Airlines are finding it harder than ever to make money, so the introduction of premium economy cabins is an obvious step to try and wring a few more dollars out of intercontinental travellers. But can they justify the inflated price tags?
There's no point in pretending that I'm approaching the topic of premium economy from a totally neutral viewpoint. Given that the typical premium economy seat costs around twice the amount of an economy place, I've long taken the view that you might as well succumb to the knee-ache and get cheap. At the end of the day, given the choice between one slightly more comfortable trip to the other side of the world and two trips, I've always (and probably will always) choose the latter.
That said, I never look a gift horse in the mouth. So when Qantas offered me a no-strings-attached upgrade to premium economy on a recent trip between Singapore and London, I didn't argue. (Nor did I get much chance to: I didn't find out about the upgrade until after I'd been through Customs, and my seat changed twice between then and when I actually boarded.)
Qantas isn't the only airline offering a premium economy option in the local market: BA had premium economy seats on the kangaroo route (AU-UK) well before its Oneworld partner did, and Air New Zealand also sports its own premium version. There are subtle differences between the offerings: BA gives PE customers exclusive toilets, while Qantas A380 PE customers are on a different floor of the plane. But the essential idea is the same: a bit more space and slightly better food service, without paying the truly extravagant premiums associated with business class.
As a six-foot-tall man, I'll never argue with more leg room. But what else do you get for the money? On Qantas, the first answer is: a slightly bigger, in-your-armrest screen for watching the in-flight entertainment. That's nice, but the screen in question on a 747 (which I flew) is still a bit less impressive than the A380 equivalent. (Presumably, PE customers on the A380 do a little better.)
The meals are served on separate plates, rather than the all-in-one economy tray — but the food itself is exactly the same. You also have a wider choice of bottle-only wine, but you can generally ask for a second (plastic) bottle even in economy. And you can leave the plane a tad earlier at the other end, but a determinedly fast walker will manage that once they're off the plane anyway (I'd outstripped the whole PE cabin and most of business well before we hit immigration at Heathrow).
So what it really comes down to is the leg room and pitch. There's no denying that not having to breath in slightly when the person in front reclines their seat is a plus. But there's also no denying that, at the end of the day, sleeping in any economy-class seat on a plane is a poor substitute for a real-life bed. And the difference is very measurable. So while I'll never turn down an upgrade, I doubt I'll ever pay the extra money.
Had your own good (or bad) experience in premium economy? Share the encounter in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman would feel a lot guiltier about global warming if he owned a car. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.