A CLASS OF IT­SOWN

Fly­ing pre­mium econ­omy suits legs and wal­lets, re­ports Peter Need­ham

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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