It’s over twenty years since Virgin Atlantic and Taiwan's EVA Air became the first international airlines to offer premium economy cabins.
With more and more carriers following suit in the interim, it’s surprising that the area between economy and business class only accounts for 4% of capacity – largely because US carriers have traditionally been focused on their economy products.
Corporate demand for bigger seats, better meals, screens and upgraded service – but without the exorbitant price tag – has forced airlines to take notice.
A step down in cost, but less so in terms of experience, premium economy provides great value, makes travellers relaxed and productive travellers and generates incremental income for airlines.
Price-wise, premium economy seats are twice the price of economy, but half that of business class. It’ s worth noting that most airlines only allow upgrades to the next cabin, from economy to premium or from premium to business.
Increased competition has also brought better premium economy experiences. Most premium economy fares now include lounge access, fast track passes for premium economy customers, checked baggage and better food. Some carriers include headphones, amenity kits and improved bedding in their premium economy products.
2018 was the year in which many airlines launched so-called “true” premium economy cabins; those which go beyond simply offering extra legroom to include priority boarding and so on. This has been good news for business travellers on long-haul trips used to arriving at their destinations feeling anything but relaxed.
Anxious to protect their business class revenues, the airlines position premium economy as a trade-up for SME business owners. However, business is becoming the new first class as company travel policies restrict access to first class and airlines compete with low cost carriers pack our economy cabins. So premium economy is ideal for business travel because it’s as good as short haul business class with space to work and relax.
Singapore Airlines' premium economy is regarded as an industry benchmark. Seats on their A350s, A380s and some B777-300ERs have six inches of additional legroom, nine inches of recline, leather upholstery and extendable footrests. Passengers can pre-order meals designed by celebrity chefs and relax by watching movies on a 13.30-inch HD touchscreen.
On its service between Singapore and Newark, New Jersey, the carrier has scrapped economy altogether, including only premium economy and business class seats.
Qantas launched their latest premium economy seats in 2018 on the fleet's B787 Dreamliners. Their cabins have 2 – 3 inches of extra legroom and recline, plus calf rests engineered to offer better ergonomic support than the ‘old’ premium economy seats. As well as the usual in-flight upgrades, Qantas also offers a self-serve bar for mid-flight snacks.
Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy cabins (originally branded Mid Class) are amongst the widest in their class. Their in-service upgrades include multi-dish meals served on china and a self-serve snack bar.
Though late to the party, the US carriers have finally joined in. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines both rolled out premium economy on international flights during 2018. Delta’s Premium Select has eight inches more legroom and seven inches of recline; more screen space, adjustable footrests, personal stowage spaces and amenity kits.
In March 2019 United Airlines began offering its new premium-economy cabin on some long-haul routes. Premium Plus is aimed at travellers who want to graduate from the main cabin but aren’t yet ready for United’s Polaris business class product. United customers can also take advantage of new amenity kits featuring the Sunday Riley beauty brand.
For other airlines, premium economy products are still in development. Emirates announced plans to develop a premium economy class back in December 2016, but although the carrier unveiled new cabins for first, business and economy classes on its B777s, the new class remains ‘imminent’.
Etihad appear to move in the opposite direction, announcing plans to reduce the number of Business Class seats on their existing A320/A321 fleet, from 16 to 8 and replacing them with economy seats, where most of their demand is focused. Upgrading will also be harder with fewer seats in the front cabin.
With some much time and money being spent by airlines to attract higher-fare business customers, the race is on to harness technology, create eye-catching benefits and freshen the whole look and feel of airplane cabins.
The concept of class in cabins is shifting, and that shift may become more pronounced in the coming years. How long will it be before business travellers demand to fly this way?
 Travelport survey 2018