The continued rise of premium economy among airlines was further underscored late last year when American Airlines detailed plans making it the first US carrier to introduce a formal offering in the sector on long-haul services.

American plans to debut the new cabin on its Boeing 787-9s this year, installing 21 premium economy seats in a two-three-two configuration on the aircraft.

"Our customers tell us they want a class of service between business class and main cabin [economy], and this feedback provided the genesis for our new premium economy service," explained chief marketing officer Andrew Nocella, announcing the move in December.

The airline will install a premium economy cabin on all of its Airbus A330, Boeing 777-200 and 777-300ER aircraft by 2019, it says. Airbus A350-900s will be delivered with the cabin from 2017.

US carriers have thus far only dabbled in the premium economy market. American today offers an extra-legroom product – Main Cabin Extra – for a fee as a step up from its standard economy seat, between economy and business class. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines both also offer similar extra-legroom products for a fee on their aircraft. Indeed, Delta will from May make its Delta Comfort+ product available for direct booking on US and Canadian flights.

American will keep Main Cabin Extra on its widebodies, offering four classes of service on the 787-9: business class, premium economy, Main Cabin Extra, and economy. Its 777-300ERs will also have first class.

It was not the only US carrier to announce enhancements in economy in December. Alaska Airlines detailed a plan to outfit its fleet with extra-legroom economy seats by the end of 2017, with 60 aircraft to have the product by the end of this year.

This will cover the carrier's entire mainline fleet of Boeing narrowbodies – a combination of 737-800s and -900s – as well as its SkyWest Airlines-operated Embraer 175s.

Hawaiian Airlines already operates an extra-legroom economy product, Extra Comfort, and is adding another 28 seats in this class on its A330s as part of a wider cabin refurbishment. It will this spring complete the first of its A330 cabin overhauls, which will increase this seating on the type to 68.

Hawaiian chief executive Mark Dunkerley says it will take a break from the project over the summer. That hiatus will enable Hawaiian to keep all its A330s in service during the busy summer travel season. In addition, during summer Hawaiian will review the first aircraft's overhaul and seek efficiencies.

Beginning in the fall, Hawaiian will resume the work at a "nose-to-tail" pace, with one aircraft being modified at a time and no break in between, Dunkerley says.

At that rate, Hawaiian will overhaul all its A330s by the middle of next year, Dunkerley says. The carrier has 22 of the type, plus one on order.

While US carriers have been reluctant to turn to premium economy, across the border Air Canada debuted premium economy on its 777s in 2013 and began taking 787s configured with 21 seats in premium economy the following year. WestJet, meanwhile, last year brought in a no-middle-seat premium economy product, on its Boeing narrowbodies and its first long-haul aircraft, 767-300ERs.


Premium economy has been far more prominent in other regions and continues to be rolled out by new operators. Figures from Flightglobal's Fleets Analyzer database show almost 30 different European carriers – including several sister brands – offering either a dedicated premium economy section or an enhanced economy product on their widebodies.

The region's biggest network carriers, British Airways, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa, all have premium economy offerings – the latter debuting it in 2014. Virgin Atlantic – one of the premium economy pioneers, and which has the product across its 39-strong fleet – has the largest premium economy section of any European operator, with the 66 seats on board its 747-400s.

Spanish carrier Iberia will become one of the latest European carriers to bring in premium economy, joining fellow IAG airline British Airways in offering the product.

"We are going to implement premium economy in the [Airbus] A340-600s, the A350-900s will arrive with it, and the A330-300," explains Iberia chief executive Luis Gallego. He notes, though, it will not introduce the option on the A330-200s it deploys on denser routes. Iberia will begin retrofitting its A330-300s this year, replacing seven business-class seats with 21 premium economy seats.

"We did an analysis: there will be a percentage of people that can go from business to premium economy, but when you do the numbers, you are going to have more people going from economy to premium economy, because the product we give in business is very good and people are ready to pay the fare for business in order to receive that service," he says.

European leisure operators are also active in the premium segment and Italian leisure carrier Neos has replaced the business-class section on its 767 long-haul fleet with premium economy seats while management finalises interior plans for its on-order 787s, scheduled for delivery in 2018.

The airline abolished the business-class section on its 767s in favour of a higher number of Weber-built premium-class seats through an interior project completed in December.

The aircraft's total seat number remained unchanged at 284, but the Milan-based airline's technical director Marco Brusa says 21 premium economy seats were installed in place of the 12-strong business-class section as a response to demand from tour operators.

Across Asia-Pacific, Fleets Analyzer shows 14 carriers offering premium economy or enhanced economy products.

Singapore Airlines is among the network carriers in the region to embrace premium economy and having begun the process of rolling it out across its 777-300ERs and Airbus A380s, it in March took delivery of its first A350-900 which also features a premium economy cabin. The carrier's A350 features 253 seats in a three-class configuration, including 42 business class and 24 premium economy seats.

SIA now expects to complete retrofit of its 19 A380s with premium economy during the second quarter.

Source: Cirium Dashboard