Traveller's Guide: Premium economy

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Fed up with the squeeze at the back of the plane? Prepared to pay for extra legroom? Simon Calder and Debbie Kaplan assess the upgrade options

You know the feeling: a long flight in the cheap seats that stretches your travel tolerance. As you struggle vainly to get comfortable or evade your snoring neighbour's elbows, you start wondering: surely there must be some way to pay a bit more and suffer a little less? That is why, a generation ago, the Taiwanese airline, Eva, developed a super-economy product – sample the finessed Elite class yourself, between Heathrow and Bangkok, for about £1,000 return.

Then in 1992 Virgin Atlantic came up with a section between the airline's basic economy and Upper Class. The wider seats, with more legroom, have since become Premium Economy (apparently because some passengers inferred "Mid Class" must be a fully fledged business cabin). In 2000, British Airways mimicked the idea with its World Traveller Plus product.

"It's for Mr and Mrs Trip-of-a-lifetime, really," says Hadyn Wrath, founder of the long-haul specialist Travel Nation. "People who are a bit too cautious to spend thousands of pounds extra, but are happy to spend a few hundred more just to have those little extra touches."

With BA boasting a much wider route network than Virgin Atlantic, the new cabin was soon seized upon by finance directors alarmed at the vast discrepancy between economy and Club World: in the wake of the economic crash, many business travellers found themselves downgraded to the cheaper (but not cheapest) seats, particularly on westbound daytime flights to the US.

Adam Waldock, of Trailfinders, says enhancements in business class mean there is a niche for premium economy. "Now most airlines have already, or are planning to, offer flat-bed services in the business cabin. This has left a gap in the market for a slightly wider, bigger seat with a bit more legroom than economy, which is where premium economy comes in," he says.

These days, premium economy is shared between three groups of passengers keen to be in good shape at the end of their journey: leisure travellers craving more comfort; travelling executives using the at-seat power to keep working; and people whose height or weight makes basic economy too much of a squeeze. (Some jaded fare-paying passengers might add a fourth group – upgraded airline staff and their friends and families – but in our experience these people usually leapfrog premium economy and are found at the very front of the cabin.)

Charter airlines, too, developed premium cabins on long-haul that offer more space and superior catering. And from today, the game changes. The first Air New Zealand flight containing not one but two new, upgraded economy products takes off from Heathrow for Auckland. One is a Premium Economy class that resembles many airlines' business-class products in the 1990s – though with some sophistications. "The person sitting in front of you cannot recline into your personal space," the airline promises. The other new arrival is the "Skycouch" – which enables the three seats by the window to convert into something with the approximate dimensions of a short single bed. "Ideal for families or for couples who want to relax together", says the airline, which is devoting the first 10 outer rows of the economy cabin to Skycouches – or "cuddle class", as it has been dubbed.

All sitting pretty so far – but the price premium demanded for premium economy can be hefty. We looked at a Heathrow-Sydney return, leaving on 1 May. In economy, BA charges £900, Virgin £1,000 – but move up one grade and the fare more than doubles, with each adding more than £1,000 for the privilege. That represents about 75p per minute for the extra space.

The average premium on economy is well over 100 per cent. That is not exactly "paying a bit more to suffer a little less". As far as airline real estate goes, the premium economy cabin can be the most profitable in the skies. It delivers rewards for the Chancellor, too, because any improvement on the most basic economy seating doubles Air Passenger Duty – to Singapore or Sydney, that means a tax of £170 rather than £85. So onerous is the tax burden that Thomas Cook Airlines actually decommissioned its premium cabin for outbound travel (though you can still pay for a bit of extra comfort on the way home).

Just as airlines vary enormously in quality, so too do their premium economy products. Some offer just a touch of extra legroom, while the business-class offering on some less-celebrated airlines is the same in price and quality as a good premium-economy class aboard top-line airlines. Arran Sutherland, of Flight Centre, believes the seat is the thing. "It's the comfort of the seat, even more so than the legroom," he says. "If you've got a seat that reclines a little bit more, allows you to get a bit more sleep and enjoy it a little bit more, that makes all the difference."

Bear in mind that the premium-economy product can vary significantly even within a single airline; for example Virgin is rolling out an enhanced Premium Economy, but many of its routes from Gatwick have yet to benefit from the revamp. Air New Zealand is initially offering its Skycouch and enhanced premium economy only on the route via Los Angeles, not via Hong Kong. And there are many other enhancements, from dedicated check-in and lounges to upgraded baggage allowances, that can add to the value of premium economy. Which is why you need this Traveller's Guide.

BATTLE OF THE BRANDS: BA vs VIRGIN ATLANTIC

Check-in challenge

Virgin is ahead, with dedicated Premium Economy check-in; BA World Traveller Plus passengers must check in with the proletariat, though these days many travellers will check in online and require only the airport bag drop (optimistically called "Fast" by BA; Virgin has a dedicated Premium Economy bag drop).

Baggage battle

BA wins hands down on hand luggage. While both offer double the normal economy allowance (two bags at 23kg), Virgin allows only one measly piece of cabin baggage with a maximum weight of 6kg. BA invites passengers to take two pieces, one of which has a maximum weight limit of 23kg – subject to dimension restrictions.

Stretch your legs

A tie: both offer a "seat pitch" (the distance from the front of your seat to the front of the seat ahead) of 38in. Note that if you are after just a couple of extra inches of space, then you may not need to upgrade to premium economy – just change airline. BA and Virgin offer the most meagre seat pitch in the long-haul business, at 31in. Even charter carriers such as Thomson Airways do better on long-haul flights.

Does my bum look big in this seat?

Virgin wins with 21in – two-and-a-half inches more than slimline BA.

Meal time

Virgin, which provides china dinnerware with stainless steel cutlery. BA's offering is the same as economy.

Power play

BA, with mains voltage available; Virgin requires an adaptor: "We offer the Kensington Power Inverter, which is available to purchase via the duty-free website".

Premium rates

BA wins by a mile for the economy-minded passenger – though it is well worth checking on the individual routes. We compared return flights from Heathrow to three destinations where space is at a premium: Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Sydney. The total on BA was £5,055; Virgin was 13 per cent more expensive at £5,700. And the premium on the ordinary economy fares to the same destinations: 122 per cent on BA, 142 per cent on Virgin Atlantic.

CHARTER CHIC

Thomson, the in-house airline for Europe's biggest holiday company TUI, has an appealing long-haul premium product to destinations such as the Caribbean, Florida and the Indian Ocean. You get priority check-in and boarding,

an extra 3in of legroom and free drinks. The cheapest premium is £149 return to the Dominican Republic, but £299 is a more usual price (though at half-price for children). This includes a free 20kg luggage allowance, for which you would normally pay £40.

Thomas Cook's premium offering is not so strong, which is one reason why – as from next month – the company is no longer offering a premium cabin outbound from the UK. Because it attracts double the normal Air Passenger Duty (£150 rather than £75 on flights to the Caribbean), the airline says it cannot sustain the service for departures from British airports. The seats are still available, of course, and you may get lucky at check-in. Inbound, the usual cost is £50 for 2in of extra legroom and a bit more sideways space.

Monarch has an upgrade option, including 34in seat pitch, increased seat recline, priority boarding and baggage reclaim, free drinks and upgraded catering. On an August flight from Gatwick to Sanford in Florida, the premium is £230 return.

BUSINESS MINUS

Fly with a second-tier airline and you may get a business-class deal for about the same as premium economy on a premier league carrier. For example, between Heathrow and Bangkok, BA charges about £1,750 in World Traveller Plus, with its partner Qantas even more expensive. But Eva Air asks only £1,971 for a fully-fledged business class seat. Another example is on Air India, non-stop from Heathrow to Delhi. The standard Executive Class fare is £1,411, about £500 more than premium economy on BA or Virgin, with the bonus of lounge access and ticket flexibility.

Icelandair is a reliable source of business-class bargains; between Glasgow and Seattle, its fare is £2,432, about £1,000 more than World Traveller Plus on BA, but £1,000 less than Club World.

STRETCH OUT FOR LESS

If all you need is a few extra inches of legroom, then there is no need to pay for premium economy (nor the tax that goes with it). Virgin Atlantic has been selling emergency-exit rows at check-in for many years.

These tend to be near galleys and/or toilets, but have no seats directly in front. No under-16s are allowed, in case you are called upon to participate in an emergency evacuation. The price of £50 one-way applies for all flights to or from the eastern US, Caribbean, Delhi and Nairobi. It rises to £57 for flights to or from Hong Kong, Cape Town and the US west coast, and £60 on flights to or from Johannesburg. The longest route in the Virgin timetable, the 21-hour-plus haul to Sydney, costs £125 extra.

The idea is more widespread in the US. The leading low-cost airline jetBlue offers "Even More Legroom" – spacious seats with 38-inch seat pitch and priority boarding. The extra cost starts at $5 but rises sharply for longer flights, such as the new Long Beach to Anchorage link that begins next month.

United has an "Economy Plus" option, which is being extended to its new partner, Continental, next year. And Delta is working on creating seats with additional legroom, for which the supplement will be £50 to £100 each way.

LOUNGING AROUND

A good way to convince yourself that you're a cut above the rest is to buy your way into an airport lounge. No premier-tier frequent-flyer card necessary – just cash.

Manchester airport has a range of lounges, with the Escape Lounges in Terminals 1 and 2 even offering Scalextric racing. Open 5am-9pm daily, it costs £17.50 if you pre-book online, £20 if you don't. At Heathrow, you're flummoxed if you're flying from Terminal 3 or 5, because entry to lounges is limited to the airlines' premium passengers. But admission to the Servisair lounge in Terminal 1 costs £18.50, while the 4Deck Lounge in Terminal 4 costs £19.50.

Gatwick's North Terminal has the Ascot Lounge (where children are not permitted) and the Wentworth Lounge (where they are). Both cost £16.50. In the South Terminal, No 1 Gatwick costs £20, while the Servisair Lingfield Lounge is £18.50.

Also in the South Terminal is the Virgin VRoom: "The world's first and only airport lounge dedicated to people going on holiday". Virgin Atlantic passengers can pay £20 per adult, £12 per child; and the V Lounge will also be coming to Manchester airport later this summer.

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