Premium Economy Broke Into U.S. Skies in 2017. Is This The New Business Class?

by John Harper
Delta's Premium Economy product will be called Delta Premium

Delta’s Premium Economy product will be called Delta Premium Select. Source: Delta Air Lines.

Asia-Pacific and European airlines have offered premium economy cabins going on a decade now, but the concept was mostly foreign to U.S. fliers, until 2017.

American and Delta both introduced their rendition of premium economy class this year, and there are early indications that many airlines are prepared to start treating premium economy as the “middle class” that business once was.

I wrote about the evolution of business class earlier this year. Specifically, I reviewed the history of business class seating. The cabin was conceived in the 1980s as a way to woo frequent business fliers out of increasingly dense coach cabins. Airlines are starting to treat business class as first class, and in turn premium economy is starting to look more like the business class cabins of yesteryear.

Business class, shown here on a Delta Air Lines L-1011 flight in 1984, started as an improved section of the coach cabin. Source: Delta Air Lines Museum.

Heightened Experience?

Judging by most initial reports, premium economy cabins on both American and Delta offer service levels similar to those on international carriers. Both airlines offer noise cancelling headphones in premium economy. Seats on both American and Delta feature domestic first-class dimensions, or better, as well as foot support.

Delta Premium, Delta's Premium Economy product

Delta’s Premium Select seats include features and dimensions that surpass put most most domestic first class outfits. Source: Delta Air Lines.

Meal service is a notable improvement from economy class, served on flatware.

Domestic fliers will find the seats and service an overall upgrade from the first class service offered on most flights within the U.S. Premium select will not replace the flat beds now standard in business class, but business class is beginning to look a lot more like first.

Delta’s new DeltaOne suites look like something we might have called first class 10 years ago.

The Premium Economy Price Point

If you look at current mileage award prices for transpacific flights in Delta’s Premium Select cabin, they look an awful lot like DeltaOne/BusinessElite prices fliers expected on that route just two years ago.

SkyMiles members might be familiar with these Delta Premium Select prices, if they remember searching for DeltaOne seats two years ago.

Of course this is no bargain for frequent filers used to getting flat beds for that type of mileage. There will be many disgruntled SkyMiles members upset at this new normal of service at 60,000 miles.

Yes, these prices are real.

Cash fares, however, are a more enticing value proposition. Consider the recent $631 fire sale on Premium Select seats to China. At Delta’s dismal pay-with-miles rate of $0.01 per mile, this round trip would cost 63,000 SkyMiles and some change, the equivalent of an economy fare.

The New Second Class

Premium economy is moving in behind the top-notch premium business cabins now offered on all three major U.S. airlines, similar to the emergence of business class in the 1980s and early 1990s. These seats offer significantly improved service quality and ride comfort compared to economy seating, at a price point that most business travellers can get away with.

Delta’s DeltaOne re-branding, completed several years ago, is a clear hint that the airline considers this to be their foremost cabin of service. United’s Polaris re-branding similarly provides the airline an opportunity to shed the dowdy middle cabin moniker, “business class,” for something more exclusive.

Premium economy is, by every indication, replacing business as the new middle class. Enjoy those sub-60,000 mile business class redemptions while they last. Of course, if you need help booking, reach out to Juicy Miles.

Point Me To The Plane is recounting the biggest travel trends and aviation stories from 2017. Share your favorite points and miles story in the comments section below. 

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