Premium economy airfares are proving a winner with passengers, who are choosing to fork out more than $4000 for extra legroom and a few perks on popular long-haul routes – but is it really worth it?
About 20 of the world’s airlines offer dedicated premium economy cabins on long-haul routes, with more airlines to introduce them by 2020.
On airlines such as Qantas, Virgin Australia, Singapore and Cathay Pacific, premium economy offers travellers bigger seats, more legroom and improved amenities for a price somewhere between regular economy and business fares.
Here’s what to expect if you decide to upgrade on your next flight:
What is premium economy?
Premium economy is found mostly on international flights. It offers up to 23 centimetres of extra legroom on standard economy, as well as wider seats, premium food services and bigger entertainment screens.
Daniel Sciberras, frequent flyer expert and spokesman at Point Hacks, said premium economy was becoming sought after by passengers, particularly on long-haul flights.
“As business class has been getting better, it’s – in effect – now what the old first class used to be and, as a result of this, there was a huge gap between the service and price offering between business and economy class,” Mr Sciberras told The New Daily.
“Premium economy is usually priced midway between a business and an economy fare but, in terms of the seat, you’re generally going to find a much better and wider seat.
“The configuration of the seats is two-four-two [across the plane], so it’s a lot more spacious compared to the three-four-three layout,” he said.
How much will it cost?
Flight review site SeatGuru says premium economy fares can be up to 85 per cent more expensive than economy.
A Virgin Australia spokeswoman told The New Daily the difference in prices varies throughout the year, depending on season, route and the type of fare purchased.
“One of the best value uses of Velocity points is to upgrade your class,” she said.
For example, here’s what a Sydney-London round trip, departing on April 1 and returning April 21, might cost.
- Qantas: $3480 economy, $5488 premium economy, $13,547 business class and first class $17,544
- Virgin Australia: $2293 economy, $6376 premium economy and $10,831 business class
- Singapore Airlines: $1646 economy, $3892 premium economy, business $7972 and first class $12,722
Is it worth it?
Associate professor Dr Gary Mortimer, a consumer behaviour expert at Queensland’s University of Technology, said passengers wanted a “touch of a luxury” without having to pay for business fares.
“For a business-class ticket for one person, you can upgrade your family to premium economy, so it’s about that trade-off and in the end the families are happier and everyone wins,” Dr Mortimer said.
Mr Sciberras said premium economy appealed to passengers for different reasons. Height was one of the more popular deciding factors.
“If you’re six foot four (193 centimetres), then you’re probably going to see more value compared to someone that’s five foot one (155 centimetres),” he said.
Michael Schischka, the manager at Sydney boutique travel agency Mary Rossi Travel, said passengers also liked the additional amenities that came with premium economy.
“It gives them a smaller cabin, extra crew … the seats can be larger, with better recline,” Mr Schischka said.
“More and more savvy travellers are approaching us asking for premium economy and comparing it to the price of business class.”
Does its features vary between airlines?
Looking at the major airlines that offer premium economy fares in Australia, it’s easy to see where some do better than others.
Aside from extra leg-room comfort, passengers also get dedicated check-ins, priority boarding, extra baggage allowances, premium in-flight entertainment, high-end menus and personalised service from the cabin crew.
In a recent Point Hacks frequent flyer survey, passengers ranked Qantas’s premium economy as their favourite, with 27 per cent putting it on top of the 15 airlines surveyed.
Qantas’ fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners offers 28 premium economy seats in a two-three-two configuration. That allows maximum aisle access for passengers and 23-inch wide seats.
Qantas’s premium economy seats offer a 38-inch pitch (leg room), compared to 32-inches in economy.
Virgin Australia’s Boeing 777 Economy X class also offers a 38-inch pitch (76 inches in business).
Qantas and Singapore shared top honours for in-flight entertainment with their 13.3-inch monitors, compared to Virgin Australia’s 10.6-inch screen.
Seat recline was pretty standard among the airlines, with most at 22 centimetres. The exceptions were Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific, at 20 centimetres.
The comfort factor
Brett Goulston, who owns Blue Dot Travel in St Leonards, NSW, said requests for premium economy fares had surged as passengers increasingly looked for extra comfort.
“If you’re on a long-haul flight and you’re cramped at the back in economy, it’s not pleasant,” Mr Goulston said.
“It offers that in-between of business and economy, and there’s definitely a niche and growing market for it.”
Airlines get a boost, too
Airline Intelligence Research managing director and former Qantas chief economist Dr Tony Webber said premium economy was an excellent way for airlines to boost yields – “and the response from passengers shows the demand for it”.
“I don’t think we’re going to see this from low-cost carriers just yet but it will continue to grow on full service airlines,” he said.
Dr Webber said premium economy also appealed to a proportion of the population who were obese.
“By virtue of a growing population that’s bigger, wider and taller, I think it’s an excellent option because you have that extra leg space.”