Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Now flying on American: Real international-style premium economy seats
American Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to offer such a seat on Oct. 4. That's when it began flying an entirely new "premium economy" cabin on its first Boeing 787-9 "Dreamliner" aircraft. The 787-9 is the second version of the Dreamliner to fly for American, joining the smaller 787-8 variant that's already in its fleet. But it's the 787-9 that now offers American's premium economy cabin, which will eventually expand to more of the planes American uses for long-haul international flying.
Today in the Sky recently took to the air in American's new premium economy cabin, checking it out on an Oct. 14 domestic flight between Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth. American's premium economy seats will transition to international flights next month. In the meantime, you can review the seats yourself in the photos above.
The seats mark a notable change for travelers on U.S. airlines. Until now, "premium economy"' has meant little more than the same old economy seat with a bit of extra legroom. There have been moderate other perks, such as enhanced snack options or priority boarding. But the experience has been more "economy with a snack" than anything approaching an actual premium cabin.
With American’s new premium economy cabin, fliers will notice a distinct difference. It bears little semblance to typical economy, instead looking more like "business-class lite." Gone are the economy seats. Instead, customers will find recliner seats that look more like what one would expect in domestic first-class. They feature extra seat width, additional recline, individual armrests and a lot more legroom.
The new premium economy cabin is set up in its own private mini-cabin: 21 seats arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration that sit right behind the (admittedly much swankier) business class cabin and ahead of economy.
The experience is noticeably roomier than standard coach, making this particular three-hour flight much more pleasant.
But this product wasn’t meant for three-hour flights. The jet will soon shift to long-haul intercontinental flights, where airlines sense demand for a product that is better than economy but not as pricey as business class.
American's new cabin goes beyond the seat. The airline also will introduce a number of "soft product" perks to the premium economy experience. Better meals, free alcohol, amenity kits, a free checked bag and noise-reducing headphones are among the additional features premium economy fliers can expect on long-haul flights.
For seasoned travelers used to premium economy on international carriers, American’s effort isn't ground-breaking. Such cabins have existed in various forms since the early 1990s, when it was added by Taipei-based EVA Air and British carrier Virgin Atlantic. Those earlier iterations, which U.S. carriers had never evolved from until now, focused on little more than extra legroom.
But as the chasm between business class and economy has grown in recent years, a middle ground has taken root. A number of Asian and European airlines have already added the version of premium economy similar to what American is now introducing.
American may be the first U.S airline to introduce a "true" premium economy cabin, but it won’t be the only one. Delta Air Lines is also planning to join the pack with its own such version, expected to come sometime in 2017.
The moves promises to make the two U.S. carriers more competitive with global airlines like Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways, Singapore Airlines and others that already have such cabins.
American’s new premium cabin will begin flying internationally next month on routes to Sao Paulo and Madrid. For those that can’t wait that long to give it a try, American is currently breaking in the cabin through the end of October on flights between Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles. The airline stressed that passengers on those domestic runs will not receive the full experience, only the seat.
Long-term pricing for the new cabin isn't yet clear. For now, American is selling the seats as Main Cabin Extra, a name given to the airline’s standard extra legroom offering in economy. A quick search on some early long-haul routes showed the newest premium economy seats going for between $150 and $200 extra, one way. Prices hovered around $70, one-way, for a domestic flight.
By comparison, similar premium economy cabins on other airlines typically sell for several hundred dollars above the base economy fare, though they are often dramatically cheaper than business-class fares. Eventually, American's soft launch of the product is expected to give way to the carrier selling it as a distinctly different cabin.
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