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From noise-cancelling headphones and extra bags to acres of legroom and real china plates… as premium economy airline seats soar in popularity, which make flying a pleasure and which are a rip-off?

Are you sitting comfortably? Then you’re probably in premium economy rather than in the cheap seats at the back of the plane.

Premium economy cabins with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and others promise smaller cabins, bigger seats, better food and extra legroom.

Fly premium economy and you also get a larger luggage allowance plus pre-flight perks like special check-in desks and early boarding.

The added extras are popular. Airline insiders say premium economy seats are selling far faster than any others this summer, especially on key holiday routes to America, the Caribbean and Dubai.

‘Premium economy is such a well-received cabin,’ says Justin Penny, head of aviation at travel agents Flight Centre.

‘Many budget travellers who go in economy feel they are not getting value for money as they just want cheaper fares. Then there are those in business and first class who may feel they are not getting value either as they are paying a lot.’ 

However, premium cabins tend to get the thumbs up.

‘The price is obviously very important,’ Penny says. ‘And that depends on availability. You’ve also got to look beyond the hard product [the seat dimensions], as these are generally pretty comparable.’

Quality of food and drink, entertainment, provision of amenity kits and friendliness of service are what add up to create an ‘X factor’ beyond mere price/seat size, he says. 

The rule of thumb for getting the best deal is to book close to your departure date when fares are typically 10-35 per cent more than economy – on average they tend to be 85 per cent pricier. 

Premium economy cabins have been around since the early 1990s when the Taiwanese airline EVA Air first introduced them (in 1991), swiftly followed by other carriers.

Here, we check out – and rate – some of the main players.

Virgin Atlantic: Bells and Whistles 

It’s lively and feels special, even if seats are not much bigger

It’s all about the ‘little touches’ in its premium economy cabins, according to Virgin Atlantic which comes across in extras such as china crockery on food services with menus offering dishes such as chicken and leek pies and barbecue pulled pork.

You are offered a glass of bubbly on boarding (rather than after take-off usually on BA). Snacks are available at all times at a ‘Wander Wall’ containing protein bars, chocolate, pretzels and crisps at the pantry. 

An amenity kit with a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye-mask and earplugs is also included, and you get both priority boarding and priority baggage delivery at the carousel. 

On top of this, there’s a dedicated check-in to avoid economy class queues.

IS IT WORTH IT? Yes: it’s lively and feels special, even if seats are not much bigger.

The seat size is similar to economy. Questionable whether it’s worth it

Sit back and relax with a glass of bubbly after take-off in BA’s version of premium economy – called World Traveller Plus. Alcohol and two meals served on china crockery are included as well as slightly wider seats – usually about one inch wider – with a reasonable amount of extra legroom of around seven inches.

Other extras include noise-cancelling headphones, a personal entertainment system and a ‘stylish amenity kit made from recycled bottles’ with lip balm, an eye-mask, toothbrush and toothpaste. 

You also get a plug-in socket, priority boarding, and double the usual baggage allowance (two 23kg bags).

On the World Traveller Plus page of it’s a little confusing as to whether airport lounge entry is included in its premium economy fares … watch out as it’s not – clicking through you find you have to pay extra for a pass.

IS IT WORTH IT? Questionable…the seat size is similar to economy and add-ons lack pizzazz.

Emirates: Pick of the bunch 

Seats have headrests that can be adjusted six ways, and there’s a cushioned leg-rest that rises to support your calves

Relax in cream leather seats with a generous 40 inches of legroom in the premium economy cabin on Emirates, which comes with cosy mahogany-style wall panels. Seats have headrests that can be adjusted six ways, and there’s a cushioned leg-rest that rises to support your calves.

Amenity kits are made of recycled materials with a dental kit, eye-mask and bookmark.

Meals have a plush feel: food is served on Royal Doulton china with linen tray cloths and napkins, with dishes such as Thai pepper beef with jasmine rice and pak choi, or salads comprising grilled peppers, artichokes, pine nuts, asparagus and parmesan. 

IS IT WORTH IT? Absolutely: Emirates was slow to the races offering premium economy, but now it’s the leader of the pack, even if the price can be a bit high.

Singapore Airlines is known for its better-than average food

Choose your main meal in the 24 hours before your flight using the ‘Book the Cook’ feature on Singapore Airlines, which is known for its better-than-average food.

Premium economy customers – as with those in business and first class (but not in economy) – can select from the likes of stir-fried pork with jasmine rice and choy sum or stir-fried ‘kung pao’ chicken with cashew nuts, Asian vegetables and noodles. Champagne is available, not just sparkling wine.

Premium economy cabins have slick grey leather interiors, and seats with both foot and calf rests. There are two USB points for each seat as well as handy reading lights. 

Noise-cancelling earphones are provided, but not amenity kits – though you can request toothbrushes, eye-masks and earplugs. Premium economy passengers get priority boarding.

IS IT WORTH IT? Could be better: Fares leap up for premium economy and you might expect a little more for your money – although service is great.

Qantas: Decent extras 

Cabin interiors have a subdued, tasteful look in shades of grey

Seats are spacious in premium economy with 40 inches of seat pitch comparing favourably with other airlines – and especially important on long flights to Australia. Its newest cabins come with clever adjustable ‘winged privacy headrests’, which curve round, effectively blocking out your neighbours.

Cabin interiors have a subdued, tasteful look in shades of grey. Each seat has two USB charging points and a Bluetooth audio connection to the entertainment touchscreen. Noise-cancelling headphones and amenity kits with eye-masks, toothbrushes and toothpaste are provided.

Food is served on china crockery by Australian designer David Caon. Expect the likes of black pepper beef with oyster mushrooms and rice, served with Australian sparkling wine.

A drink is offered before take-off and there’s a self-service snack bar with protein bars, fruit, chocolate and crisps.

IS IT WORTH IT? Yes, especially when going such a distance: The mark-up isn’t too high and seats are well-proportioned.

Cathay Pacific: Stylish and thoughtful 

Just about worth it but pity the price was so high when we checked

New premium economy seats have leather headrests that curve round, adding to privacy and ‘intelligent lighting design’ – ie, good for reading and using laptops. Calfrests and footrests are provided, and the overall look is far more business-class than economy.

Food is a forte with Cantonese dishes featuring regularly such as Hong Kong-style prawn curry or ‘pork spare rib with pineapple and Chinese sweet tomato sauce and steamed jasmine rice’ – alongside the likes of steaks and roast chicken. Three red wines and three whites are offered, but no sparkling wine.

Entertainment systems in the latest cabins have particularly large (15.6 inch) screens with bluetooth audio pairing. 

IS IT WORTH IT? Just about, if you want to treat yourself to some great food and service – pity the price was so high when we checked.

American Airlines: Could do better 

American Airlines was the first major US airline to introduce a proper premium economy service – but expect rather dreary charcoal grey interiors

Expect rather dreary charcoal grey interiors with leather seats in American Airlines’ premium economy cabins. On some routes a special ‘chef inspired’ food menu is provided for premium economy but not on all – where you may be simply served a standard economy meal.

You are, however, provided with a ‘Casper’ sleep kit with a lumbar pillow and day blanket (not provided in economy) as well as an amenity kit with a toothbrush, toothpaste, body lotion, eye-mask, socks, earplugs and pen.

American Airlines, which was the first major US airline to introduce a proper premium economy service between economy and business class in 2017, also offers flight systems that allows you to watch Apple TV.

IS IT WORTH IT? Probably not – the mark-up is substantial, the food variable, and it lacks a feeling of exclusivity above economy class.

All Nippon Airways: Super service (and sake, too) 

One of the biggest benefits of flying back from Japan is that premium class tickets allow access to lounges at Haneda, Narita and Kansai airports

Dark blue and grey seats with a no-nonsense business-class approach are the order of the day on ANA. 

Fresh salads and fruit are offered on the menu, along with specially prepared bread designed to stay (miraculously) soft and fresh throughout long flights. 

The drinks are especially good – you get what’s on offer in business class including champagne and a selection of sake and plum wines. Snacks such as rice crackers are available throughout flights.

You are also provided with slippers and a shoe horn, and can ask for toothbrushes and toothpastes, eye-masks and ear plugs. 

One of the biggest benefits of flying back from Japan is that premium class tickets allow access to lounges at Haneda, Narita and Kansai airports.

IS IT WORTH IT? Definitely, if you can get one of the cheaper return fares.

Very best in the premium business 

I FELT slightly underdressed on boarding Emirates’ premium economy cabin in jeans and trainers when flying to Dubai last year, writes Harriet Sime.

It had such a business class feel to it that I checked with the cabin crew manager that the giant 37A seat, furnished in leather and with a walnut wood cocktail table, was mine. ‘Yes, Mrs Sime,’ came the reply, as she offered to take my coat and, minutes later, presented me with a glass of champagne, three-course menu and hot towel.

Harriet Sime on her Emirates premium economy flight to Dubai last year

I was sitting next to a Dubai businessman who said Emirates’ premium offering was the best in the world and ‘better than some business class cabins’. 

I have to agree. Let’s hope other airlines catch up soon.

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