A CLASS OF ITSOWN
Flying premium economy suits legs and wallets, reports Peter Needham
LOOKING for extra leg room on your next long-distance flight? It’s available with other facilities and comfortable touches at a lot less than a business-class fare. The trick is to fly premium economy, the generic name of a mid-priced class offered by various airlines, mostly on long-haul routes.
Premium economy fits between business and economy classes — in cost, amenities and frequent-flyer points earned — and often occupies that halfway position on board. Its seats resemble those comfy models you used to find in business class before they were superseded by lie-flat beds.
Fly premium economy and you can expect a seat that will be wider and recline more than a standard economy-class model. Details vary with airlines but compared with standard economy, premium economy generally offers about 13cm to 20cm more leg room and 5cm to 15cm extra seat recline. Bonuses can include larger personal video screens, adjustable headrests, more generous luggage allowances, dedicated check-in areas at airports and armrest laptop power ports. Passengers can expect a better standard of food and wine than in economy class, more attentive inflight service and possibly a self-service area for snacks and drinks.
Users of Sydney airport can preview the new Qantas version of premium economy by visiting the mezzanine level of Sydney domestic terminal (T3) near gate 13. There, the airline’s new Airbus A380 product is on display, including models of the four new seats: first, business, premium economy and economy. The Qantas premium economy seat was designed by Marc Newson, designer of the airline’s business-class Skybed sleeper seat. Qantas expects the new class (which will include a self-service bar) to attract leisure and business flyers. ‘‘ A lot of business travellers are flying economy internationally,’’ Qantas executive general manager John Borghetti points out. ‘‘ This new class is priced to fit neatly between the two classes of economy and regular business.’’
It will also appeal, Borghetti believes, ‘‘ to business people who are retired . . . and who used to work for a company that would buy them a first-class or a business-class ticket’’.
The quality gap between Qantas’s economy and business class is growing. As the airline’s business-class standards scale new heights, providing amenities such as horizontal beds, ‘‘ it makes even more sense to add a product that sits between that gap’’, Borghetti adds.
Singapore Airlines has no plans to add premium economy class on its Australia routes. A few weeks ago, it became the first airline to fly the new Airbus A380 aircraft to Australia, but Singapore Airlines’ premium economy class (which it calls executive economy) is available solely on its flights between Singapore and Los Angeles. The 16-hour non-stop Los Angeles-Singapore sector is flown by ultra-long-range Airbus 340-500 aircraft, fitted with just two classes: business and premium economy.
In the latter class, passengers lie back in wide seats, with laptop power (one AC power supply for every two seats) and large TV monitor screens.
Thai Airways International has recently introduced premium economy, but only aboard its Airbus 340-500 aircraft, which doesn’t fly to Australia.
Thai’s premium economy offers seats with generous recline and in-seat power points, if you happen to be flying between Bangkok and the US or Scandinavia.
Apart from in-flight comfort, premium economy can help you avoid crowds and queues, even at Heathrow, Europe’s biggest airport. Designed for about 45 million passengers a year, Heathrow is handling about 68 million. It has become notorious for passenger congestion and baggage snarls.
Two Heathrow-based airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, expect the bottleneck to clear after March next year, when Heathrow’s huge new Terminal 5 opens. In the meantime, flying premium economy helps speed check-in. British Airways’ version, introduced in 2000, is called World Traveller Plus. BA has added a ‘‘ manage my booking’’ function to its ba.com website, allowing passengers to check in and choose their own seats online up to 24 hours before scheduled flight departure. On selected routes, they can print their own boarding pass from their personal printer. World Traveller Plus places passengers in a separate cabin with no more than five rows of seats and provides complimentary drinks (excluding champagne), priority meal service and in-seat power for laptops and individual in-seat telephones. World Traveller Plus passengers are permitted to use the British Airways Executive Club.
‘‘ World Traveller Plus has really worked well for us on long-haul routes because people are prepared to pay a little extra to switch from economy and get more room and space in a private little cabin,’’ says BA’s loyalty manager Asia Pacific, Tricia Gibb. World Traveller Plus is favoured by ‘‘ empty nesters or baby boomers who have got more money to spend’’.
While BA limits its economy-class passengers to one piece of hold baggage weighing up to 23kg, World Traveller Plus passengers are allowed two pieces, each up to 23kg. BA’s longstanding rival, Virgin Atlantic, introduced the concept of premium economy in 1992 and has refined it several times since. Virgin claims its premium economy seat pitch, 96.5cm, is equivalent to business class on some airlines.
The Virgin Atlantic offering features dedicated check-in, laptop power, separate cabin, priority boarding and baggage reclaim.
‘‘ The biggest selling point is the seat,’’ Virgin Atlantic’s Nick Larkworthy says. ‘‘ It’s wider, you get more leg room and more recline. It’s a nice leather seat as well . . . a bit like a business-class seat of the 1990s. You also get a dedicated cabin — quite a small one, with only 38 seats — and champagne if you want it.’’ Upgrading from regular economy to premium economy on Virgin Atlantic costs about $250 a leg (Hong KongLondon, for instance) and the upgrade, if seats are available, can be booked up to two hours before the flight.
SAS Scandinavian calls its premium economy class Economy Extra.
Benefits include a separate cabin offering almost a metre of leg room, 94cm-wide seats, each with a personal TV screen and audioand-video on-demand entertainment.
Almost on its own among US airlines, United Airlines offers a form of premium economy. Its main feature is that passengers receive up to 13cm more leg room than in standard economy.
Japan Airlines will add a premium economy service on B777 aircraft on TokyoLondon routes this December, with Frankfurt and Paris to follow. Passengers will relax in JAL’s new Sky Shell seat and pay about $600 on top of normal economy fare for a return trip from Tokyo to London. They will receive standard economy-class meals (with more soft drinks, sake and snacks) and businessclass amenities.
Air New Zealand introduced premium economy in 2005, starting on long-haul routes and expanding to trans-Tasman services; The initiative proved so popular the airline reconfigured its cabins to add more seats. Like most premium economy classes, Air New Zealand’s version offers an exclusive cabin area. Passengers receive premium check-in and on-demand in-flight entertainment. On its Boeing 747 and 777 aircraft, premium economy seats recline half as much again as economy-class seats. This may not matter much on trans-Tasman hops but more leg room and recline make a lot of difference when you’re spending more than 20 hours sitting en route to Europe.
Comfort zone: Wide leather seats, a separate cabin and champagne are among the perks of travelling premium economy class with Virgin Atlantic