Premium Economy Seating May Save Struggling Airlines

February 15, 2022

They were known for their Flight Attendants in crisp blue and white uniforms, full meal service, and economy class flying with more space than most airlines business class. And for 60+ years, Pan Am was considered the ultimate vision of luxury air travel. But 30 years after those planes were mothballed, that esthetic may be the key to rescuing modern airlines.

The pandemic all but erased business travel. However, it also gave rise to an emerging travel trend that airlines are now heavily investing in: premium economy seating. Premium leisure travel is now expected to surpass pre-COVID levels, with premium economy seating as the driving force behind the shift.

According to the 2022 Skift Megatrends Report, “Airlines like Delta and International Airlines Group (IAG) – the parent of British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Vueling – are putting their money where the demand is and investing in expanded cabins to cater to this new class of traveler.”

Why Premium Economy Seating?

Premium Economy Seating is a premium class of air travel that offers passengers the opportunity to experience first-class amenities at an affordable price. This type of service typically includes spacious seats, priority boarding and disembarking, dedicated check-in areas, extra legroom, and complimentary three-course meals, drinks, or snacks.

It’s also a convenient option for those who can’t afford to pay the first-class fare but still want extra space on long flights. The premium economy seats on American Airlines are two inches wider and have seven more inches of pitch. Another plus for passengers is that the premium economy cabin is often less crowded than the economy section.

Why are travelers booking in droves to sit in premium economy? A recent analysis by Oxford Economics found that Americans had saved an additional $2.6 trillion during the pandemic and estimated that they would spend roughly $360 billion of that through the end of 2022. After two years of travel restrictions, Americans are ready to travel and are willing to use those savings for the luxury of a few more inches of space on their next flight.

Which Airlines Have The Best Premium Economy Seating?

Travelers point to Delta as one of the best airlines offering premium economy seating.

“From my travel experiences to over 30 countries in the past ten years, Delta has one of the best premium economy seatings [sic] on international flights,” comments Hoang Anh Le from Luxury Under Budget. “Firstly, Delta’s leg rest board is completely covered, giving full support to the legs and making it slightly more comfortable than many other airlines’ premium seats, which have a space between the leg rest and footrest. I also received a Delta Premium Select amenity kit (with eyeshades, socks, and moisturizers) – which I usually only received on business seats with other airlines.”

Becky Moore from the Global Grasshopper also gives the nod to Delta for the best airline offering premium economy seating: “Delta offers wide-body aircraft that are Boeing 757s and Airbus 320s. Different upgrades are offered at different prices for people who want to enjoy themselves before landing at their destination. They offer things like wine or wine cocktails for people to enjoy during the flight. Their inflight Internet is also free-of-charge to customers in the premium economy, which enhances their Internet service.”

Even Will Hatton, from The Broke Backpacker, known to travel frugally, has experienced this new trend. He says, “Scandinavian Airlines is one airline that is doing a great job with its premium economy seating. Several perks come with purchasing this seating, including Fast Track and entry into SAS lounges, in addition to free Wi-Fi, television, a three-course menu, and full leg rests, to name a few.”

For airlines, premium economy seating is a way to generate more revenue. People are willing to pay the airlines a premium for these seats, especially as they end up more and more in high demand.

“…airlines created and invested in Premium economy seating to offer business travelers who are not willing to pay full fare business class tickets a new option and to increase the revenue per square foot of space on the aircraft,” explains Sam Helmy from Points Panda.

“If you look at the bigger picture, the rise in economy seating went hand in hand with the introduction of basic economy fares (no checked baggage, etc.),” continues Helmy. “These were aimed to compete with the low-cost carriers and add value to the new premium economy.”

Why Are Airlines Investing So Heavily In Premium Economy Seating?

Premium economy seats offer both passengers and airlines many benefits. But there’s no question – the bottom line is the driving force behind this up-and-coming class of travel.

According to the 2022 Skift Megatrends Report, United Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said that based on what the airline has seen in recent months, it anticipates premium leisure travelers will drive a long-term 2-3 point increase in the revenue it makes off of leisure travelers.

For this reason, more and more airlines are opting to install premium economy cabins on their aircraft.

Shawn Richards, who runs Ultimate Kilimanjaro, states, “Airlines like Delta and Emirates are actively upgrading their planes to build and expand their premium economy seating options. Airlines are investing in this upgrade because they have noticed that sales for more premium seating have increased since the pandemic. Customers are now seeking more room and private space for social distancing, and they can achieve this with premium economy seating. Qantas has some of the best premium economy seating right now because of space. They have wider seats, more legroom, and more amenities that you wouldn’t expect at their price point.”

The latest American Express Trendex found that 52% of respondents desire to take more vacation time in 2022 than in 2021, and 66% agree that the pandemic has encouraged them to spend more money on items or experiences that help with their overall mental wellness.

After two years of restrictions, people want to travel again but still want to protect themselves. Premium leisure travel offers more space to social distance than being in close quarters in economy class, vying for every inch of space.

“When flying, customers look for comfort and affordability, and premium economy seating provides that. People want to protect themselves while still living their daily lives,” states Will Hatton, founder of The Broke Backpacker. “Premium economy seating solves that problem by offering comfort, spacing, and different features to ensure that flyers are safe and comfortable.”

The premium leisure market is growing each year, and airlines are looking to take advantage of this trend by offering premium economy seating on their flights. There is no clearer indication that this new trend for premium leisure travel is here to stay than seeing airlines like Delta, British Airways, Air Lingus, and Iberia upgrading their new aircraft with this new premium leisure cabin class.


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