christopher muther

How premium economy became the new hot seat

Dan Page

I look forward to a 16-hour flight the way I look forward to a trip to the dentist, only the chair in the dentist’s exam room is usually more comfortable.

Sadly I don’t have the investment portfolio necessary to purchase a flatbed seat in business class when I fly, and the loose Ambien I find collecting lint at the bottom of my dopp kit is never enough to help me sleep in the economy cabin. I’ve resorted to some crazy things to get some shuteye. Don’t tell anyone, but I once watched the fifth season of “Cagney & Lacey” on an overnight flight, and I remained wide awake the entire flight. And everyone knows the fifth season was the most boring of them all.


I was resigned to 16 hours of restless pill-popping and 1980s TV dramas when I flew to Hong Kong last year, until I discovered something remarkable, something called premium economy.

Seasoned international flyers are familiar with the concept, but I had no idea what true premium economy was until I lived it. My seat wasn’t flatbed, but it was similar to the recliner in my parent’s living room (minus the margarita-stained armrests) and far roomier than economy.

There was a meal served on actual plates, an ample amount of booze, and an amenities kit with a toothbrush, socks, eye shades, and other treats.

It was my grand introduction to the growing middle class of air travel. These seats are a few hundred dollars more expensive than standard economy (depending on the route and demand), but usually thousands cheaper than business class, and I was able to achieve the impossible. I slept.

The good news is that premium economy — currently only available on non-US carriers — is an immensely popular and growing category, which means I can finally sell season five of “Cagney & Lacey” on eBay and rest.


Premium economy section on Cathay Pacific.
Premium economy section on Cathay Pacific. Handout

“We are absolutely seeing more interest in premium economy,” said Bryan Saltzburg, senior vice president and general manager of TripAdvisor’s Flights Business. “The number of shoppers for premium economy show us that consumers are more aware that it’s an option.”

Premium economy isn’t new — Virgin Atlantic introduced the category in 1992 — but for consumers feeling squeezed out of the shrinking seats of standard economy, premium has become a much more appealing way to fly internationally. On average, premium economy seats are about 20 inches wide, as opposed to 16.5 inches wide for standard economy. The pitch for a premium economy seat, which refers to the amount of legroom between seats, averages 38 inches. It’s just 31 inches in standard economy.

International carriers have spent the past decade reconfiguring and retrofitting planes to accommodate premium. The website Seat Guru lists nearly 30 international airlines with premium economy cabins, and the number is growing.

Last year Singapore Airlines spent $80 million to introduce a premium cabin on its fleet. But perhaps the biggest indicator of premium economy’s growing prominence is its long-delayed arrival to the US market. American Airlines announced it will introduce premium economy at the end of 2016 when it takes delivery of its new Boeing Dreamliners. No other US carrier has announced plans to introduce a premium economy cabin, but TripAdvisor’s Saltzburg said when one carrier introduces something new, others generally follow suit.


Before settling into our 20-inch wide seats, it’s necessary to point out that international premium economy is quite different from the seats that US carriers label as “comfort-plus” or “extra leg room.” Those are economy seats that are offer a bit more real estate for your knees, perhaps a free checked bag, early boarding, and little else.

“I think there is still confusion with American travelers about what premium economy means,” said Jaime Fraser, consumer PR manager at Virgin Atlantic. “Many think it’s just a few extra inches of leg room in economy, and that’s definitely not the case. I compare it to traveling first class on a domestic flight.”

True premium economy is located in its own cabin. Seats are specifically designed for the class, and in addition to a deeper recline, there’s often a footrest.

“A premium economy seat is usually engineered entirely different,” said Jason Rabinowitz, a data researcher for the trip planning website Route Happy. “It’s wider, it has a bigger armrest, a drink holder, larger entertainment screen, an upgraded meal, and a more attentive level of service.”

Rabinowitz offered an informative analogy of premium economy.

“You can’t afford a big house in the country, and you don’t want to live in the inner city, so you move to suburbia. That’s what premium economy is,” he said. “It’s the middle class of air travel. It’s the suburbia between business and economy.”

It’s not difficult to figure out why premium has become the new hot seat on the plane.


“There was a huge gap between business and economy,” said Annette Mann, Lufthansa’s director of customer experience. Lufthansa introduced premium economy at the end of 2014.

“Passengers were saying that they really didn’t want to pay for business, or their company travel policy didn’t allow business class, however they wanted something better than economy. We wanted to close this gap. We asked our customers what was important to them, and it was all about space, so we gave them about 50 percent more space compared to economy.”

Business travelers have been important to premium’s growth, as have travelers who are celebrating special occasions, retirees, and millennials. But for airlines, it all comes down to cost. Does it makes sense to take out seats in standard economy to create a premium section?

“At the moment we’re all just sticking our toes in the water, “ said Philippe Lacamp, a senior vice president at Cathay Pacific. Cathay introduced premium in 2012. “It’s a gamble to take those seats out of standard economy. But the market is getting more educated on the value you can get from premium, and right now that’s what we’re most focused on.”

It’s a gamble I hope pays off. Since my first encounter with premium on Cathay, I’ve flown it on other airlines. Between the increased incline and wider seats, along with small touches such as larger pillows, I’ve been happy to doze and leave my friends Ambien, Cagney, and Lacey back home, where they all belong.


Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.