Leg room and other perks of travelling premium economy

Kicking back on Air France premium economy

Air travellers wanting extra leg room could find their match in premium economy.

By Michael Gebicki

Leg room. When you get right down to the nitty-gritty of flying, it’s those precious centimetres between your knees and the seat in front that dictate the pleasure of the in-flight experience.

According to the SeatGuru website, seat pitch – the distance between any point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front or behind – is around 81.3cm in an economy-class seat on a long-haul flight. As a 181cm male, I measure 65cm from my back to the front of my knees when I sit. Add a few more centimetres for the thickness of the seat back, a few more for the laptop I’ve inserted into the seat pocket, more again when the person in front decides to recline, and that 81.3cm seat pitch becomes razor-thin.

There’s a world of privilege and space that comes with a business class seat, but at three times the economy price, business class is a bridge too far even for some business travellers.

Much of that hefty business class fare pays for the frilly extras: the menu constructed by a name chef, the wine list curated by an acclaimed oenophile, the starchy white napery, the silverware, the lie-flat seat with adjustable lumbar support, the flattering service – these are the icing on the cake. But what if you could just settle for the cake instead?

The cake in this case is premium economy class, the happy medium for flyers. Located in a dedicated cabin between economy and business classes, premium economy seats are 48.3-49.5cm wide, which is at least 3.8cm better than a lot of long-haul economy class seat. That’s less than the length of your little finger, but it makes a surprising difference to your comfort.

"Most premium economy seats offer a pitch of 96.5cm. That's 15.2cm more than economy class."

Premium economy passengers also get to enjoy a more sophisticated menu than those flying economy class, a bigger video screen, upgraded headphones, an increased baggage allowance and priority check-in and boarding. You might also have lounge access, but that’s not a given.

The real pay-off is in the extra leg room. Most premium economy seats offer a pitch of 96.5cm. That’s 15.2cm more than economy class passengers have on the same flight – enough for even the tallest flyers to stretch out and not mind if a passenger in front reclines their seat.

The cost

Booked four months in advance, a return Premium Economy Sale seat on a Qantas flight departing Sydney 1 June 2015 for Los Angeles, and returning two weeks later, will cost about A$4148. That’s around A$2500 more than an Economy Sale fare for the same dates, but a saving of more than A$3000 on a Business Class Sale fare.

Virgin Australia’s Premium Economy Saver fare for the same route is A$3957, however its UpgradeMe Premium Bid system gives economy flyers the chance to upgrade from economy class to premium economy at a discount. Go to the “Specials & Offers” page on Virgin’s website, then click on the “UpgradeMe” link, and you can put in a cash bid for the upgrade. You’ll receive confirmation of your success or otherwise at least 24 hours before departure.

The catch is that only passengers who have booked a Virgin Saver or Flexi Economy fare direct with the airline are eligible. If you have booked through a travel agent or clicked on a cheapest fare through a third-party website, you can’t bid.

Based on a Sydney-Los Angeles return flight, Virgin’s Flexi Economy fare is about A$2307. If you’re prepared to pay that much for an economy class fare, it would seem worth your while to put in a bid for the upgrade. 

The future

After playing its cards close to its chest for a long time, Singapore Airlines has recently announced it will introduce a premium economy class, commencing with select flights on its Singapore-Sydney route from early August. Premium economy seats on flights to other Asian and European ports will be available later in the year. The spec sheet for the airline’s new full leather seats looks impressive, with a 20.3cm recline and 33.8cm full-HD monitor, the largest in its class.

More exciting things are in the wind for Virgin premium economy flyers. Starting in November this year, Virgin will ramp up the premium economy cabin on the Boeing 777-300ER aircraft that it operates between Brisbane/Sydney and Los Angeles and also its Abu Dhabi service, replacing it with an upgraded class categorised as “business lite”. “Business lite” passengers will get a class-leading seat pitch of 104cm. However, Virgin’s premium economy bar will disappear.

Also gone, but not lamented, will be the present 2-4-2 configuration in Virgin’s premium economy cabin; sitting in one of the middle seats in the middle row was never a happy event. But this also means there will be fewer premium economy seats, 24 instead of 40, and that’s a head scratcher. An airline that introduces a better product and reduces capacity doesn’t exactly seem to be predicting a bright future for its own product.

As Virgin’s plans suggest, most airlines are cautious about their premium economy service. But for shrewd travellers in search of extra space, premium economy offerings are worth searching out. 

Prices were correct at 10 February 2015 but are subject to change. 

Premium economy’s big appeal:

  • Seat pitch of 96.5cm; that’s 15.2cm more than many economy class seats
  • A bigger screen than economy class and upgraded headphones
  • More sophisticated dining menu
  • Increased baggage allowance
  • Priority check-in and boarding

Premium economy Down Under

  • Cathay Pacific offers premium economy on all flights from Australia.
  • Qantas has premium economy seats on flights from Australia to London, North and South America, Dubai, Johannesburg, Hong Kong and Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. Yet when the airline refitted the cabins of the Airbus A330s used on its Asian routes, it chose not to install premium economy seats.
  • Virgin Australia offers premium economy only on flights between Australia and Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi. These will be upgraded to roomier “business lite” category seats from November (the name for this new class isn’t yet confirmed).
  • Singapore Airlines plans to introduce premium economy seats on some Singapore-Sydney flights from August 9, and on other routes in Asia and to Europe later in the year.
  • Premium economy Down Under“Most premium economy seats offer a pitch of 96.5cm. That’s 15.2cm more than economy class.”

This article is from the April 2015 issue of INTHEBLACK.


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