Making Sense of the 'New Economy'

Airlines are making a new class of airfare between Economy and Business Class, with each airline giving this new “Premium Economy” class a slightly different name.

Premium Economy, or merchandised economy, refers to the seats airlines are now offering for a fee in the new “fourth class.” Seats are a step above coach, but not as good as business or first class. The term not only refers to the physical seat, which might offer extra legroom and more of a recline, but also other amenities including early boarding and free alcoholic beverages.

How To Get the Best Airline Seats

On some airlines, premium seating is just a rebranding of certain in-demand coach seats that airlines previously offered at no extra charge (think seating in bulkhead and exit rows, and those close to the front of the plane).

What Do Premium Economy Seats Cost?
Prices for premium economy seating vary by airline and by the length of the trip. SeatGuru.com found that:

  • For flights over the Atlantic Ocean, Premium Economy is 85 percent more expensive than standard economy when booked in advance; 35 percent more expensive when booked closer to the departure date; and as low as 10 percent more expensive for last-minute booking.
  • For flights over the Pacific Ocean, Premium Economy prices don’t vary as much by purchase date. Generally, the seats are 95 percent more expensive than standard economy.
  • For domestic flights, prices range from an additional $9 to $199 per leg.

Should You Pay For Premium Economy?
Premium economy seats are a good value when they cost just 10 percent to 15 percent more than a standard economy seat.

Ask about open premium seats on the day of the flight, as any unsold seats might be available for a discounted upgrade. These seats are a great option for business travelers whose employers don’t allow business class booking.

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Whether or not it’s worth it is dependent on the flights and your needs. If you can rest easy knowing you will have earlier access to those overhead bins, then $10 is worth your peace of mind. And, if you are flying across country in coach, treating yourself to some extra legroom for $10 or $20 will probably pay for itself in added comfort. Where you want to be savvy is when you are paying upwards of $100 or $200 for a little extra space – it would be worth your time to look into how much more a seat in business would cost. If you are shopping last minute, you might be surprised by what you can nab.

Legroom and Airline Seats: Do We Need New Measurements?

Premium Economy: What Each Airline Offers
The perks of paying extra for a preferred seat are as varied as their names. And keep in mind, there can be a big difference on what a premium economy seat offers on an international flight (think business class minus the wider seats, leg rests and upgraded meals) compared with a domestic flight.

Here’s what U.S. carriers are offering by way of premium economy seats:

Big Front Seats
Offered by: Spirit Airlines
Additional Cost: $12 to $199 in advance, $25 to $75 onboard
Amenities: Seats are wider, with 6 inches of extra legroom (seats have 36 inches of pitch and are 18.5 inches wide).
Details: Seat upgrades can be purchased online, based on availability. Upgrades cannot be made using Free Spirit miles.

ChoiceSeats
Offered by: US Airways
Additional Cost: Prices vary depending on flight, free to elite members
Amenities: No extra legroom, but earlier boarding and your choice of aisle or window seats toward the front of the plane (including exit rows when available).
Details: ChoiceSeats can be purchased any time – from when you book your flight to when you check-in.

EarlyBird Check-In
Offered by: Southwest
Additional Cost: $10 per leg
Amenities: Automatic check-in occurs 36 hours before the flight (12 hours before general boarding positions are made available), which improves your seat selection, gives you earlier access to overhead bins, and means your confirmed boarding position will be ready and waiting for you no matter when you choose to print your boarding pass.
Details: EarlyBird Check-in can be purchased online, on mobile sites or on apps up to 36 hours before the flight’s scheduled departure time

Economy Comfort
Offered by: Delta Air lines
Additional Cost: $19-$99 one-way
Amenities: Priority boarding; up to 4 inches of additional legroom; seats that recline 50 percent further than standard economy; complimentary beer, wine and spirits
Details: Currently available on long-haul international flights, Delta just announced plans to expand the program to its entire mainline fleet and more than 250 regional jets.

Economy Plus Seating
Offered by: United/Continental Airlines
Additional: Cost: Starts at $9 per leg; free for elite members; $425 for annual subscription
Amenities: A seat with 5 inches of extra legroom located toward the front of the economy cabin.
Details: Beginning in 2012, Economy Plus seating will be added to Continental aircraft. Elite members for both United and Continental qualify for complimentary Economy Plus seating when available. Seats can be booked when making your reservation, at check-in or at the gate. MileagePlus members can also purchase an annual subscription to Economy Plus seating.

Even More Space
Offered by: JetBlue
Additional Cost: $10 to $65 each way, depending on the flight
Amenities: Extra legroom and priority boarding.
Details: In select cities, purchasing Even More Space also gets you Even More Speed, which promises a faster security screening experience.

Main Cabin Select
Offered by: Virgin America
Additional Cost: $39, $69, $129 – depending on the length of the flight.
Amenities: Priority check-in, screening and boarding; 6 inches of additional legroom; and free food, beverages and entertainment.

Preferred Seats
Offered by: Hawaiian Airlines
Additional Cost: Free for elite members, $25 one-way for everyone else
Amenities: Select bulkhead or exit row seats, priority boarding and a free headset
Details: Upgrade can be purchased at check-in or up to 24 hours before departure and is only available on trans-Pacific flights.

Stretch Seating
Offered by: Frontier Airlines
Additional Cost: Free for Classic Plus members, $5 per segment for Classic members, $15 per segment for economy
Amenities: Up to 5 inches of additional legroom in the front and exit rows of the aircraft.
Details: Travelers may upgrade to Stretch Seating when booking their flight, at check-in, or on board if seats are available. It is not available on Frontier Express flights.

Your Choice Preferred Seats
Offered by: American Airlines
Additional Cost: Free for elite members, active military and full-fare customers; fees start at $4 for everyone else
Amenities: A select aisle or window seat near the front of the cabin.
Details: Your Choice Preferred seats are available for purchase 24 hours before departure. Preferred Plus Seats can be booked 330 days before departure.

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Published: November 10, 2011