Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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The Rise of International Premium-Economy Class
October 16, 2014 --With huge business-class cabins and more long-haul international aircraft outfitted with first class than any other airline, Lufthansa has always zealously guarded its reputation as a premium carrier for business travelers.

Which makes it so peculiar that the German airline waited until last week to launch premium economy, the fastest-growing upscale cabin in the global skies.

Lufthansa hasn't been alone in slow walking its way to premium economy, however. Singapore Airlines, another carrier with a global reputation for top-notch service, doesn't launch its version of the service until next year.

But now that Singapore Air is committed and Lufthansa is all in more than 100 of its aircraft will have the better-than-coach service by next summer the rise of international premium economy is nearly complete. After starting as a curiosity 20 years ago, then becoming a niche product, premium economy now has an undeniable place in the international travel firmament.

Business travelers who can't justify or aren't allowed by corporate policy to book business class will pay the premium over traditional coach for more spacious and comfortable seats, better meals and on-the-ground perks. There's also an identifiable core of leisure fliers who'll pony up for premium economy rather than squeeze into the today's dreary coach cabins.

What's surprising is how surprised the airline industry has been by the rise of premium economy. They apparently forgot that business class started the same way 40 years ago. Disillusioned by the high price of first class, business travelers headed to coach only to be lured back up front by the initial business classes, then a service that looked a lot like today's premium economy cabins. As business classes became more lavish and essentially replaced first class, the gap between business fares and coach prices grew so enormous that fliers once again yearned for a comfortable and comfortably priced middle ground.

Lufthansa's new premium economy and the premium-economy section sold by Cathay Pacific of Hong Kong fill the bill admirably and are the standards against which other "fourth classes" are measured. I've flown both recently and can attest to their value and comfort. Will you want to bust down from business class to fly them? Of course not. But are they worth the few hundreds dollars surcharge to get out of coach? Absolutely.

Cathay's premium economy seats boast 38 inches of legroom compared to the industry standard of 31 inches in coach. At 19.3 inches across, the chairs are as much as two inches wider than some coach seats. On the long transpacific hauls from Hong Kong to Cathay's U.S. gateways (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Newark and New York's Kennedy Airport) that extra space makes the difference between a civilized flight and an endurance run.

Cathay's in-flight atmosphere is civilized, with 10.6-inch monitors, plenty of in-flight entertainment, at-seat power and USB ports, wider armrests and more commodious tray tables. You receive an attractive amenity kit created by Goods of Desire, a trendy Hong Kong brand. Flight attendants are omnipresent, keeping you hydrated throughout the flight. Meal service is notably better than coach, too.

There are also unique perks on the ground, including dedicated check-in counters, priority boarding before coach customers and increased checked baggage allowance. The price for all of the extras? Between San Francisco and Hong Kong, Cathay's premium economy roundtrip currently sells for $1,944 roundtrip, less a third of the price of business class.

Lufthansa's new premium economy is something of a transatlantic mirror of Cathay's service. It debuted Oct. 8 on flights between Frankfurt and Washington's Dulles Airport and will be on more U.S. routes to Germany by December. I was especially impressed with the upgrades Lufthansa made in the meal service compared to coach. And that's saying something since I generally abhor in-flight food. The beef entree was aggressively spiced and the pasta dish was cannily made with a gutsy shape (garganelli) that holds up well under difficult airline conditions.

While Cathay and Lufthansa may be the carriers to beat in premium economy, there are notable outliers among international competitors.

Open Skies, the British Airways subsidiary that only flies between the New York and Paris, continues to offer the best premium economy experience. It's not as lavish as when it launched in 2008, but the current "prem plus" section offers 20-inch wide seats configured with 47 inches of legroom. Even better, there are no middle seats on Open Skies' narrowbody Boeing 757s. Best of all are the prices. Book far enough in advance and travel midweek and roundtrips are as little as $1,349, the best premium class bargain in the skies.

Open Skies' presence on the crucial New York-Paris route has forced Air France to make its premium economy better than average. Its noticeable upgrades: 12-inch monitors and "shell" seats that ensure a flier in front of you doesn't recline into your personal space.

Also worth noting: The so-called Spaceseat on some Air New Zealand flights. Laid out 2x2x2 on Boeing 777-300s, Air New Zealand's seats are 20 inches wide with 42 inches of legroom. They are also a surprising color (white) and angled in cocoon-like shells. Air New Zealand promotes the center pair as "designed for couples, so you can relax together, or turn to face each other to share a meal."

But Air New Zealand hasn't installed Spaceseats on its recently delivered Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Apparently, the chairs are a little too cutting edge for most travelers. The Dreamliner's premium economy cabin uses more familiar chairs, but are almost as roomy.

Too much room is what doomed premium economy on Turkish Airlines, however. Its so-called Comfort Class on Boeing 777-300s offers 46 inches of legroom and chairs that are 19.5 inches wide. But new aircraft being delivered to Turkish don't have a premium economy cabins and the airline will gradually discontinue premium economy altogether. The reason? Premium-economy seats haven't been selling well enough at a high enough price to justify the abnormally large space that Turkish carved out for them.

And for all of its omnipresence on major carriers flying international routes to and from the United States, Cathay Pacific's general manager of product Toby Smith says premium economy is a harder sell elsewhere.

"It's doing very well in the United States and Europe," he says. "And the vast majority of customers are buying up from coach, which is exactly what we wanted. But [premium economy] isn't working as well in India and the Middle East. The concept is new there and the market hasn't matured."

Click here to few a slideshow of the leading premium-economy cabins.

WHAT FOURTH CLASS LOOKS LIKE
The concept of premium economy a cabin that offers more service than coach but costs less than business class dates back to the mid-1980s. EVA Air of Taiwan introduced the first official premium economy cabin in 1992 and most of the world's major international airlines have subsequently adopted the idea of selling cost-conscious business travelers and upmarket leisure flyers a better experience than traditional coach. If you book premium economy, expect more seat room and better meals and perks such as priority check-in and boarding. Lufthansa is the latest to go premium: click through to see how it and four other leading international airlines handle the so-called fourth class.

AIR FRANCE
Introduced in 2009, Air France has consistently upgraded its premium economy, partially to offset competition from Open Skies, a British Airways subsidiary that competes on the crucial New York-Paris route. Air France premium economy customers can check two bags (up to 50 pounds each) for free, are permitted to buy their way into lounges otherwise restricted to business or first class flyers and receive priority check-in and boarding. The 19-inch wide "shell" seats ensure no one reclines into your personal space and there is 38 inches of legroom. There is also at-seat power and USB ports and 12-inch monitors are being installed.

AIR NEW ZEALAND
The revolutionary Spaceseat is a trademark of Air New Zealand's premium economy class. They are incredibly roomy (42 inches of legroom and chairs are 20 inches wide) and there are no middle seats. The two chairs in the center of the cabin are angled so that a couple can converse or dine together. They are also encased in a cocoon-like shell that offers more privacy. But the Spaceseat is complicated and Air New Zealand's newly delivered Boeing 787 Dreamliners have more traditional seats in premium economy. The good news is that they are almost as roomy as Spaceseats, measuring 19.3 inches wide with 41 inches of legroom.

CATHAY PACIFIC
On the long nonstop hauls to and from Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific's premium economy cabin delivers excellent comfort. Seats offer 38 inches of legroom and are 19.3 inches wide. Some have legrests and all have footrests and headrests. In-flight meals are lavish with a choice of three entrees for lunch and dinner. There are noodle bowls and energy bars available as snacks throughout the flight. Passengers receive a stylish amenity kit designed by well-known Hong Kong firm and can use noise-canceling headsets and 10.6-inch video monitors. Premium economy flyers receive priority check-in and boarding and can check two bags free.

LUFTHANSA
Lufthansa premium economy debuted last week on a Boeing 747-8 flying from Frankfurt to Dulles Airport near Washington. Seats are 18 or 19 inches wide with 38 inches of legroom. Some chairs have legrests and all have footrests and headrests. There is PC power and USB ports at every seat as well as monitors that measure 9-12 inches. On an afternoon flight between Frankfurt and Washington, premium economy flyers choose from two entrees for lunch and receive a hearty snack before landing. Passengers can check two bags free and are permitted to buy their way into Lufthansa lounges normally reserved for elite customers.

OPEN SKIES
The Open Skies subsidiary of British Airways flies two routes--between Orly airport in Paris, Newark and New York's Kennedy Airport. It operates a small fleet of Boeing 757s configured with an industry-leading premium economy cabin. There are no middle seats and chairs are 20 inches wide with 47 inches of legroom. In-flight entertainment is served up on iPads pre-loaded with 70 hours of movies and other diversions. In-flight meals and beverages are surprisingly good. Passengers can check two bags free of charge. Best of all is the price: as low as $1,349 roundtrip with an advance purchase.

This column is Copyright 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.