By Joe Brancatelli
June 5, 2013 --After an untimely and high-profile delay, LOT Polish Airlines launched its Boeing 787 Dreamliners to the United States last weekend and that also meant another carrier adopting a premium-economy cabin wedged between business class and traditional coach.

The friendlier-than-coach skies of the airline industry's "fourth class" grows again next month. That's when Air Canada launches premium economy on international routes. And while that doesn't mean the more-comfort-than-coach/less-cost-than-business-class service is ubiquitous worldwide, its future is secure in the airline firmament. Passengers will pay for something better than the sardine-can seating in coach and airlines have figured out a way to profit from that demand without cannibalizing their money-making business-class cabins.

"We're very happy with the additional revenue [premium economy] has generated for Air France [and] we've had especially good results on the North American market," Air France product manager Eugénie Audebert recently told the influential APEX editor's blog.

Air France's take on fourth class introduced a year after Seat 2B first looked at premium economy in 2008 is particularly attractive. Passengers receive priority check-in at separate counters, more free checked bags, upgraded in-flight meals, in-flight amenities bags and, most importantly, much better seats. Air France's premium economy chairs are wider (about an inch more than coach), with much more legroom (about seven inches more than chairs down the back) with more personal storage areas. Best of all, they are protected by a "fixed shell," industry jargon for seats that don't recline into another passenger's personal space.

But just as it was back in 2008, premium economy is still plagued by wild inconsistencies in seat comfort and service delivery, wide price swings and ambivalent approaches to how airlines sell and categorize the cabin. More than 20 years after EVA Air of Taiwan became the first to adopt a premium economy section, the class remains a crazy quilt of competing ideas and prices.

The domestic approach
Domestically, for example, U.S. carriers don't even consider premium economy its own class. Instead, they categorize it as an outgrowth of coach, available largely to elite frequent fliers as a free- or discounted upgrade from the back of the bus. Others can book the premium-economy "service" only as an add-on to their coach fare.

United Airlines first adopted its Economy Plus service in 1999 and it is still marketed largely as an "extra legroom" upgrade from coach rather than as a separate product. Most of the carrier's MileagePlus elite fliers can reserve Economy Plus seats on a complimentary basis when they book their tickets. Lowest-level elites can now only score an Economy Plus seat at check-in. All other fliers must compete for the remaining Economy Plus seats and pay an upgrade fee that ranges from a few dollars for a short flight to a few hundred for long-haul international flights. On Monday, United also revived an annual subscription service for Economy Plus. For prices that range from $500-$800 a year, non-elite United travelers can book Economy Plus seats whenever they fly.

Located at the front of United's coach cabins, Economy Plus offers 4-6 inches more legroom than standard coach. And while there aren't any other real perks, the service is wildly popular with business travelers desperate for some extra room to stretch out. For years, in fact, United was the only domestic airline to offer the upgraded coach seating and the loyalty that Economy Plus created helped United survive its brutally bad service at the turn of the century and its long stay in bankruptcy.

It was 2011 before another domestic carrier, Delta Air Lines, matched United's Economy Plus. While the so-called Economy Comfort service isn't exactly a me-too offering, Delta's product and its marketing approach is quite similar. In fact, Delta's international fliers are particularly unimpressed with Economy Comfort because it is notably less comfortable than the premium-economy cabins offered by Delta's SkyTeam Alliance partners such as Air France and Alitalia.

Bankrupt American Airlines (OTC: AAMRQ) didn't add its premium-economy service until last year and the availability of Main Cabin Extra still lags behind United and Delta. But that's better than its merger partner US Airways (NYSE: LCC), which offers no option for upgraded coach seats at all. Meanwhile, even JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ: JBLU) has a program called Even More Space. It offers chairs with 38 inches of legroom, more than any of the major carriers' premium-economy offerings. (JetBlue's standard coach seats are also more spacious than its competitors' coach chairs.)

The international upgrade
In contrast to domestic carriers, most international airlines have turned their premium-economy operations into full-blown separate cabins, complete with separate boarding and more elaborate in-flight perks. Just as it was in 2008, the British Airways boutique airline called OpenSkies has the best premium-economy service. But since OpenSkies is down to two routes (to Paris from either Newark or New York's Kennedy Airport) and has reduced premium-economy legroom a bit (to 47 inches from the former 52), it's hard to suggest the carrier offers a standard against which other carriers can be measured.

The international pacesetter in premium economy now is probably Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong. Its fourth class is very close to what a business-class product was only a few decades ago. There is special check-in, seats with 38 inches of legroom and generous recline, a unique in-flight meal service and 10.6-inch monitors and power ports at each seat. Best of all is the price: Earlier this year, Cathay offered sale fares below $2,000 round trip in premium economy from all four of its U.S. gateways (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York) The regular prices range between $2,500 and $3,000 round-trip, still a bargain considering that business-class passage on Cathay often runs north of $9,000. The price-value proposition of premium economy on Cathay has even won raves from frequent Asia travelers once committed to flying in business.

The Cathay standard, so to speak, is what LOT Polish launched over the weekend on its Dreamliners. The premium-economy cabin has three rows of seats configured 2x3x2 with chairs that are about 20 inches wide. Each seat has its own 10.6-inch monitor and a USB and electrical power outlet. Premium economy travelers receive upgraded meals, free drinks and extra checked-baggage allowances.

The price is just about right, too. An advance sale offered by LOT Polish last month pegged premium economy fares to Warsaw at under $1,900 round-trip from Chicago and $1,800 round-trip from New York. That's comfortably between the $1,300 you pay in coach and more than $4,000 you'll pay in walk-up business class.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.