare class, featuring their own cabin, just as business and first-class sections do, and contain entirely different seats than are found in the same plane's economy section.

"This is truly a different class of service," Counter said. "It's definitely meant to bridge the wide, wide gap that has developed between business and economy sections."

Premium economy sections, of course, differ in their details from airline to airline. But in general, they feature a more plush seat than would be found in the economy section. Seats are two to three inches wider than in economy. They recline further. They have footrests and adjustable headrests. And they offer significantly more legroom than economy.

Seat pitch, the industry term for the space between a specific point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front or behind it, is 37 to 38 inches in most airlines' premium economy sections, compared with a standard pitch in economy of approximately 31 inches.

To create the extra space a premium economy seat requires, airlines have to reconfigure a craft's seat alignment. For example, Rabinowitz said, an airline might use a 2-3-2 seat configuration, two seats on either side of the plane and three in the middle, for the premium economy cabin in a Boeing 787 craft as opposed to a 3-3-3 configuration in economy.

Along with improved seating, premium economy sections typically offer upgraded food, on-demand television and instead of only a USB port, an AC port to power a laptop. Often, airlines will provide an amenities kit, filled with travel accessories, such as a toothbrush and eye covers, for its premium economy passengers.

Rabinowitz said it's helpful to think of premium economy cabins as similar to the international business class section of the mid-1990s, before lie-flat seats became the industry standard. Counter prefers to compare them to today's domestic first-class products on U.S. legacy carriers American, Delta and United.

Whichever comparison is made, premium economy seats offer a significant upgrade in comfort over economy at a relatively affordable price. For example, Singapore Airlines typically sells a premium economy seat from Singapore to the U.S. for around $1,900, company spokesman James Boyd said, as opposed to an economy class ticket of approximately $1,200. Business-class seats, in contrast, generally cost in the $7,000-to-$8,000 range.

Similarly, Lufthansa spokeswoman Christina Semmel said a transatlantic premium economy seat costs, on average, about $660 more than an economy ticket.

British Airways World Traveller Plus section.
British Airways World Traveller Plus section.

The appeal

With comforts that far exceed a cramped coach seat and prices that aren't excessively higher, it should come as no surprise that premium economy sections appeal to a wide market.

Boyd said retirees, small business owners and corporate travelers are among Singapore's target audience for the product.

British Airways spokesman Noel Meehan wrote in an email that the carrier's premium economy service, World Traveller Plus, "caters to a wide audience from baby boomers taking that long-awaited special leisure trip to business travelers looking for an affordable option that offers a more comfortable and relaxing experience."

Lufthansa's Semmel said that catering to business travelers was a key consideration in the carrier's decision to retrofit its fleet over the course of 2014 and 2015.

"As business-class travel is no longer allowed in many companies on grounds of cost, business travelers want a more comfortable but still reasonably priced alternative to standard economy class," she wrote. "Increasing numbers of private travelers are also prepared to pay more for extra comfort, although business class would be too expensive for them."

Still, while it has become increasingly available over the past decade, premium economy remains something of a novelty among U.S. travelers.

In total, 23% of international long-haul flights of more than 2,800 miles now offer a separate premium economy cabin, according to RouteHappy. But until American's December announcement, U.S. carriers hadn't started to follow the trend.

Rabinowitz said one reason is the cost of creating the new section. American, Delta and United maintain the three largest fleets of aircraft in the world, making the daunting prospect of transforming planes even more of a hurdle.

"These seats aren't cheap," Rabinowitz said. "Taking the plane out of revenue service is not cheap. Installing the seat is not cheap. Training the crews to offer a new type of service is not cheap. And maintaining the seats is not cheap."

Singapore Airlines  was among those who started to offer premium economy seats last year.
Singapore Airlines was among those who started to offer premium economy seats last year.

For an example of the cost, there's Singapore Airlines, which introduced premium economy last August on flights between Singapore and Sydney and began its U.S. premium economy service on flights out of Los Angeles and San Francisco in January. Developing the product and installing it on 38 existing craft plus 20 new deliveries cost the airline $80 million, Boyd said.

American declined to reveal how much it anticipates the rollout will cost, but Chief Marketing Officer Andrew Nocella said that premium economy cabins will be installed in the airline's entire widebody fleet by the end of 2018, between a total of 140 and 150 planes.

Judson Rollins, an aviation analyst who worked for Continental at the time of its 2010 merger with United, said that major U.S. carriers have until recently viewed investing in premium economy with skepticism.

"The Big Three have traditionally thought it was too much risk because not enough businesses would be interested in it, and the reduced seats create revenue risk," he said.

Such concerns might not have been completely off base.

U.S. corporations haven't fully embraced premium economy sections yet, said Katie Raddatz, who heads Carlson Wagonlit Travel's air solutions consulting team. Raddatz said that when she sits with corporate clients who are looking to get more value out of their overseas travel budgets, the possibility of putting employees in premium economy rather than business class is one she regularly suggests.

Most companies end up staying with the familiar, she said.

"We are seeing them go through the analysis, but we are not yet seeing the policy change," Raddatz said, adding that the primary concern is about how senior employees who are long used to flying in business class will react.

Nevertheless, Raddatz said she is seeing a trend in which companies will fly employees on business class for overnight flights to Europe, then bring them home during the day on premium economy.

In addition, she said that in some cases department leaders are deciding to save money by requiring staffers to fly premium economy even if business-class travel is still allowed under a company's global travel policy.

As more airlines begin to offer premium economy seats through the GDS, interest is also picking up, she said.

Still, some U.S. companies, especially newer ones whose employees haven't gotten used to flying business class, are more open to premium economy.

Among those is TripAdvisor, said SeatGuru's Counter, who said that he is only allowed to fly business class on especially long transoceanic flights.

American Airlines plans premium economy seats in all planes by 2018.
American Airlines plans premium economy seats in all planes by 2018.

Moving forward

Ultimately, Nocella said, demand from passengers of all sorts was the key factor in American's decision to install premium economy cabins on its transoceanic fleet. He added that American has gotten an inside look at the numbers through its joint venture partnerships with Japan Airlines and British Airways, both of which already offer a premium economy class.

"We could see the opportunity in the marketplace based upon their performance and their success," Nocella said."It became obvious to us there was a gap on board our aircraft."

American's premium economy rollout begins late this year with no more than six planes, all new-delivery Boeing 787-900s, then will continue through 2018 as the carrier retrofits its existing long-haul fleet.  

Nocella downplayed the importance of being the first U.S. carrier to move forward with a premium economy offering, saying that the timing of December's announcement was driven by the completion of American's integration with US Airways in October.

Still, analysts, including SeatGuru's Counter and RouteHappy's Rabinowitz, expect Delta and United to add premium economy class cabins, as well.

"The three U.S. airlines typically follow each others' moves pretty quickly," Rabinowitz said, adding that industry observers were surprised that American beat Delta to the punch.

Indeed, Counter said, late last year Delta might have foreshadowed its plans to add premium economy cabins on transoceanic flights when it announced that in May it will begin selling its Comfort+ seats under the fare class code "W" rather than the "Y" code it uses for the economy section. Airlines around the world use the "W" code for premium economy.

"I think Delta will be pretty close behind," Counter said. "I think American was eager to get that announcement out to beat Delta to the punch and to say they were first."

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