The Premium Economy Question: Is it Worth It?
Anyone that flies regularly knows the feeling. The average 31 inches of seat pitch—the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the one in front of it—that US airlines provide economy class passengers quickly begins to feel skimpy when you are crammed in the midst of a full plane. Make it a nine-hour flight and the feeling is so much worse. Travellers have long sought that prized bulkhead or exit row seat for the bit of extra space it offers. Now, more than a decade after United Airlines first introduced economy plus, more US airlines are beginning to offer an alternative.
Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, United and Virgin America all offer premium economy classes on some or all of their aircraft. These range from four more inches of legroom and a buffet of extras on Virgin to the straightforward five extra inches of space on Frontier and United. All charge an extra fee for these seats with exceptions for elite frequent fliers and some full fare economy passengers.
Passengers want more space. Representatives of each carrier with premium economy say that the cost of installing seats with extra legroom on their aircraft was worth the investment and improves customer retention—an important metric as more and more people look for lowest fare. This is even true on short flights. United offers its economy plus on all of their two-class 70-seat regional jets and Delta is following suit and installing economy comfort on the same aircraft in their regional fleet. The RJs typically fly shorter routes, often under 500 miles.
But do the offerings stack up in terms of the cost to the airline and value for passengers? Carriers love to say their premium economy classes are great moneymakers and travellers anecdotally approve but a correlation between providing the product and financial success is not yet evident. Frontier and Virgin continue to post losses even as they offer passengers the option to upgrade to their stretch and main cabin select cabins, respectively.
“I would take extra legroom over anything,” says Simon Allardice, a San Francisco-based advertising manager with the Nature publishing group who has flown 91,000 miles so far this year. Many of those miles were spent on Frontier, JetBlue, United and Virgin where he has had the chance to try both their standard economy and premium economy offerings.
“Virgin America has far and away the best product,” he continues. “You feel genuinely like you’ve upgraded to another cabin when you sit in main cabin select.” The airline offers passengers six inches of additional legroom, complimentary food and drinks, free entertainment, priority check-in and one free checked bag in the class. Total seat pitch is 38 inches according to the airlines or 36 inches on Seatguru.com compared to 32 inches in economy. Fees are a little more than $100 on a transcontinental flight and less for shorter routes when you upgrade from the main cabin.
A Virgin America spokeswoman says main cabin select is a “lucrative” revenue generator for the airline since it began offering the product in 2008. A positive result considering that the cost was almost non-existent—main cabin select is only offered in the existing bulkhead and exit row seats. It is available on the airlines’ entire fleet.
Premium economy offerings on other US airlines are not quite as glamorous. Delta’s economy comfort is arguably the next best with four additional inches of legroom, 50% more recline than standard economy seats, complimentary alcoholic beverages and early boarding. Total seat pitch is 36 inches versus 31 inches to 32 inches in economy, according to Seatguru.com. The extra charge for economy comfort ranges from $19 to $99 one-way on domestic flights and from $80 to $160 one-way internationally.
David Parker Brown, author of the Airline Reporter blog, wrote that he felt much better than he expected to after a 24-hour trip in economy comfort and KLM’s premium economy offering in a recent post. However, he said that the in-flight entertainment box under the window seat in front of him took up much of the extra legroom. Was it worth it? Yes, on longer flights but he is not sure he would pay the fee on shorter routes.
Delta has shared little about the installation costs and revenue from economy comfort. It launched the product on about 160 international aircraft as part of a $2 billion investment in the “customer experience” in February and announced plans to expand it to its entire mainline fleet plus 250 two-class RJs by the summer of 2012 in October. The airline estimates that economy comfort and other new ancillary revenue streams will generate $200 million in additional revenue this year. An airline spokesman says it is “pleased” with how passengers have received economy comfort.
Even more space on JetBlue is the last with more than just legroom. Customers receive up to five inches of extra legroom, early boarding and expedited security in select cities. However, the product was known as ‘even more legroom’ until June when it was bundled with the boarding and security perks. Seat pitch is 38 inches versus 33 inches to 34 inches in economy, according to SeatGuru.com. Charges begin at $10 and increase depending on the route.
“Even more space has been a good investment,” says Donald Uselmann, a product development manager at JetBlue. He explains that the cost of adding the legroom to the airline’s fleet was minimal while the return has been high. JetBlue kept the same number of seats on its Airbus A320 and Embraer ERJ-190 aircraft but reduced seat pitch in the rest of economy when installed the cabin. It expects even more space to generate about $100 million in additional revenue this year, up from $85 million in 2010.
Frontier and United have the most basic premium economy products. Both offer just five inches of extra legroom and no additional frills but that’s where the similarities stop. Frontier’s Stretch product, which was introduced in February 2010, has done little to shore up the company’s balance sheet. The Republic Airways-subsidiary lost $98.3 million before taxes during the first nine-months of 2011, which is up nearly 35% compared to the same period a year earlier. Of course the airline’s financial issues can hardly be attributed to a class of service, numerous industry trends have worked against Frontier including fierce competition at its main hub (Denver) and high fuel costs. An airline spokesman says stretch generates additional revenue of more than $1 million per month on a negligible investment cost.
Stretch is available on all of Frontier’s Airbus A320 family and Embraer ERJ-190 aircraft. Seat pitch ranges from 35 inches to 36 inches compared to 30 inches to 31 inches in economy. The airline, like JetBlue, reduced seat pitch in the rest its economy class cabin to install the product. Fees start at $15 per segment for economy passengers but are $5 per segment for travellers who buy classic fares or free for classic plus.
United’s economy plus is a completely different story. It has endured and retained frequent flyers (this passenger included) for the airline since its introduction in 1999. This February, the airline reiterated its commitment to the product with the announcement that it would be expanded to more than 300 Continental Airlines mainline aircraft. The installation is part of a larger $550 million investment to upgrade its existing fleet by 2012.
Economy plus offers passengers 34 inches to 36 inches of seat pitch versus 31 inches in regular economy seats. The airline typically removes one row of seats to install the product on narrow-body aircraft. It is currently available fleet wide on mainline United aircraft and two-class regional. Fees begin at $9 for shorter domestic flights to over $100 on international flights or $425 for a full year of access.
“The lost revenue of those six seats is made up by the business won by the higher revenue customers sitting in an extra legroom seat,” says a spokesperson of United. They describe the product as “revenue positive” for the company’s bottom line but would not go into specifics. United has no current plans to offer any additional frills with the seats.
Premium economy appears to stack up. While the revenue benefits are hazy at best, the little data available demonstrates some potential significant benefits to an airline’s bottom line. The real benefit is with passengers. Delta and United’s willingness to invest in their respective economy comfort and plus products demonstrates that their passengers like the offerings and, more importantly, are willing to pay.
Allardice, despite enjoying the extra perks of Virgin’s main cabin select, says he would pay for a premium economy seat on other airlines for “the space alone.”
As a frequent flyer that just passed 100,000 miles so far this year, I jump at the opportunity for a few more inches of legroom. Economy plus makes United’s Chicago to Hong Kong nonstop (which I’ve flown six times since 2009) all the more bearable and I do not hesitate to pay for the product when I have the chance. However, most of my trips are for work so my out-of-pocket expense is limited to just the upgrade.
Leisure travellers may think differently. An unscientific survey for this story by NYCAviation included mostly Twitter followers and friends of the writer, most of whom travel often for business. The airlines say that their premium economy offerings are popular with both groups of travellers, which is a claim that we are just going to have to take their word for this time.
I still shudder at the memory of that flight to Sao Paulo (and so many of my other long-haul flights). Memories that beg the question—when are the remaining US airlines going to install premium economy? Not soon enough.
Edward Russell is a financial journalist and airline enthusiast based in New York. The son of a pilot, he’s been spotting and collecting airline memorabilia since a young age and has been writing about airlines in the US and Asia since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @e_russell.