On a flight to Amsterdam last week, I moved past seat 2B and plopped myself down in seat 11B instead. The taupe-colored leather chair was built for wide-bodies like me and was outfitted with a huge, adjustable headrest and a comfy footrest. Even before I reclined, there was so much room between the seats that I could extend my legs all the way without reaching the seatback in front of me.
The meal-salmon appetizer; beef bourguignon with fluffy mashed potatoes and crisp green beans; flourless chocolate cake; good wines; cheese-was fresh, nicely plated, and surprisingly tasty. The clever personal-entertainment system, which operated either as a hand-held video player or holstered in an at-your-seat rig, offered dozens of on-demand video options and hundreds of albums. There was an at-seat power socket, a fat, linen-covered pillow, and a large, soft blanket.
All in all, quite a posh ride on OpenSkies, British Airways' wholly owned boutique airline that now flies from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Amsterdam and Orly Airport in Paris.
But here's the kicker: I wasn't flying business class. I was in a cabin the four-month-old airline calls prem+. And the introductory, advance-purchase fare, complete with taxes and surcharges, was less than $1,200 roundtrip. Just the ticket for these dreary economic times, when a traditional transatlantic business class flight can cost upward of $8,000 roundtrip.
The creature comforts of OpenSkies' prem+ cabin are the latest and best-articulated developments in the nearly 20-year evolution of a fourth and entirely new class of international airline service. Prosaically and generically named "premium economy," this class aims to offer many of the perks and comforts of business class for about the price of a full-fare coach ticket. Airlines believe premium-economy cabins are an opportunity to keep business travelers paying the full coach fare rather than downgrading to one of the deeply discounted coach prices aimed at leisure flyers. They also hope that a fourth class will convince some leisure travelers to upgrade, paying a little more to get a little more.
Besides OpenSkies, Japan Airlines and Qantas have introduced full-blown premium-economy cabins this year. Next month, tiny Icelandair will unveil a premium economy service too. They join a number of carriers that have decided as many as four classes of service makes economic sense. Virgin Atlantic officially added its premium-economy service-first called Mid Class-back in 1992. Nippon Airways and E.V.A., the Taiwanese carrier, have been in the game at least that long. British Airways, which has experimented with a premium-economy section since the early 1990s, standardized the cabin in 2000 and calls it World Traveller Plus. Air New Zealand jumped into the market in 2005. And while no U.S. or Canadian airline has yet added a fourth cabin, carriers as diverse as China Southern Airlines and S.A.S. Scandinavian have.
But unlike coach, business, and first class, which have strong consumer identities and generally comparable levels of service, the offerings in premium economy are erratic. Take Icelandair's new service, for example. Like OpenSkies, Icelandair flies narrow-bodied Boeing 757s and will offer premium-economy passengers two-by-two seating. But its seats will have just 33 inches of legroom. That's not only 19 inches skimpier than OpenSkies, it's an inch less than coach on JetBlue Airways. In fact, the 52 inches of legroom in prem+ on OpenSkies is more than the 39 inches that Icelandair offers its business-class fliers.
The confusion in premium economy is everywhere, and it mirrors the chaos that confronted premium-class fliers in the 1980s when airlines introduced business-class cabins to their aircraft. S.A.S., for instance, configures its so-called Economy Extra cabin two by three by two, which means someone gets a middle seat. The new Japan Airlines premium-economy cabin has a two-by-four-by-two layout, meaning two poor souls sit in the middle. Depending on the aircraft, British Airways' World Traveller Plus offers two-by-four-by-two seating-or the much more gracious two-by-two-by-two arrangement.
Legroom also varies. The chintzy Icelandair offering and the sybaritic OpenSkies layout are outliers, and many airlines have settled on 38 inches of space for their premium-economy passengers. But the Qantas seat in the Australian carrier's new premium-economy cabin offers 42 inches of legroom, which was considered roomy for business-class seats just a decade or so ago. Seat width differs too, from about 18 to about 21 inches-and every inch matters on a long-haul overseas flight. Perks also vary wildly. Some carriers offer premium-economy passengers separate check-in lines, priority boarding privileges, bonus frequent-flier miles, and extra baggage allowances. Others don't. And unlike the special in-flight meals and entertainment options that OpenSkies created for prem+, many airlines offer their standard coach fare to premium economy fliers.
"The prem+ product we're offering is what a lot of airlines sell as business class," insists Chris Vukelich, vice president of OpenSkies, which dumped its traditional coach cabin to concentrate on aircraft outfitted with only 24 business class and 40 prem+ seats.
It's hard to argue with Vukelich's bullish assessment of prem+. From the comfort standpoint, I found it at least as good as the business classes offered by the major U.S. carriers. And with just 64 seats on a flight, the cabins seemed calmer and more intimate. Very much like a clubby private jet, in fact.
And the prices are nearly impossible to beat. OpenSkies' introductory fares for prem+ are purposefully low, of course, but the carrier's standard walk-up fares are bargains too-usually in the range of $2,000 roundtrip. Coach tickets on other transatlantic airlines often cost that much. (OpenSkies, which claims to have the only lie-flat beds in business class on the Amsterdam and Paris routes, is also undercutting its competitors' prices by about 25 percent up front.)
I don't suggest that flying these new fourth classes is guaranteed to be as comfortable or more cost-effective than business class. The concept of the premium-economy cabin remains too new, too inconsistent, and too sporadically available to make that kind of sweeping statement. And since OpenSkies' prem+ is miles ahead of any other premium-economy cabin, your experience on other carriers will certainly be less edifying.
But as the economic news worsens, flying fourth class shouldn't scare you. Depending on the route and the airline, you might even find it pleasing. I know I'd like another bite of that flourless chocolate cake.
The Fine Print.
A follow-up on my column about the Northeast Air Shuttles and Amtrak's competitive Acela trains. Amtrak released fiscal 2008 traffic figures last week and the numbers are impressive. Trips on Acela increased by 6.5 percent; revenue increased by 16 percent. About 3.3 million travelers rode Acela between October 2007 and September 2008.