The Travel Advisor: What is 'premium?'

By
February 17, 2019 01:14
Sara Netanyahu poses in front of a 'retro' El Al plane, August 14, 2018

Sara Netanyahu poses in front of a 'retro' El Al plane, August 14, 2018. (photo credit: EL AL)

 
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When one looks up the word “premium,” a deluge of descriptions are tendered. “A reward or recompense for a particular act,” and “a sum over and above a regular price paid chiefly as an inducement or incentive.” Another description states, “a high value in excess of that normally or usually expected.”

Premium economy is a travel class offered on many airlines. This travel class is positioned between economy class and business class in terms of price, comfort and amenities. In most ways, premium economy has become what business class was like 30 years ago. One example is the seat pitch or distance between rows of seat which on the best airlines feature a 41” seat pitch in comparison with current economy classes of offering a 32” seat pitch. The recline of those seats are 50% more than economy seats. As of 2019, the term is not standardized among airlines, and varies significantly between international flights. Premium economy is sometimes limited to just a bit more leg room, but at its most comprehensive, such as on El Al and United Airlines, it can feature services associated with business-class travel.

 Amenities can include premium meals, noise-canceling headphones, skin-care products in the lavatory and an amenities pouch containing such items as socks, sleep masks, earplugs and tooth brushes. I’m often asked what is the difference between premium economy (never to be confused with economy plus) and economy class. First and foremost it is a separate section/cabin of economy class. It can be divided by a curtain or a divider, but rest assured the larger wider seats will get your attention.

 Most airlines have a 2-3-2 configuration with two seats on each side and three in the middle. Delta Airlines’ comfort plus on flights between JFK and Tel Aviv have a fourth seat in the center. Savvy flier who elect to purchase the premium-class tickets are wise to request a seat on eitits side. All the airlines that service Israel offer premium economy seats and share the same common components:

 • Dedicated cabin crew
 • Smaller cabin size, 4 rows in total
 • Better seats
 • Power outlets
 • Priority boarding
 • Upgraded meals and drinks
 • Larger personal entertainment screens
 • Increased luggage allowance
 • Seats in front of the engines

How much more expensive is premium economy than economy?

The price difference between premium economy and economy depends on the airline and route you’re flying. Generally speaking, you’re looking at a minimum of a 50% price increase, but it could also be double the cost of an economy ticket. Airlines price tickets based on supply and demand, so titse’s no set formula to determine what price you can expect to pay. Titse are only three airlines that fly nonstop between New York (be it JFK or Newark) and Tel Aviv: Delta, El Al & United Airlines.

Delta has been offering its comfort plus on its Airbus 330 planes, but while an excellent product, it is not the same as premium economy. Only on its Airbus 350 planes do they offer true premium economy. You’ll get an extra four inches of leg room on Delta, compared with its main economy cabin, and will enjoy 50% more recline with a seat pitch of about 35 inches. You’ll also only pay approximately $1900 for a round-trip ticket.

So let’s compare El Al & United Airlines, which from March 31 will offer premium economy class on its twice-daily flights to Newark.

EL AL HAS in premium economy service now on eight Dreamliners, the 787-900 series. Flying to Hong Kong, Paris, London in addition to JFK, Newark and Toronto, all eight aircraft offer premium economy. Early reviews are coming in quite positive, and with an airfare starting from $2,400 round-trip on flights to Newark and JFK, it’s proving quite attractive for a select type of clients. Offering only 28 seats in their premium economy section, the majority of those passengers purchasing tickets are those upgrading from economy class ratits than downgrading from business class.

El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin recently opined that the premium economy class was proving itself economically, and that adding a fifth row was being considered. He also quipped that premium economy class was the “new kid in town.” With round-trip economy fares this winter and spring hovering around $1,000, the hefty surcharge to fly premium economy goes a long way to pay compensation when their flights are delayed.

A client sent me his review: “El-Al’s premium economy on the brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner was certainly a treat. It is pricey, significantly adding to the cost of an economy class, but certainly a perfect compromise between the over-populated economy class and the outrageously expensive business class. The legroom was nice, the seat comfy, and the service attentive. Slept for seven out of the 11 hours we were in the air.”

Air Canada has been operating a Dreamliner on its nonstop flights between Toronto and Tel Aviv since long before El Al received its first Dreamliner. In fact, its premium class has been attracting clients for a few years now. With a cabin configuration of 2-3-2, their premium economy class was designed to enhance one’s travel experience and has proven a great hit. With only three rows, its 21 seats sell out quickly and it made mincemeat of El Al’s vintage 767 on its nonstop flights to Toronto.

 Unfortunately for Air Canada, its monopoly on having a normal plane flying the skies recently ended. El Al, too, now operates a Dreamliner, and like all its 787s, premium economy is now offered.

As Air Canada lost its advantage over El Al, so too will El Al lose its advantage to United Airlines. Come March 30, United Airlines will be offering a bonafide premium economy cabin. In fact, UA will be selling those seats on its twice-daily flights to Newark and its daily flight to San Francisco. Come May 22, United will start flying to Washington, DC, and will include a premium economy section on the Boeing 777 which they will be using instead of a Dreamliner.

Most airlines will try their best to get people to pay for the premium seats before they offer them up for free. However, it’s quite common for premium economy seats to be offered at a discount when you’re at the gate. In this case, it would be on a first-come, first-serve basis.


When free upgrades are provided, these tend to be an unofficial way of handing them out. Anyone with status will get first dibs. The higher your status is with the airline, the greater chance that you’ll be upgraded. You should arrive early because there are often only one or two seats that aren’t filled. Being loyal to an airline and being a member of a rewards program can help you get access to premium economy and business class flights. If you’ve had a bad experience, point this out and use it as leverage. Getting to know flight attendants and airline workers can help, and if you fly regularly, you should make a point of becoming a familiar face.

YOU WILL not be the only one who is vying for an upgrade, and these are often limited seats left open. Therefore, to increase your chances of being given an upgrade, you should try to fly during off-peak hours and arrive early. This will reduce the chances that someone else will snag the seat you were hoping for.

It may also help you to dress for success. While dressing in at least business casual is no guarantee that you’ll be granted a free upgrade, it can still increase your chances of success. If you’re dressed very casually, you may be passed over for someone who looks like they don’t belong. It’s not uncommon for multiple people to request being upgraded to premium economy or business class, and if you’re not well-dressed and the other person is, you’re probably going to be stuck in economy class.

Skytrax is the leading air travel guide for airline reviews and ratings and have just released their list of the World’s Best Premium Economy Class Airlines 2018.

Spoiler Alert: Neither El Al nor United Airlines makes their top 20. Nor does Delta Airlines.

The overall airline with the best premium economy class is Air New Zealand, followed by Qantas Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

In fourth place you can find Lufthansa followed by Air France and Aeroflot. Air Canada appears in the 12th position, while Alitalia, Austrian, British Airways and Iberia appear before SAS rounds out the Top 20.

Those European airlines as well as Aeroflot belie something that is not easily apparent. They too offer premium economy seats on their flights, but not from Tel Aviv. So if you elect to fly Lufthansa to Chicago, the plane from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt will have you sitting in economy class with the shift to a premium economy on the trans-Atlantic route.

Consider though purchasing a premium economy ticket on Alitalia. On the flight to and from Rome you’ll be seating in a business class seat with access to the business class lounge.

British Airways is the only European airliner that has a premium economy seat from Tel Aviv to its capital, London, as well as all its trans-Atlantic flights. British Airways is one of the originators of premium economy, but has failed to improve the product since 2010, leading to a rather mediocre experience compared to its competitors. Pros: good catering and a well-stocked in-flight entertainment system. Cons: a basic amenity kit, poor service and cramped seats on some aircraft.

Let’s be clear: premium economy is here to stay. It was back in 1991 that EVA Air started the concept, and is considered the first airline to offer this class of service in the world. Building a business case around a premium economy cabin is for many legacy airlines a relatively simple process. Offering passengers more space, better meals and more benefits, such as increased baggage allowances and priority check-in lines, has proven to be a solid business plan.

Surprisingly, one of the trend-setters whose product proved extremely successful was Turkish Airlines, which markets its premium economy seats to great success. In fact, too much success. It was such a wonderful product that many customers chose to give up their business class seat and their expensive fares and fly with Turkish Airline in premium economy. So back in 2016, Turkish Airlines scrapped premium economy.

Never forget: To invent an airplane is nothing, to build one is something, but to fly is everything.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. Email him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il

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