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Comparing Premium Economy Seats and Cabins Among US Airlines

Oct. 06, 2017
21 min read
AA Premium Economy feat
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Faced with increasing competition from international carriers as well as among themselves, US airlines are investing in new premium economy seats, cabins and amenities.

While two of the three major legacy airlines — American and Delta — are putting the equivalent of long-haul international premium economy on some of their jets, even smaller carriers have upped their game in the space between economy and first class. Meanwhile, United seems to be trailing the pack, saying that it's investigating new premium economy options, but sticking with its old-school Economy Plus seating with slightly more legroom for the time being.

Here is a breakdown of premium economy offerings on US airlines, and what you can expect when flying each. Just one note before continuing: Obviously comparing an old product like United Economy Plus or a product meant for mostly domestic routes like Alaska's Premium Class to an international configuration like American's or Delta's is a little like comparing a bicycle to a motorcycle. However, this is simply meant to be a snapshot of the current more-than-economy seating options available on US airlines.

AirlineSeat SizeAircraftAwards & UpgradesExtra Amenities
Alaska17-18.25 in. x 35-36 in.737-800, 737-900, E175No awards, but MVP elites eligible for upgrades.Priority boarding, free snacks and beverages.
American19 in. x 38 in.

(Main Cabin Extra 17-18 in. x 33-37 in.)

A330-200, 787-9, 777-200, 777-300ERAwards and mileage upgrades are not available yet, but should be in the future.Priority check-in, security, boarding, baggage & meals. Minimal amenity kits.
Delta18.5-19 in. x 38 in.

(Delta Comfort+ 17-18 in. x 34-35 in.)

A350, 777-200 (in 2018)Complimentary upgrades not available. Delta Diamond Medallions can use Global Upgrade Certificates.Priority check-in, security, boarding, baggage & meals plus TUMI amenity kits & Westin blankets.
Hawaiian17.3-18 in. x 36-37 in.A330-200, A321neoNot available as awards, but paid and elite upgrades available.Priority ground services, premium meals and free entertainment.
JetBlue17.8-18.25 in. x 37 -41 in.A320, A321, E190TrueBlue Mosaic elites can redeem points for upgrades.Even More Speed expedited security and boarding.
United17-18 in. x 34-35 in.All United & most United Express jetsPremier members eligible for complimentary upgradesPaid “Travel Options” bundles that include priority boarding, checked bags and more miles.
Virgin America17.7 in. x 37-38 in.A319, A320, A321Only paid upgrades on cash or award bookings. Elevate Gold and Silver & Alaska MPVs eligible for free upgrades.Priority security & boarding, free checked bag, entertainment and food and drink items.

Now for the details on each.

1. Alaska Airlines

Image courtesy of Alaska.
Image courtesy of Alaska.

Alaska is like the little carrier that could. Not only has this Pacific Northwest powerhouse bucked recent airline trends by (mostly) maintaining the value of its mileage program, but it’s growing its route network, and smoothly managing the takeover of Virgin America. While you won’t find premium economy seats that would stand up to those on international carriers, the airline did start fielding new section in its economy cabins called Premium Class back in 2016. The seats replaced the airline’s former Preferred Plus seats, which used to be available only in bulkhead and exit rows.

Name: Premium Class

Aircraft: Alaska put these seats on its planes in a fairly short time frame. All its 737-900s and E175s have 30 and 12 Premium Class seats respectively already. The airline’s 737-900s and 737-900ERs should complete their retrofit by the end of the year with 24 of the new seats per plane. The seats are generally the first three to four rows of economy, except on the E175s, where they’re located near the wings.

Routes: You’ll find Premium Class seats on most of Alaska’s longer routes and some shorter ones that are serviced by E175s. The airline’s fleet does contain other aircraft including Bombardier CRJ-700s and A400s plus some 737-400s and 737-700s. So if you are hoping your plane has this option, be sure to double check the exact 737 type you’re flying and make sure it’s denoted “738” or “739.”

The seats: As mentioned, these seats don’t really compare to international long-haul premium economy seats, and are more like Main Cabin Extra on American or Delta Comfort+, but they’re the best Alaska has to offer. Like regular economy seats, they are arranged in a 3–3 configuration on the 737s and are 17 inches wide with 35 inches of pitch (compared to 31 for regular seats). The E175s’ seats are 2–2, and are actually wider, at 18.25 inches, with 36 inches of pitch.

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Image courtesy of Alaska.
Image courtesy of Alaska.

Amenities and cuisine: Purchasing that extra legroom also gets you priority boarding, some free alcoholic beverages and a small box of snacks.

Using miles: While you can’t use miles to book Premium Class outright, you can scoot yourself forward in a number of other ways. Even if you are on an award ticket, you can purchase an upgrade to Premium Select or use your elite status to move forward. Depending on the length of your flight, you can purchase an upgrade for $15-$79 each way, as you can see in the flight itineraries below. Los Angeles (LAX)–Seattle (SEA) would cost an extra $17 each way.

Alaska LAX SEA upgrade

Washington National (DCA)–Los Angeles would cost $79 more each way.

Alaska LAX DCA upgrade

Alaska elites are also entitled to complimentary upgrades to Premium Class. MVP members can upgrade at time of booking from Y, S, B or Z fares. MVP Golds can upgrade from those plus M, H, Q, L, V, N or K fares, while MVP Gold 75Ks can upgrade from all fares. Then upgrades clear 48-72 hours before departure depending on status on non-qualifying fares.

2. American Airlines

Photo by JT Genter.
Photo by JT Genter.

American Airlines has had more-legroom Main Cabin Extra seating on its planes for years now, but the airline announced that it would offer all-new premium economy cabins and seats on next-generation Boeing 787-9s this year and then begin retrofitting much of its remaining long-haul fleet with the seats soon after.

Name: Premium Economy

Aircraft: American launched premium economy aboard its new 787-9s earlier this year (when it started selling the cabin separately). American is also retrofitting the other aircraft in its long-haul fleet with the new seats. Already underway, the 777-200s should all have the new seats by March 2018. American's 777-300ERs will be retrofitted between December 2017 and June 2018, and the airline’s 787-8s will be worked on between March-June 2018. The airline will only retrofit its A330-200s but not its A330-300s with the new seats. All told, based on recent projections, American expects to have 63 aircraft with premium economy by the end of the year and a further 14 by the end of March 2018.

Routes: Routes can always change, but for now, American’s site says that in addition to 787-9 and A330-200 routes, select 777-200 planes flying to Hawaii and international routes over 3,000 miles will have the new seats, most of which will be from the airline’s hubs in Dallas and Miami. A330s with the new seats will be flying mostly from Charlotte and Philadelphia to Europe starting in January. The 787-9s, meanwhile, fly from Dallas (DFW) to Madrid (MAD), Paris (CDG) and Seoul (ICN) as well as from Los Angeles (LAX) to Auckland (AKL) with new routes planned for LA to Sydney (SYD) and Sao Paulo (GRU) and from Chicago (ORD) to Paris.

The seats: Aboard the 787-9 and A330-200, seats are arranged in a 2–3–2 configuration while those on the 777-200 and 777-300ER will be in a 2–4–2 pattern. They should all measure up at 19 inches wide with 38 inches of pitch.

Photo by JT Genter.

Amenities and cuisine: American premium economy passengers enjoy a free checked bag, priority check-in, security and boarding as well as checked-bag delivery priority. On the plane, they're treated to basic amenity kits containing dental hygiene products, socks and an eye mask. The seats’ entertainment screens are larger than those in economy and passengers will get noise-canceling headphones. AA also claims that there is premium meal service along with complimentary beer, wine and spirits.

Using miles: American does not yet allow you to use miles to book awards in premium economy — it’s not even listed on award charts — but should do so "sometime in 2018." Similarly, you can't upgrade from economy to premium economy using miles or systemwide upgrades. However, while American Airlines retrofits its aircraft, some premium economy seats are being marked as "Main Cabin Extra." In these cases, Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro and Platinum elite members are eligible to select these premium seats for free at booking. However, this is just a temporary perk until the airline completes retrofits and launches premium economy officially on that aircraft type.

3. Delta

Image courtesy of Delta.
Image courtesy of Delta.

Premium economy has been a long time coming on Delta. The airline has fielded Delta Comfort+ with more legroom for years now, but announced it would be putting new premium economy seats for international long-haul flights on its forthcoming A350s back in April 2016. That news might have gotten lost in the mix with the airline’s unveiling of its new business-class suites, but in November, Delta announced details of the new class of service. Here’s what flyers can expect.

Name: Premium Select

Aircraft: We’ll see these seats first on the airline’s A350-900s. The airline took delivery of the first of these jets back in July. After that, Delta will be putting Premium Select on its 777s beginning in 2018. Both types of aircraft will have 48 Premium Select seats aboard.

Routes: Delta’s first A350 route is going to be from Detroit (DTW) to Tokyo Narita (NRT), which begins service October 30. According to Routes Online, Delta also plans additional routes for more A350s as they roll off the line including Detroit to Seoul (ICN) starting November 18 and Beijing (PEK) starting January 17, 2018. The A350 will then be deployed on the carrier's flight between Atlanta (ATL) and Seoul (ICN) beginning March 24, 2018.

Delta's first A350 routes.
Delta's first A350 routes.

The seats: Delta’s A350s will have 48 Premium Select seats arranged in an 8-across 2–4–2 pattern. Each will be 18.5-19 inches wide and have 38 inches of pitch, reclining up to 7 inches. The 777s will have 48 Premium Select seats as well, presumably also in a 2–4–2 configuration, though details have not yet been released. For comparison, Delta’s current Economy Comfort+ seats tend to have just 35 inches of pitch, so the new seats are a 3-inch improvement over those.

Amenities and cuisine: Among the comforts of Premium Select, passengers can expect SkyPriority expedited check-in, security and boarding as well as expedited baggage service. The seats will each have their own power ports and personal 13.3-inch in-flight entertainment screens with the airline’s Delta Studio programming. Premium Select flyers will also be provided with Westin Heavenly blankets and new TUMI amenity kits with Malin + Goetz products. Meal service will include pre-departure beverages and seasonal menus served on the airline’s new Alessi serviceware.

Image courtesy of Delta.
Image courtesy of Delta.

Using miles: The good news is that you can search specifically for Premium Select awards and use miles to book them on Delta’s flights to Asia. The bad news is it’ll cost you a lot of miles. 65,000 each way, to be exact, whether you’re going to Beijing, Tokyo or Seoul.

Delta premium select award

Still, that’s a bargain compared to the 130,000-200,000 miles each way those new Delta One suites seem to be going for at the moment. Though saver-level availability until the end of the year is sparse, starting in January, awards at that 65,000-mile mark open up on most days. By contrast, round-trips on the Detroit-Tokyo route are going for about $1,900-$2,300 December-May. Delta Diamond Medallions can use Global Upgrade Certificates to upgrade to Premium Select on paid tickets.

4. Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Extra Comfort 1
Image by Nick Ellis.

Let’s not forget about Hawaiian Airlines, which announced it would be installing premium economy seats on some of its wide-body aircraft way back in 2013, and which started flying with them in 2014 as a precursor to the airline’s new first class. Here’s the story on them.

Name: Extra Comfort

Aircraft: Airbus A330-200, A321neo (eventually). What makes this confusing is that Hawaiian has installed Extra Comfort seats on both its reconfigured A330s and those that have the old first class as well, so while you’ll find them on most of this type of aircraft, there are far fewer on the older version — just 40 compared to 68 on the reconfigured jets.

Routes: Hawaiian currently flies its A330s from its hub in Honolulu to Las Vegas (LAS), Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), Oakland (OAK), Portland (PDX), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO) and Seattle (SEA); and from Maui (OGG) to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The inaugural A321neo flight is scheduled from Oakland (OAK) – Kahului (OGG) on January 8, 2018.

Hawaiian Extra comfort
Image by Nick Ellis.

The seats: The major difference between Extra Comfort seats and regular coach seats is that they have about 5 inches more legroom. Like economy seats on the A330, they are arranged in a 2–4–2 pattern. They are 18 inches wide and have 36 inches of pitch. Those on the A321neo will be in a 3–3 pattern and will be 17.3 inches wide with between 36-37 inches of pitch.

Amenities and cuisine: Extra Comfort passengers enjoy priority security (at some airports) and boarding and, on international routes, a souvenir pillow and blanket set as well as premium meal options. While the seat-back entertainment screens are the same as economy seats, on the A330, passengers enjoy the “Unlimited TV & More” entertainment pack (but not free headsets on North America flights).

Using miles: Unfortunately, you still can’t use miles to book or upgrade to these seats. However, you can use miles for an economy award, then pay a fee to upgrade. The cost runs $80 each way from North America to Hawaii excluding New York, and $145 each way to/from New York.

You can see that pricing structure in the sample flights above from Los Angeles–Honolulu where the round-trip price of Extra Comfort comes to $160 more than regular Main Cabin.

Hawaiian tix

Pualani Platinum and Gold elite members (but not companions) can score complimentary upgrades to Extra Comfort on Hawaiian flights to/from North America and international destinations.

5. JetBlue

Image courtesy of JetBlue.
Image courtesy of JetBlue.

Though JetBlue’s Mint business class gets most of the attention, the airline also offers a version of premium economy for flyers on a tighter budget.

Name: Even More Space

Aircraft: JetBlue offers Even More Space seats on its three workhorse jets, the Airbus A321 (even those without Mint sections) and A320, and the Embraer E190. A320s have seven rows of six Even More Space seats each for a total of 42. The A321s have 40-41 seats depending on the configuration. E190s have 16 Even More Space seats.

Routes: All routes.

The seats: JetBlue’s Airbus jets have seats in a 3–3 configuration, while the Embraers' are 2–2. Like regular economy seats, Even More Space seats are 17.8-18.25 inches wide. Their pitch can vary between 37-41 inches, though, which is up to 8 inches more than regular economy seats.

Amenities and cuisine: Buying an Even More Space seat gets you Even More Speed privileges including expedited security lines at certain airports and priority boarding to secure that coveted overhead space. Other amenities like free drinks, snacks and Wi-Fi come standard with Even More Space seats the same as in regular economy.

Using miles: The cost of purchasing Even More Space seats depends on airfares and your route. For instance, this flight from New York (JFK)–Punta Cana (PUJ) in the Dominican Republic costs $524, and upgrading to Even More Space costs $55 each way.

JetBlue example

While normal TrueBlue members can’t redeem points for Even More Space seats, Mosaic members can redeem points for Even More Space upgrades at recently reduced rates starting at just 200 points.

I currently have Mosaic status thanks to a recent status match. So when I am logged in to my TrueBlue account, I was able to see how many points I’d need to redeem for the same upgrade.

JetBlue even more space points

Just 700 points for a $55 upgrade — that’s nearly 8 cents per point, and a pretty phenomenal value.

6. United

Image by Zach Honig.
Image by Zach Honig.

While United does not currently have a dedicated international long-haul premium economy seat or cabin, some in the travel industry speculate that it’s only a matter of time until the airline announces one. United even told investors it was looking into the possibility last November. No news seems to be imminent, though. In the meantime, you can still fly the airline’s version of extra-legroom economy seats, Economy Plus, to many destinations. But wouldn’t you rather check out its new Polaris business-class seats instead?

Name: Economy Plus

Aircraft and routes: Basically all United aircraft and some United Express ones offer Economy Plus seating, so you’ll find this section on nearly all of United’s flights.

The seats: While Economy Plus seats are the same width as normal economy seats, which range from about 17-18 inches, they offer 34-35 inches of pitch, a premium of about 3-4 inches over normal economy seats. The configuration depends on the aircraft type, but can be 3–3 on narrowbodies, or 2–3–2 on a jet like the 767, 3–3–3 on the 787 or 3–4–3 on the 777-300ER

Amenities and cuisine: Flying Economy Plus is basically just like flying economy, except for the extra legroom. You can purchase “Travel Options” bundles of extra amenities like a checked bag, Premier (priority) access, a United Club pass and extra award miles. On board, the service and entertainment is the same as in economy.

United Economy Plus 2
Photo by Zach Honig.

Using miles: Unfortunately, you can’t use miles to book Economy Plus. You can, however, pay cash to upgrade or even purchase an Economy Plus subscription for the year starting at $499.

MileagePlus Premi​er Platinum members and higher are eligible for complimentary upgrades for themselves and up to eight companions, while Premier Golds can upgrade along with a companion in advance, and Premier Silvers plus one companion are eligible at check-in.

7. Virgin America

Image courtesy of Virgin America.
Image courtesy of Virgin America.

Virgin America's Main Cabin Select premium economy seats are nothing new, but they're still worth a look — and worth booking if it's within your price range.

Name: Main Cabin Select

Routes: Since all Virgin’s planes have these seats, you can find them on all routes.

Aircraft: All Virgin’s planes have Main Cabin Select seats, including the A319, A320 and A321.

The seats: Main Cabin Select seats are basically economy seats in the bulkhead and exit rows. They’re arranged in a 3–3 configuration and are 17.7 inches wide, but they have 38 inches of pitch (37 on the A321) instead of the standard 32 in regular economy seats.

Amenities and cuisine: Here’s where Virgin America really excels among carriers on domestic routes. Customers who book Main Cabin Select get priority security and boarding and allotted a free checked bag and dedicated overhead luggage space. They are also given free food and drink items excluding some premium items, and can use the entertainment system for free as well.

Image courtesy of Virgin America.
Image courtesy of Virgin America.

Using miles: You can make an award booking in Main Cabin Select using Elevate points, but you can’t use Elevate points to upgrade a booking made with dollars. You can, however, pay with cash to upgrade an economy award booking to Main Cabin Select. Upgrading from a regular economy seat to Main Cabin Select starts at $39 each way, depending on the route. Virgin America Elevate Gold and Silver elites get complimentary space-available upgrades to Main Cabin Select and Alaska elites are now eligible as well.

Bottom Line

We’re beginning to see premium economy cabins and seats in line with what international carriers offer more frequently on US airlines. American and Delta stand out for making a fairly aggressive push into the market, while United seems to be lagging. Though their fleets and route networks are smaller, JetBlue and Virgin America especially offer roomy seats with some added amenities that keep them competitive as well. Hopefully the bigger airlines will take note and continue to up their game when it comes to meals, amenity kits and service as well as their own extra legroom seats on domestic routes.

Have you flown in premium economy on a US airline lately? Share your experience in the comments below.

Featured image by JT Genter