Ever since Virgin Atlantic first introduced the revolutionary concept of the Premium Economy cabin in 1992, less price-sensitive air travelers could enjoy a better flying experience than frugal Economy passengers without having to dish out the big dollars for Business or First class travel.

With the recent trend towards tiered Economy cabins, providing certain “Plus” seating with a bit of extra width and leg room and a perhaps a beverage or snack on the side, the value concept behind Premium Economy is becoming diluted. Cabins have so many clever names attached to them, that travelers might find it difficult to discern between a true Premium Economy experience and a souped-up Economy experience. Fortunately, Skift is here to help clear up these now muddled definitions.

Premium Economy is not a version of Economy. It is an entirely separate cabin product which has evolved so that many of today’s best Premium Economy products are on par with, or better than, certain Business class and even First class of not that long ago (unless you’re a teenager). This cabin is delicate — even problematic — for airlines to implement, perhaps that’s why some airlines don’t even try. Airlines must position this product so that the price differential paid to enjoying this unique cabin is well worth the money, without taking value away from their premium product, be it Business Class or First Class or both.

To help rate this cabin, we drew a line in concrete. We evaluated only the best of those cabins which fit a true definition of Premium Economy as a separate cabin space, unique seating, perks, benefits, amenities, and special meals and entertainment. The airlines we chose for our ratings all offer some level of clear advantage in this Premium Economy product. This differentiation results in a more affordable fare for a travel experience which deserves the “Premium” label it was given.

Many of the factors considered overlap with our previous ratings for Economy Long-Haul and Boutique carriers products. Because we have already rated these airlines on certain key overall passenger experience factors, we’ve left those factors out of the Premium Economy ratings.

More Airline Cabin Ratings

Read more about the methodology here.

Instead, we’ve added the categories of Priority/Perks, Sleep Factor, Work-Friendly and Amenities. Priority/Perks is a combined score based on factors such as priority boarding, separate check-in, extra baggage allowance and lounge access (even though some lounge access is paid). Sleep Factor is a combination of various space, seat structure, and other product/service elements which would make comfortable sleep in-flight more likely. Amenities include those desirable amenity kits with their mini-toothpaste tubes and other niceties and other special products like the types of pillows and blankets offered, and the types of headphones given out. Some airlines go beyond these basics and get creative.

All of these factors are measured in the context of the Premium Economy cabin product. That is to say, even the highest of these scores for Premium Economy would not reflect a quality scale equal to the next premium cabin as you head towards the front of the plane. It’s not supposed to and it would not be fair to evaluate this premium product in that way. We’ve recognized excellence a highest rating of “9” and reserved the level of “10” for truly game-changing or breath-taking cabin design innovations.

Virgin Atlantic can take great pride in being the clear winner in the category of Premium Economy ratings. How many of us can say that we are look as smart as we did in 1992, and have remained at the lead among our peers for all those years? Virgin Atlantic has kept up with new product innovations and continues to embody excellence in this category.

The Shortlist

  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Japan Airlines
  • SAS
  • Air France
  • Air New Zealand

Virgin Atlantic’s influence on all the airlines we rated is clear. Its competitors are committed to providing an exceptional Premium Economy experience, and some are coming very close to the top position. We highlight the overall excellence of Japan Airlines as the runner-up. We also recognize the unique efforts of SAS, Air France, and Air New Zealand which make the short-list of our top five Premium Economy cabins.

Ranking the World’s Best Long-Haul Premium Economy Sections
(Scroll right to see all details)

Airline Priority/Perks Recline Space Comfort Sleep Factor IFE Meals Work-Friendly Amenities Design Total
Virgin Atlantic 9 9 9 9 9 8 9 8 9 10 79
Japan Airlines 9 9 9 7 9 9 7 9 9 8 77
SAS 8 8 8 8 8 9 9 9 9 7 76
Air France 8 8 8 8 8 8 9 9 9 9 75
Air New Zealand 6 8 9 9 8 9 9 8 8 10 74
Turkish Airlines 6 9 9 9 8 7 9 9 7 8 73
Virgin Australia 9 8 8 7 7 8 9 8 9 9 73
Alitalia 8 8 8 7 8 7 8 8 9 8 71
Qantas 7 8 9 8 8 7 9 7 7 7 70
ANA 9 8 8 7 8 7 8 8 5 6 68
Lufthansa Airlines 8 8 8 8 8 8 7 7 6 7 68
Cathay Pacific 7 7 7 7 7 7 9 8 6 7 65
Air Canada 7 7 7 7 6 8 8 7 6 7 63
China Airlines UNK 7 8 8 8 8 9 8 6 9 62
British Airways 7 6 6 6 5 7 8 6 6 6 57

Just as with our Boutique airline listings, being included in this list is a recognition of excellence. In a market leaning towards a tiered Economy experience (sometimes through the elimination of traditional Economy services and comforts) to compete with Low-Cost Carriers, this product is clearly differentiated in a competition for affordable luxury.

Photo Credit: Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy section in its new Boeing 787s. Virgin Atlantic