Premium Economy: Worth the Cost?

Premium economy, as the name suggests, is a separate class of service with features and prices that fall between the ever-increasing opulence and cost of business class and the ever-shrinking seats and service in economy. It's a lot better than the "stretched economy" that so many big U.S. airlines have been offering, which have a few inches more legroom but little else.

What You Get in Premium Economy

Hard Product: On any big airline, the hard product in premium economy is a lot better than any line's economy product. Seat pitch, the front-to-rear spacing of seat rows, is typically 38 inches, compared with 29-31 inches in most current economy cabins. That means several inches more recline and adequate room to read and work during the day. Some lines add a footrest as well.

Seats are about two to four inches wider than regular economy. The cushion is usually 18-20 inches wide, compared with 17-18 in economy, but armrests are also an inch or two wider, allowing a total of three to four more inches of shoulder-level room with typical seat arrangements:

  • B767: 6 across 2-2-2; regular economy is 7 across 2-3-2.
  • A330/340: 7 across 2-3-2; regular economy is 8 across 2-4-2.
  • B787: 7 across 2-3-2 or 8 across 2-4-2; regular economy is 9 across 3-3-3 on most lines, 8 across 2-4-2 on a few lines.
  • A350: 7 across 2-3-2 or 8 across 2-4-2; regular economy is 9 across 3-3-3.
  • B777: 8 across 2-4-2, regular economy is 10 across 3-4-3 on most lines.
  • A380: 7 across on the upper deck at 2-3-2; upper deck economy is usually 8 across 2-4-2.

A few lines provide even more pitch, most notably Open Skies at 47 inches, Norwegian at 46 inches, Japan Airlines at 42 inches, and Air New Zealand at 41-42 inches.

You would correctly infer from the tabulation above that premium economy is confined almost totally to wide-body planes. The only transatlantic line offering premium economy in a 757 is Open Skies, British Airways' small New York-Paris subsidiary, with a premium-economy section at four across, 2-2. A more typical premium economy in a B737, B757, or A320 series would entail five-across seats, which no airline is offering or even considering, as far as I know. The only time you will encounter premium economy on a domestic flight is when American or Delta uses an intercontinental wide-body plane for a rare domestic service—maybe transcontinental.

Soft Product: On most lines, the premium-economy soft product is also several steps above standard economy. Many lines have a dedicated cabin staff; inflight meals and beverages are better than those in economy and included in the fare; the fare includes two checked bags; the inflight entertainment system is upgraded; and at major hub airports premium-economy passengers can typically use dedicated check-in lanes.

RELATED: What Is Basic Economy? An Airline-by-Airline Guide

What You Pay

I checked economy and premium-economy fares for transatlantic flights on seven major airlines during August 2017 and March 2018, along with fares on 12 lines across the Pacific in October. Overall, I found that average premium-economy fares are 2.0 to 2.6 times the cheapest regular economy fares on the same line. I found some cases, such as Lufthansa from New York to Frankfurt, where premium-economy summer fares were just 40 percent more than regular economy, but fares on most lines are at least 70 percent or more above economy prices.

I also found, in a few cases, discounted or promotional business-class fares that were lower than premium economy: From New York to Paris in March, for example, you could fly in an angle-flat business-class seat on La Compagnie for $1,499 round-trip, compared with premium economy on Air France for $1,649.

Of course, as the old saying goes, "A statistician is someone who drowns wading a river that averages three feet deep," and average fares mean nothing when you're planning a trip. You can sometimes find promotions in premium economy or business class that come close to regular economy fares, especially in peak summer months when regular economy fares hit their peaks. Other times, however, a seat in premium economy will set you back three or four times the cost of a seat in the cattle car. As with airfares in general, there's no consistency and little logic.

What's the Value?

Air France has sometimes pitched its premium economy as "40 percent more room." And at average prices, "40 percent more room for twice the cost" is not an easy value proposition to sell. An airline's cost to haul you depends mainly on how much space you take up, not how much you weigh, and a typical premium economy seat takes up 50 to 70 percent more space in the cabin than an economy seat. Throw in the improved soft product, and premium economy at double the economy price does not look like a gouge.

But just because it isn't a gouge doesn't make premium economy a good value. On a typical summer flight from the East Coast to Europe you pay $400 to $1,000 per person more than regular economy for a round-trip in premium economy, with an even larger gap in the spring. In exchange, you get a far more pleasant and comfortable flight—period. A lot of travelers would look at that difference, double it for a couple, figure out how many deluxe hotel nights or Michelin-star meals it would buy, and accept 15 hours of misery rather than pay.

RELATED: Is Premium Economy Worth the Extra Cost?

When, then, is premium economy a good buy? I suggest the best uses:

  • If you want to enjoy an intercontinental flight and have enough in your travel budget that the extra cost isn't an issue.
  • On a very long intercontinental flight, such as West Coast to Europe or East Coast to Asia, where you'd rather stay home than endure up to 15 hours in the cattle car.
  • Where you find a premium economy fare that's only a bit more than economy—and you define that "bit."
  • When you need to travel and cheap economy tickets are no longer available.
  • When you find a good deal in premium economy with frequent flyer miles. After many years of completely ignoring premium economy, the big airlines now include it in their award charts.
  • When you buy a regular economy ticket and bid for an upgrade at much less than the difference in asking price. More and more lines are doing upgrade bids.
  • When you're traveling on business and your company allows premium economy but not business class.

Overall, there's no such thing as a comfortable flight in regular economy. Unless you don't mind the miseries, always check out the options to do better. Look for promotions and special deals in premium economy and business class, and consider upgrade deals your line may offer. You can't always avoid the cattle car, but sometimes you will.

Where to Find Premium Economy

The first premium-economy seats appeared in 1991, and many of the world's main airlines outside the U.S. have long since picked up on the idea. Although the big three U.S. legacy lines with worldwide services—American, Delta, and United—held out for many years, American started offering premium economy on some newly delivered planes this year, with Delta following in its new A350s. So far, Hawaiian and United, the other big U.S. airlines with long-haul international flights, have not responded. Air Canada is currently the only giant North American line with a robust premium-economy offering.

Most big European lines offer premium economy. The main holdouts are Finnair, KLM, and Swiss; even former holdout El Al is installing premium economy in its new 787s. Most big Pacific lines are onboard, although a few, including Asiana and Xiamen, are not. The big Gulf lines are not either, but Emirates has announced it will start installing premium economy soon, and the others will probably follow.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.
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