By Michael Slattery / Published March 6, 2014
I fly, on average, 60,000 miles per year. Some of those flights are short-haul routes (many to Costa Rica, which I highly recommend), but most are long-hauls to Africa, Europe, the Middle East and, on the odd occasion, Australia and New Zealand. On pleasure, the flight planning is easy: find dates and airlines that have award mileage inventory in the front of the plane. Champagne and warm nuts, why thank you!
On business, however, the decision becomes far more problematic. You see, I am a college professor by day, and universities and granting agencies do not pay for business class tickets. That makes sense, given that most are in the $6,000 to $8,000 range to either Europe or Southeast Asia. Even corporate travel departments have cut back on shelling out this sort of money to send their employees in a premium cabin, especially in the wake of the most recent global financial crisis.
But squeezing my 6’5” frame into a coach seat for between 10 to 16 hours becomes, well how should I put this, a survival course. I am absolutely fine with all my food arriving at once in little compartments, and with my wine choice being simply “white or red” in mini screw top bottles. To be honest, even business class and first class meals can be pretty hit-and-miss at times (I recently had a filet steak in business class that could have doubled as a hockey puck on any given night in the NHL). Rather, it’s the chronic lack of s-p-a-c-e that makes long-haul coach such a miserable experience. It’s the cabin where limbs go to die, where DVT becomes a real, statistical possibility, and where any sort of sleep becomes all but a dream. This is where premium economy comes in as a potential long-haul savior.
The premium economy product, pioneered by British Airways (BA), started becoming popular when long-haul business class cabins started to introduce flatbed seats (again, BA’s Club World set the early pace here). The chance significantly increased the gap between economy class products and business class products. Positioned in price, comfort, and amenities somewhere between economy and business, premium economy has helped to fill this gap with airlines.
Be warned, though: unlike business and economy cabins there is no general consensus in premium economy cabins. The product varies significantly among carriers, making it difficult to compare apples-to-apples when planning a long-haul trip. For some, premium economy is limited to just a bit more legroom and nothing more. Others offer a product that is closer to the business class cabins of the 1990s and early 2000s.
In addition to product inconsistencies, pricing can also vary tremendously among carriers, depending on what type of premium economy ticket you actually buy. Just like economy, business, or even first class pricing, the cost of a ticket can increase dramatically as you build flexibility into the fare. With these two aspects in mind, namely amenities and pricing (which equal value-for-money in my books), I thought it would be useful to review two premium economy products that, in many ways, have become industry benchmarks: BA’s World Traveller Plus (WTP) and Qantas’ Premium Economy.
My routing on BA was Dallas/Fort Worth-Abu Dhabi (via London) on a 747/777 combination. On Qantas, I opted to fly to Los Angeles to connect to Sydney on the A380, rather than take the 747 direct on the world’s longest non-stop. In both cases, I paid the difference between economy and premium economy out-of-pocket (as both trips were business related). In fact, my wife accompanied me on the Australia trip and paid for the premium economy ticket herself, so having skin-in-the-game meant we really focused on the issue of value.
The premium economy cabin, as marketed by both companies, is supposed to offer a significant upgrade from the economy experience without breaking the bank. The question then is, have these airlines succeeded in putting the premium into premium economy?
For Qantas, the answer is simply a resounding yes! Its premium economy experience trumped BA’s WTP in every department: dedicated check-in desks; priority boarding; and a meal service much closer to business class than economy (try champagne prior to takeoff, individual tableware, and an anytime snack and refreshment service with excellent choices). The Qantas cabin, situated on the upper deck of the A380 immediately behind business class is intimate and quiet, with just 28 seats in a 2 x 3 x 2 configuration (for comparison, there is a small economy section behind premium configured 2 x 4 x 2, whereas downstairs it is a bone-crushing 3 x 4 x 3 layout).
There are dedicated flight attendants in the premium cabin and, crucially, we could use the lavatories at the back of business class which meant hardly any wait, even in the 45 minute window prior to landing. The Qantas seat is superb: 38” of pitch and 19.5” wide (versus 31” and 17.5” in economy class, respectively). This translated into a comfortable, spacious environment with plenty of room to configure my legs in any number of yoga combinations. The seat also had a well-designed, multi-way adjustable headrest, although the footrest wasn’t of much use for a person my height. There is also a very handy storage compartment next to the window seat which eradicates the need to visit the overhead bins. The IFE was extensive and intuitive with a 10.6 inch personal touch screen with complimentary noise-cancelling headsets.
All round then, a really outstanding product from The Flying Kangaroo. The BA seat in WTP had similar pitch but was only 17.5” wide, which made the overall experience feel a bit more cramped. To be fair, this was the older WTP product, but even the upgraded WTP seat, according to BA’s website, is only 18.5” wide, which still gives the edge to Qantas. In fact, on BA the WTP experience is really just about being in a smaller cabin with more legroom, with everything else essentially an extension of the economy experience. Most annoyingly, even the lavatories are shared with economy, so queues and wait time were extensive. Certainly, the BA WTP seat is much better than their economy seat, but after four legs in WTP, I left fairly disappointed, wondering whether paying the difference between economy and WTP was really worth it in the end. That question really comes down to how the actual premium economy ticket prices on any given leg.
For example, I recently priced a two-week return ticket DFW-LHR on BA and LAX-SYD on Qantas over three time periods: a mid-February flight (essentially, booking about two weeks out), a mid-May flight before the U.S. summer break, and a mid-August flight falling within the busy summer travel season. On BA, the lowest WTP ticket priced consistently between 39% and 43% higher than economy (e.g., $1,612 versus $2,241 on the peak summer fare). On Qantas, the premium economy fare was generally 73%-81% higher than economy (e.g., $1,545 versus $2,800, again for the summer peak). But be warned: these premiums can increase significantly depending on availability and, in some cases, start approaching business class fares.
The Bottom Line
The verdict on these two industry benchmarks then? Premium economy on Qantas was definitely worth the higher fare despite being almost double that of regular economy. The experience was, what I would call, Business Lite: significantly more pleasant than regular economy. My wife and I both agreed that any further travel to Australia or nearby countries would definitely be in the premium economy cabin, so if you can afford it, my advice is, do it! BA’s WTP, on the other hand, is more problematic. Yes, the seat is wider with more leg room, but that’s about it. I would still probably pay the $300 one way “upgrade” to WTP on the trans-Atlantic simply for that extra legroom, but any more than that on a more flexible WTP ticket would certainly be a waste of money in my view. In fact, I’d probably opt for the approximately $140 increase from economy to Main Cabin Extra on American’s 777-300 across The Pond, with 36” of pitch, if money alone was the deciding factor. What is disappointing is that it wouldn’t take very much to really put the premium back into premium economy on BA, with simple changes such as dedicated check-in, separate lavatories, and a few upgraded amenities on board.
So while Australia has whitewashed England in the recent Ashes cricket series, I’m afraid they’ve done the same in the air!