American Airlines is Introducing a Real Premium Economy on International Flights

Two weeks ago I wrote that American was considering introducing a premium economy cabin.

”We’re looking at it,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told Australian Business Traveller earlier this month, after a pause to carefully choose his words. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

As I said at the time, “there is a market for something between a dreadful economy long haul experience and a super-luxe business class one.”

Premium economy is a common international product, and in many markets does well especially ultra long haul. For instance, I’ve had problems even buying a Premium Economy seat on Qantas between Sydney and Los Angeles.

On EVA Air’s Boeing 777s premium economy is eight across (versus 9- or 10-across for most airlines’ regular economy), and has the kind of legroom you see in domestic first class. There are footrests and double-sized armrests between seats. Meal service is upgraded.

The Singapore Airlines premium economy product has ~ 19 inches of width, 38 inch pitch, and a 13.3-inch HD monitor. Passengers receive noise-cancelling headphones. There’s seat power, 2 USB ports, and designated storage for water bottle, mobile phone and laptop. They extend a limited “Book the Cook” pre-order meal option to premium economy and offer respectable champagne.

This morning American has announced they’ll be the first US airline to offer a premium economy cabin on most of their widebody international fleet.

The Premium Economy Product

American will be adding premium economy to their widebody international fleet (excluding Boeing 767s), and will still continue to offer Main Cabin Extra additional legroom seating on both the international and domestic fleet.

Here’s the aircraft that will be receiving premium economy:

  • American’s Boeing 787-9 will be delivered with Premium Economy in late 2016.
  • American’s Airbus A350s will be delivered with Premium Economy
  • Over the next three years American will retrofit existing Boeing 777-300ERs, Boeing 777-200ERs, Boeing 787-8s and Airbus A330s to include Premium Economy


Side View of American Airlines Premium Economy Seats, credit: American Airlines

Think of the seats like domestic first class with footrests. Premium economy will have more legroom than Main Cabin Extra (38 inch pitch) and greater width as well. I’m told that “The bulkhead seats will have attached footrests that extend, the rest of the seats will have an adjustable foot support bar beneath the seat in front.”


    Source: AA.com

Seats will be manufactured by B/E Aerospace. Since they’ll debut in the Boeing 787-9 and that aircraft will have a new business class seat, it renews my speculation that B/E Aerospace will be the manufacturer of the new business class seat.


    B/E Aerospace Super Diamond Business Class Seat

The 787-9s will offer 3 rows of Premium Economy in a 2-3-2 configuration (versus 3-3-3 for economy).

In addition to better seats, there will be a separate meal service, amenity kits, noise reducing headphones, and “personal on-demand entertainment” as well as complimentary alcoholic beverages.


Meal Service Looks Like Domestic First Class, There’s an Appetizer so No Bread Plate

Premium economy passengers will receive priority check-in and boarding, and two free checked bags.

American has two websites — aa.com/premiumeconomy and explorethenewamerican.com/premiumeconomy to support the product.

Unanswered Questions

I don’t have exact number of seats in each cabin yet, but my understanding is that premium economy comes primarily at the expense of economy seats rather than reducing the number of premium cabin seats on each aircraft. Although there’s no word yet on whether we lose the more generous business and economy class cabins of the first 13 retrofitted Boeing 777-200s as part of the change.

At this point there’s also no word on how will this affect upgrades. Will it still be possible to upgrade from coach to business class, or will upgrades be “one cabin only” and thus coach to premium economy, premium economy to business?

I presume that premium economy become available for award redemption, at a price point between economy and business class. Over time I’d love to see premium economy redemptions on partners — both joint venture partners like British Airways and Qantas, and non-joint venture partners like Cathay Pacific.

American spokesperson Laura Nedbal told me,

Until our premium economy seats are assigned a fare class and loaded for sale, it’s too soon to say what the upgrade policies will be or what rates will be applied for redemption awards. We will have more information when we get closer to a sale date.

With Delta making their extra legroom seating a separate booking class on domestic flights there have been rumors that Delta will move to a similar ‘real’ premium economy offering internationally. It will be interesting to see whether American goes this alone amongst US carriers, or if a domestic airline actually has gotten out ahead of Delta on something for a change!

Overall I’m a big fan of premium economy (in much the way that I’m a fan of JetBlue’s Mint), a premium product that’s within reach of more passengers. However it raises concern for frequent flyers looking to upgrade. The sections will be small (so upgrades to premium economy could be tough) and airlines with premium economy may not offer upgrades from economy to business class. Will the upgrade experience be diminished as a result of this new offering?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. That looks a lot like the “original” Business Class (from the 1980s & early 90s). It should appeal to business travelers whose companies will only pay for “economy.”

  2. @Gary – 4th paragraph from the bottom, you say “from coach to economy” – did you mean from coach to business?

  3. AA has a press release about the change this morning:

    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/american-airlines-continues-innovation-launch-140000710.html

    I find this new class to be a bit ironic because it looks a lot like “old international business class” before the USA airlines eliminated int’l first class and made biz class very nice with lie-flat seats. So everything old is new again!

    There does seem to be a market for int’l premium economy, as I’ve noticed the section to be crowded on the foreign airlines that currently fly it. Personally, my problem would be paying for it: I think the airlines will value it more than I’ll value it. It’s the kind of product you’d want your employer to pay for: but maybe now they’ll only pay for premium economy instead of biz class! And it doesn’t seem like there will be any free upgrades into it, unless AA extends this benefit to executive platinums (which would surprise me — they’ll likely remain stuck with only main cabin extra).

  4. @Sean yes, fixed, thanks.

    Although I always liked years ago when United.com used to list the option to upgrade to United Economy, United Business, and United First. Which presumably implied an upgrade from United Cargo. 😉

  5. @Michael T – at other carriers we see more than one inventory class for premium economy, so there can be both discounted PremY and full fare PremY. Full fare premium economy will be more than full fare economy, but discount premium economy may be less.

  6. @Jetaway — I didn’t see your post before I wrote mine. I see I’m not the only one gripped by a sense of deja vu upon seeing the “new” seats!

  7. Why not go with shell seats? Much better experience for the people behind/in front of the reclining passenger. I found that AF’s PE seats are perfectly acceptable for daytime flights.

  8. Will these mean we will be able to use AA miles for Premium Economy on oneworld carriers (i.e. JAL)??

  9. “this is just a GUESS but I’d think premium economy on the 777 would be 8-abreast”

    That seems very likely. The retrofit 772s currently have 3-3-3 for MCE and a few rows of Y, then aft of door 3 it’s the dreaded 3-4-3.

    I suspect that part of the move to P.E. will be to shift MCE to 3-4-3 on the 777s. Which will suck, but will also push business FFs to buy P.E., so from a marketing standpoint, that would be a good move.

    I don’t really see AA doing 2-3-2 for P.E. on the 777, given the indicated 787 config.

  10. Another unanswered question will be whether AA use this as an opportunity for a further increase in the cost of premium awards in subsequent years of the programme. We saw precisely this happening with BA’s recent programme changes, where the mileage cost differential for award tickets between the economy, premium economy, business and first cabins was shifted from 1x – 1.5x – 2x – 3x to 1x – 2x – 3x – 4x respectively.

    It seems obvious to me that upgrade awards or the use of SWUs will ultimately be limited to one-class (economy – premium economy or premium economy – business). This is exactly what happens with all of their oneworld partners who offer PE, and there wouldn’t be grounds for complaint to my eyes here.

  11. Cool. As a non-EXP, not-super-wealthy leisure traveler this is nice to see. I don’t need lie-flat, just a comfortable place to sit. If the price is right, I’ll be on this for sure.

  12. Given the benefits of mass production and standardization, and getting the job of conversion quickly, I’d speculate the 777s will have 2-3-2, the same across the fleets of wide bodies. A 2-4-2 would rather defeat the extra benefits of space and replicate UA’s current dreaded biz cabin on its 777s and 744s. And make the MCE cabin centre bank somewhat more attractive at 3 seats. I suppose we can all speculate until later next year when we actually see seating charts. As noted, reminds me of the first generation of international business class seats a couple of decades ago.

  13. I really hope Delta follows lead, really all they need now is a new seat and improved meal service. With many airlines eliminating international first class, PE is the new business, perfect for people who want more than coach but can’t afford business, and great for business travels whose employer won’t pay for business.

  14. I’d be interested in the product. I’m not needing the pampering at the cost of a business class seat on a relatively short “long haul” when I’d be wanting to sleep most of the time anyway. But a little more room than the current economy seats? Definitely something to look at.

  15. Non-bulkhead seats have a foot support bar on the sear in front, so likely diminished access to underseat storage. Given the small delta between MCE and E+, I could see AA permitting an SWU to go from E, MCE or E+ to J, but given how stingy AA has been, I suspect SWUs will be only from E/MCE to E+ or E+ to J.

  16. Looks like we are going back to seating arrangements in the 1970s through mid 1990s. PE is basically domestic F with a foot rest, which is what J used to be. With eliminate of F on all but 77W, J because what used to be First. The Piano bars and Pubs are long gone, so I guess we really aren’t going back to the 80s.

  17. How about if domestic upgrade rules apply to international PE upgrades – like free for EXP 96 hours out, and Plat and Gold add 500-upgrade segments.
    Then SWUs (EXP only anyway) go to J.

    Gary indicated (I believe) that Suzanne Rubin indicated that AA was going to do some things with upgrades to counter copying DL and UA on RDM earning.

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