The Great Divide

In our ever more complicated and busy worlds, our choices in just about everything have increased tenfold. So, it is also with the aviation industry.


A multitude of airlines, all with varying offerings at different price points based on inclusions and added extras – the choices truly are, endless.

Many moons ago, one really only had to consider two classes of travel. Economy (or Coach) and First Class. Then the behemoth of Business Class was born and became the biggest development in air travel which has been so lucrative for all airlines. It continues to evolve to this day.

When another class emerged to fill the great divide between Economy and Business, all eyes were on this new in-between class to see if it could truly stand alone as a worthy, viable option for travelers.

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Premium Economy, as it is generally known, divides many. And it should. It has existed for some time now, with around half of major carriers having introduced it. More airlines are planning to do so. It remains a bit of an inconsistent oddity. Bridging the gap between Business and “cattle” class (as Economy is unaffectionately known), Premium Economy is increasingly being adopted by airlines that see financial benefits in offering passengers a little bit more comfort for more cash outlay.

Premium Economy is very much like the original Business Class cabins, before the revolutionary introduction of flat beds. It was introduced for several reasons. Firstly, the gap between the cost of an Economy ticket and Business class ticket grows ever wider. Business can be as much as five times higher. Companies with regular road warriors have jumped on Premium Economy as a more affordable option for employees who used to enjoy the pointy end. Leisure travelers with a little more to spend see it as a more comfortable upgrade without the extravagant outlay of Business Class.

The soft product is another ever-widening divide. There is just no comparison between Business and Economy, with the best Business offerings leaps and bounds ahead of anything ever seen at the packed back end of the plane. Airlines are putting their focus firmly on premium passengers, with economy being squeezed more and more into a far lesser offering for the masses.

However, there appears to be no standard for Premium Economy as a stand-alone class across the airlines. Those carriers that have it, all differ in their product. There are standards expected in Business Class and these are upheld by the airlines. But in Premium, it’s quite a different story.

The airlines want their Economy passengers to spend a little more to experience this “Business-Lite” product. They don’t want to lose their regular Business Class passengers to Premium. So, there must be significant differences between them. There is no denying Premium Economy is no Business Class, and never will be. But in some instances, Premium is not a significant enough upgrade from Economy for passengers to be satisfied.

For most, it’s all about the pitch (leg room) and the width. The average Premium seat is around 18 inches wide, with 37 or 38 inches of pitch. In my opinion, where Premium really falls down, is in the soft product – the food and wine offering in particular. 

To receive basic Economy Class meals and wine in Premium, is to me, just wrong. A Premium ticket generally now costs MORE than double that of Economy. Why are we paying this just for a couple more inches of pitch and legroom? The service in premium cabins is often only an extension of Economy, with attendants sometimes servicing both cabins.

The confusion of Premium Economy continues, as every carrier places this ill-thought out “cabin” in odd areas on the aircraft. It can be positioned right behind Business, where logically it should be, or it can be in front of economy. But on some carriers, I have seen it squeezed at the back of First or Business, or at the tail of the plane, the seats squeezed in where the cabin feels like a hurried afterthought. Perhaps it was. The lack of dedicated lavatories for the cabin is a particular bugbear of mine.

I am a dedicated pointy end traveller, but I have flown Premium on many instances. Travelling as much as I do, I choose it occasionally for several reasons. Partly it’s my curiosity. Sometimes it’s the expense. When I am on a budget, most often I upgrade to Premium. Most travelers do this, I would imagine. I’ve seen the cost of Premium Economy increasing exponentially. It’s the value for capital outlay that I no longer see. It’s worth a little comparison of the few Premium cabins I have tried. This applies to the most recent planes in the fleet with the latest product. This is not a thorough guide. It’s just a personal viewpoint of the important differences I have encountered, with a simple rating scale, 1 being the lowest, 10 being the highest.

QANTAS AIRWAYS

Seats (pitch, width, comfort):  / 8

Meals: Separate menu from Economy, increased choice, better quality / 8

Drinks: Complimentary. Business Class drinks offered / 7

Boarding: Priority check-in and boarding lanes / 8

Luggage: Higher than Economy / 8

Extras: Plenty of Storage and Power Outlets, basic amenity kit / 8

Service: 8

Worth the extra expense? YES

***Overall Rating: 8

 

SINGAPORE AIRLINES

Seats (pitch, width, comfort): / 7

Meals: Economy meals with one basic Book-The-Cook option / 7

Drinks: Complimentary. Economy Class offerings + Champagne / 6

Boarding: Priority check-in and boarding lanes / 8

Luggage: Higher than Economy / 8

Extras: Noise Cancelling Headphones, Amenity Kit / 7

Service: 8

Worth the extra expense? YES

***Overall Rating: 7

 

CATHAY PACIFIC AIRWAYS

Seats (pitch, width, comfort): / 7

Meals: Enhanced meals just above Economy level / 7

Drinks: Complimentary. Economy Class offerings + Champagne / 6

Boarding: Priority Boarding before Economy / 6

Luggage: Higher than Economy / 8

Extras: Better Cabin separation than many other carriers / 8

Service: 7

Worth the extra expense? SOMETIMES

Overall Rating: 7

 ANA ALL NIPPON AIRWAYS

Seats (pitch, width, comfort): / 7

Meals: Economy Class meals with Business Class desserts / 6

Drinks: Complimentary. Business Class wines and sake / 8

Boarding: Priority Check-In / 7

Luggage: Much larger allowance / 8

Extras: Lounge access / 9

Service: 8

Worth the extra expense? SOMETIMES. X-FACTOR IS LOUNGE ACCESS

Overall Rating: 7.5

 

VIETNAM AIRLINES

Seats (pitch, width, comfort): Older style wide, plush comfy seats / 8

Meals: Economy standard / 6

Drinks: Complimentary. Good choice. G&T possible before take-off! / 8

Boarding: Priority / 8

Luggage: Higher than Economy / 8

Extras: Not much / 5

Service: 8

Worth the extra expense? YES, FOR COMFORT FACTOR & SERVICE

Overall Rating: 7.5


My feeling is, that out of this limited selection, Qantas still leads the pack with better meals, drinks and service. Seats are very good. On the other scale, the older-style super-comfy seats on Vietnam Airlines and a separate, cozy, designated cabin (and designated loos) make them a close contender for top of this short list.

Even after hundreds of flights, turning left, instead of right, when boarding the plane feels very special. There is an immediate sigh and sense of relief, knowing you are in for some pampering and much less dishevelment at the end of your flight. Unfortunately, we still tend to have to turn right for Premium Economy :(

With powerhouse Middle-Eastern carrier, Emirates about to jump on the Premium Economy bandwagon, this will be the one to watch. Will they take on board all the mistakes the others have made and finally release a Premium experience worthy of the cost? Watch this space.