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The Qantas 787-9 has a solid premium economy hard product. Pros include plenty of seat width, significant recline, well-designed storage and an excellent in-flight entertainment system. Cons include awkward seat belts, an unstable tray table and the absence of Wi-Fi.
Qantas just took delivery of its first of eight Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners in October. To say the airline is excited about this new aircraft type would be an understatement. Advertisements for the new Dreamliner with the tagline “Our spirit flies further” are plastered all over its Sydney and Melbourne airport terminals, lounges and jetways.
There’s good reason for that excitement. Qantas will use its 787-9 Dreamliners to connect Australia to London nonstop for the first time ever, in what will be the new longest flight in the world, starting March 2018. Before that, Qantas’ inaugural international 787-9 Dreamliner service takes off on December 15 between Melbourne (MEL) and Los Angeles (LAX).
Before its international launch, Qantas is breaking in its first 787-9 aircraft (nicknamed “Great Southern Land,” registration VH-ZNA) and training crew by flying it on domestic Australia flights between Sydney (SYD), Melbourne (MEL) and Perth (PER). I flew down to Australia to check out the new aircraft and see if it lives up to the hype.
I’ll actually be checking out all three cabins of the aircraft across three reviews. First, my wife Katie and I flew from SYD to MEL in premium economy seats. Next, we will fly MEL-PER in business class. Finally, I’ll be checking out the economy experience on the inaugural of the world’s longest flight from PER to London’s Heathrow (LHR) in March. That will be 9,000 miles and a projected flight duration of 17 hours, if the winds cooperate. Lucky me.
Curiously, Qantas doesn’t mention premium economy specifically on its Dreamliner fleet page, but calls it “revolutionary” on its dedicated Dreamliner page:
I booked the flight from Sydney (SYD) to Melbourne (MEL) for just 4,500 Avios one-way thanks to British Airways’ distance-based award chart and the short 439-mile distance between the cities. For these domestic runs, Qantas is selling the three-cabin aircraft as two cabins: economy and business. The premium economy seat was sold as part of economy and included economy service.
More relevantly, if you want to book the 787-9 Dreamliner between LAX and MEL, revenue prices start at $2,244 round-trip nonstop in premium economy. For reference, economy costs $1,091 round-trip nonstop. That’s quite a price premium, so you’re going to want to make sure it is worth the extra cost to you.
Using miles, there are a couple of sweet spots available if you can find award availability. Japan Airlines’ Mileage Bank is going to charge just 80,000 miles round-trip for the LAX-MEL nonstop in premium economy. Alaska’s MileagePlan charges 47,500 miles one-way or 95,000 miles round-trip for premium economy flights on Qantas between the US and Australia.
Cabin and Seat
Premium economy seats on the Qantas 787-9 Dreamliner are arranged in four rows of 2-3-2 seating. Non-bulkhead rows (row 21-23) measured 38 inches of pitch, while the bulkhead row 20 has significantly more knee room, but less room to stretch out your legs due to the bulkhead. I measured 21 inches between armrests.
There’s a small but useful 11 inch wide x 4 inch tall x 2.5 inch deep storage bin built into the seat in front of you. While not rated for taxi, take-off and landing, it doesn’t seem like this storage space is going to be policed in practice. This was a great place to store small items like my phone, 360° camera and measuring tape.
Below this bin, there’s a 13-inch wide, classy leather-style seat back pocket perfect for larger items like magazines, newspapers and tablets or small laptops. For reference, my 12.7-inch wide laptop fit snugly in “landscape” mode.
Below the seat back pocket is the footrest. I’m too tall to get much use out of most footrests, but this one is designed a bit differently. There’s netting around the backside of the footrest creating a bit of a hammock. Turns out, this is designed so taller passengers can still use the footrest comfortably, putting their feet in the netting and swiveling the brown platform to cradle your ankles or legs.
Using this footrest isn’t very intuitive though. To release it from its stored position, pull on the release lever next to the storage bin. But, that’s only going to unlock it. In order to get the footrest fully extended, you’re going to have to hold down this release lever with one hand while pushing down on the footrest itself. To store the footrest, you need to pull the lever again to return the footrest to the unlocked position and then press it forward into the stored position.
Between each seat on the armrest is a tray for you to rest a cup on. On the armrest below that, there’s a water bottle holder for two small water bottles. While the middle armrests are fixed, the aisle-side armrest lower to allow passengers with limited mobility to get in and out of the seat more easily.
The premium economy tray tables are located in the armrest between seats. The middle seat’s tray table is in the left-hand armrest. The table measures just under 19 inches wide by 11 inches deep and can be adjusted forward around 3.5 inches. I found the table unstable to type on due to it not being stabilized by the opposite armrest. While that got annoying quickly, at least the tray table should be perfectly fine for eating.
I was quite surprised by the size of the seat belt. While a standard belt on one side, there’s an airbag built into the opposite side of the belt, creating an awkward bulky feeling. When seated, this seat belt bulk is located right where the tray table would go, meaning that you’re going to have to unbuckle your belt to pull the tray table all the way back toward you.
Although this shouldn’t be an issue often, due to the seat’s extensive recline, this could be a problem if you’re trying to work on a laptop while the passenger in front of you is trying to sleep. Note: bulkhead seats don’t have airbags in their seat belt — or the issue of someone reclining into you.
The premium economy seats include two USB plugs per seat: one just under the IFE screen on the seat in front and one in the middle armrest. The three-prong headphone plug is also found in the middle armrest.
Universal power plugs are located in premium economy, but not one for each seat. The two-seat window pairs have one power plug to split. The middle set of three seats have two plugs to share. Each of these plugs are found the in armrest between the seats in front.
Each seat has two personal lights: a reading light built into the overhead panel and a “mood light” located near your shoulder.
Under-seat storage could get interesting on this product. The pairs of window seats have one large gap under the seat in front, with a support bar just to the outside of middle of the aisle seat. This forces even a medium-sized backpack to encroach across the midline of the two seats. The middle seats could get even more interesting. The seat brackets force the aisle seats to squeeze bags into the small space on the outside while there’s a significant amount of space in the middle.
Hopefully, underseat space wars won’t be necessary due to the large and numerous overhead bins in the premium economy section.
Premium economy seats in rows 21-23 have a large and bright 13 inch screen built into the seat in front. The IFE screen in the bulkhead seats (row 20) is located on an arm which stores into the armrest.
These screens tilt a significant amount to counteract the recline of the passenger in front of you.
The IFE system has a wide selection of entertainment options. Under Movies, the “Premier” section included 67 movies — from new releases to Home Alone 2 and Love Actually. When I selected English movies, I counted 138. However, at least a few of these were duplicates.
Under TV, the “Box Sets” section included 24 TV series, most of which were labeled “All Seasons.” So, you can binge watch TV shows such as Downton Abbey, Westworld and Fargo. Under the “HBO” section, there were even more options — including the first 7 seasons of Game of Thrones. Simply put, it’s going to be hard to run out of entertainment options on the Qantas Dreamliner.
Simple economy-grade headphones were placed in each seat for my economy class flight from SYD-MEL. However, I found a pair of Qantas branded noise-cancelling headphones in a seatback pocket. These over-the-ear headphones provided solid sound quality and decent noise-cancelling; a solid mid-grade headphone. Hopefully these will be the ones stocked in premium economy on intercontinental flights.
If you want to “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device), Qantas has installed a “Personal Electronic Device Ledge” around the IFE screen. This is a ledge that can be extended from around the IFE screen. However, be exceptionally careful with using this. The ledge has springs to pull it back to its storage position. This can cause considerable stress on your device if the ledge isn’t locked into place — which isn’t straightforward to do. Unfortunately, Katie ended up with a cracked phone screen from trying to use this feature of the seat.
Inexplicably, Qantas didn’t elect to install Wi-Fi on its aircraft designed to fly some ultra-long-haul flights, including the longest in the world.
This is a solid premium economy hard product. It provides plenty more space than economy (6 extra inches of legroom and 4 extra inches of seat width), a surprising amount of recline, an adjustable footrest and a very large and bright in-flight entertainment system.
However, there are some design issues that definitely hold back my recommendation. While a half-foot more pitch than economy, the large shell of the seat and significant recline can make the seats feel quite tight. The bulky seat belt airbag makes it uncomfortable to keep your seat belt tight and reduces the range of motion for the tray table. The lack of tray table stability might get old quickly if you’re trying to type or write during the flight. While there are two USB plugs at every seat, the lack of power plugs for every seat seems might lead to awkward battles between seatmates jockeying for a real power plug.
Based on this hard product review, I can’t recommend paying the significant premium — over $1,150 more round-trip — at which Qantas is currently selling this premium economy seat. You might disagree if you just absolutely must have the extra space and recline. However, if you can pay a smaller additional cost — in miles or cash — flying in this Qantas premium economy seat is going to make your long flight much more enjoyable than economy.
Stay tuned for the Qantas 787-9 business class review in just a few days!
All photos by the author.
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