When coach-class airline service kept getting worse and business-class kept getting more opulent—not to mention expensive—a new in-between class became almost inevitable. That's premium economy, and it comes in two basic flavors: real and semi.
Real premium economy provides a distinct, separate cabin, with seats that provide six or more inches of extra front-to-rear space and two or more inches of width than most economy cabins. Premium economy typically adds some combination of upgraded cabin service and inflight entertainment, WiFi, priority boarding, extra baggage allowance, and power ports. Some also include dedicated airport check-in lanes.
Real premium economy is available mostly in twin-aisle jumbo jets: 767s, A330/340s, A380s, 747s, 767s, 777s, and 787s. On some airlines, the premium economy product varies from plane to plane, with newer planes generally providing a superior product. These variations will ultimately disappear as airlines add new planes and reconfigure old ones, but that process will take several years. Many big European, Asian, and Pacific airlines offer real premium economy, but the only North American airline with real premium economy is Air Canada.
Real Premium Economy
A majority of airlines offer what is pretty much a standard premium economy product: seat-row spacing at 37- or 38-inch pitch, compared with 30 to 32 inches for coach class, along with wider seats at six-across on 767s; seven-across on A330/340s, 787s, and the top deck of 787s; and eight-across on 747s and 777s. Anything less does not qualify as "real." These seats typically recline several inches more than regular economy-class seats.
Airlines with standard premium economy, at least on most two-aisle planes, include Aeroflot, Air Canada, Air France, Alitalia, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Southern, EVA, JAL, Lufthansa, LOT, Qantas, SAS, Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. Most of these airlines provide upgraded cabin service as well, although Air France serves only regular economy class meals.
A few airlines do better than standard. I'll list them separately as being the best of the class.
Premium Economy on Air New Zealand
Premium economy on Air New Zealand's 777-300s is widely considered the best premium economy available. Seats feature a "shell" design, and the extra spacious six-across arrangement means no middle seats, while the 42-inch pitch provides extra front-to-rear space. Cabin service is also above average for this level of service. Premium economy on the Air New Zealand's newer 787s uses a more conventional seven-across two-three-two pattern, but with 41-inch pitch.
Related: 9 Tips for Surviving the Middle Seat
The premium economy on its 777-200 version two is also above average, with eight-across seats and generous legroom. But beware: The so-called premium seats on its 777-200 version one planes are really just semi-premium, with extra legroom but the same nine-across arrangement as in regular economy. It's not a true premium economy.
Premium Economy on Turkish Airlines
Another airline that scores well for premium economy is Turkish Airlines. Front-to-rear spacing, at 46 inches, beats the standard by at least eight inches; and the seven-across seats are wider than most premium economy seats in 777s. Turkish also gets high marks for cabin service.
Premium Economy on Norwegian
The low-fare 787 flights from Norwegian offer only economy and premium economy, with no business class, and its premium economy is one of the roomiest, at 46-inch pitch, with footrests, and a seven-across arrangement. In keeping with the low-fare business model, meal service is a bit less fancy than what you find on some other lines.
Premium Economy on Japan Airlines
With its "Sky" class, JAL is trying to provide top-drawer seating in all three cabins— business, premium economy, and economy. The premium economy seating, at seven-across and 42-inch pitch, provides more front-to-rear space than standard. You find these new seats on all 787s and on 777-300ER V2; other planes are at standard premium economy configuration. The Sky version is JAL's new standard, to be fitted into older planes as they're cycled through maintenance.
Premium Economy on Open Skies
The only transatlantic airline to offer real premium economy on a single aisle airplane, the 757, is Open Skies, and it's one of the best. Seats are arranged two-two, the same as first class on almost all other 757s, and the 47-inch pitch is tops. The airline also features upgraded cabin service, priority boarding, and security. Open Skies is a tiny subsidiary of British Airways that flies only between New York (JFK) or Newark and Paris (Orly), and it doesn't generate much in the way of traveler comment. Because the 757s are older models, Open Skies offers tablets rather than built-in inflight entertainment systems for premium economy.
Premium Economy on the Tourist Airlines
Among the larger tourist airlines, Thomas Cook provides a near-premium option in its 330s and Thomson in its 787s. Icelandair's "Saga" class and Air Transat's "Club" class are also close to real premium economy. Although these services are sometimes listed as "business class," they fall far short of the current business-class standard. In fact, they don't quite measure up to the big airlines' real premium economy—but they're close enough to be considered, especially when fares are low.
Semi-premium economy provides several rows of economy seats with three to six inches more front-to-rear space than regular economy, but using the same width seats as regular economy. On most airlines, semi-premium economy is available on all mainline planes and some regional jets.
Among the North American airlines, American, Delta, Hawaiian (330s only), Frontier, JetBlue, United, and WestJet provide separate cabin areas, usually in the front, with several rows of extra-legroom seats. They also designate bulkhead and exit rows as premium.
All those airlines include priority boarding. Delta and Hawaiian also include upgraded cabin service. KLM is the only large European airline to offer a similar semi-premium option. Seating in the semi-premium cabin is often "free" to travelers on fully flexible economy tickets and to exalted frequent flyers.
Related: Worst Economy Seats in the Air
The premium economy versions on Alaska and Virgin America apply only to bulkhead-row and exit-row seats, which automatically provide more legroom than regular economy seats. These seats are narrower than the regular seats, though, because armrests take up additional room to accommodate fold-down tray table storage. Alaska's charge is modest; Virgin America charges more than three times the regular economy fare but includes a bunch of extras.
Is Premium Economy for You?
Overall, typical real premium economy offers about 40 percent more total room than regular economy, along with other improvements over regular economy. But real premium economy tickets cost 85 to 95 percent more than the cheapest available economy tickets. A thousand dollars extra for a seven-hour transatlantic round-trip is a tough sell for many travelers, which explains why the premium economy cabin on many airlines consists of just a few rows.
At regular prices, then, premium economy appears to be aimed mainly at business travelers whose companies don't pay for business-class travel but do allow premium economy. But price-conscious leisure travelers can sometimes cut that margin, either when an airline puts premium economy on sale, as some transatlantic airlines 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.
Semi-premium usually costs less than $100 extra each way on a transcontinental domestic trip, and less than $200 extra on an intercontinental flight. And, as noted, if you're a top-level frequent flyer, you may get in "free."
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 10 Best Coach-Class Airlines in the World
- What You're Missing in First Class
- How to Get the Best Seat in Coach Class