premium economy class offers slightly better amenities

It’s not business class, but Delta’s Premium Select Economy is better than basic coach. Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy

By Casey Fahrer

Premium economy seating is one of many options airlines offer passengers to improve the experience of their flight. Airline traffic has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, meaning that many flights are now almost fully booked. So, who wants to be shoehorned into a coach seat when premium economy seating beckons?

Premium economy seating is not a new concept. Simply Flying’s Justin Hayward reports in Which Airlines Offer The Most Spacious Premium Economy Seats? that it was initially introduced by Taiwanese airline EVA Air in 1991. The new cabin was located in front of the basic economy seating and offered more privacy with a comfier 2-2-2 seating situation. Other airline companies soon followed, leading to yet another opportunity for passengers to upgrade their flying experience.

“It emerged from the increasing numbers and demands of economy class passengers, with enough travelers prepared to pay slightly more for the better cabin,” Hayward writes about the rise of premium economy. The experience naturally costs more than a regular economy seat with many opting to upgrade after purchasing their ticket.

Business Class Lite?

But what comes along with a premium economy seat? Usually, more money buys a few extra inches of legroom while falling far short of business class. Other perks can include priority boarding and improved in-flight service.

The original EVA plane with a premium economy cabin was the Boeing 747-400. The airline’s Boeing 777-300ER offers 64 premium economy seats. According to Simply Flying’s Rytis Beresnevičius, that model was listed at the top of the 5 Of The Best Premium Economy Products In The World In 2023. Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, and Delta were also noted in the rankings as airlines with notable premium economy selections.

More and more airlines have bought into offering a premium economy cabin as Hayward mentions that many of the top European and Asian airlines now offer this form of upgraded seating. The United States has not followed to the same level but Simple Flying’s Alexander Mitchell points out in his article, ​​The 5 Best Premium Economy Cabins You Can Fly From The United States, that many international flights from the U.S. offer premium economy. Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Finnair, and Singapore Airlines all offer routes from the United States with the cabin option.

No major U.S. airlines offered premium economy seating until 2017 when American Airlines started the trend with Delta and United following. On certain routes, AA has a premium economy cabin with minute increases in seat length and pitch. A few of American’s international flights even offer amenity kits and dining menus.

Delta has its own premium economy cabin reports Darren Murph in Premium Select: Is It Worth It? appearing on The Points Guy website. Delta offers an upgrade similar to American Airlines with an additional three inches of seatback recline. One draw to premium economy seating on Delta is that travelers earn 150% of their miles for each flight in the upgraded cabin. For customers trying to reach a certain status, that’s a big deal.

What is the real reason that these more luxurious options exist though? As much as we would like to think that airlines have the best interest of the customer in mind, the main factor driving airlines to provide optional comforts is money.

Flying premium economy today is like flying basic economy 25 years ago before airlines began shrinking seats to accommodate more passengers.

Flying premium economy today is like flying basic economy 25 years ago before airlines began shrinking seats to accommodate more passengers. But for many travelers, a nostalgia trip may be worth a few extra dollars. Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy

Getting What You Pay For

“As they make everything in the back of the plane a cost-extra item, economy plus seats with additional perks begin to sell more proactively,” says CBS Travel News editor Peter Greenberg. “To me, the airline business is all about the upsell, getting passengers to pay more in addition to their already existing seat. In a strange way, it’s how to mitigate misery that you’ll pay more for.”

The cost factor is definitely one to note when discussing premium economy. An Expedia search for a one-way flight from New York to Tokyo can cost roughly $900 for a regular economy ticket. The cheapest premium economy ticket on the site will run you just shy of $1,700.

Many airlines allow passengers to upgrade their economy ticket to a premium economy seat as well, which generates more revenue for the carrier but still doesn’t come cheap for the customer. “An airline ticket is taxed at a very high federal excise tax [7.5% for domestic U.S. flights.] If you are upgrading, you’re not buying another ticket, you’re basically upgrading your already existing seat, and therefore, that fee is not taxed at a higher rate, it is taxed at a regular sales tax rate and the airline retains more of that dollar,” Greenberg explains.

Some travelers may find that the price of premium economy is worth it. Hayward writes that select Japan Airlines aircraft offer 42 inches of legroom. Maybe you want a wider seat, like the 19 or 20-inch wide spaces that Air New Zealand planes offer in their cabins. Emirates’ premium economy offers a multiple-course meal to its passengers. There are many reasons as to why people may justify the large increase in cost to sit in a premium economy cabin.

This portrait of premium economy travel generated by Artificial Intelligence is about as realistic as photographs of delicious hamburgers that bear no relation to what is actually served.

This artificial intelligence rendering of premium economy seating generated by Oleg Gapeenko is an optimistic portrait of what economy class travel in the future may resemble.

Searching For Space

The Points Guy’s Jordan Waller walked readers through his premium economy flying experience from London to New York in his article, Is American Airlines premium economy worth it between London and New York? Waller claims that although his personal experience may not be worth the extra upcharge, customers who are willing to wait and find the best deals may benefit from the extra accommodations that the premium economy cabin has to offer.

And how many more cabins like the premium economy section can be squeezed out of the main seating part of the plane? “They may have reached their limits now,” Greenberg says. “There is only so much you can squeeze in coach without jeopardizing safety.” Instead, it may be by innovating the types of seats on planes. ADSE Consulting and Engineering and Aviointeriors have both crafted futuristic seat designs that airlines could use to raise their prices even more.

Overall, there are reasons to upgrade your seat on your next flight. The real question though is whether you think the premium economy cabin is worth the upcharge.

Casey Fahrer is currently a senior at Syracuse University, studying Broadcast and Digital Journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.