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Comfortable and modern hard product, solid bedding and plenty of content to keep me entertained.
Underwhelming food, no Wi-Fi on offer, not a whole lot of differentiation from economy.
We’re in the middle of a fascinating era for the airline industry. Luxury in the sky has soared to new heights — from a three-room residence to an opulent double-bed suite, the pointy end of planes are getting more extravagant by the day. Yet, at the same time, airlines are squeezing more seats than ever into the back of their planes, meaning the economy class experience is getting more cramped and less enjoyable. With first/business and economy moving in opposite directions, the ever-widening gap between them has made space for a new player in the market: premium economy. Snagging a seat in this hybrid product typically commands an upgrade fee ranging from the low hundreds to the low thousands, giving flyers with some extra pocket change a way to elevate their experience without (fully) breaking the bank for a lie-flat seat.
Not all premium economy products are created equal, though. Some airlines, like Delta, take the business-class-lite approach — meaning, in addition to wider recliner seat, passengers can expect a slew of enhanced amenities, personalized service and a polished dining experience. TPG‘s own Darren Murph recently had a phenomenal flight on Delta’s Premium Select product, even noting that he’d “found a new favorite when it comes to premium economy.” Other airlines are taking a different approach, basically transferring the economy experience a little further up in the cabin with wider, more comfortable seats, but not much else.
Before this flight, I’d never flown premium economy, so when the TPG reviews team tasked me with finding a way to get myself back across the Atlantic, we all agreed we’d try to hunt down a premium economy product. Austrian Airlines, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the massive Lufthansa Group, presented an attractive option and a gap in our review coverage. I set out to answer question on everyone’s mind: Is premium economy worth the splurge?
At the time of booking — roughly three days before departure — I was in Milan, Italy and needed to get back home to Washington, DC. Last-minute, one-way transatlantic tickets hardly come cheap: Austrian had a few premium economy fares routing Milan (MXP)-Vienna (VIE)-Washington, DC (IAD), but they were pricing around $2,300 one-way. After dedicating just a few extra minutes browsing Google Flights, I was able to dig up a $1,994 fare originating in Budapest, Hungary (BUD), rather than in Milan. Even when factoring in a cheap €50 flight on Wizz Air from Milan to Budapest, we’d still be coming out a few hundred dollars ahead. So it was a win-win all around.
Google Flights directed me to book the ticket through United rather than Austrian. In my case, this worked out for the better, as I’ll explain momentarily.
When booking Austrian directly on United’s website, passengers earn miles at the same rates they would flying on United metal. In my case, I don’t hold any status with the airline, so I would be earning the standard rate of 5 miles per dollar. With a base fare of $1,896, I raked in 9,480 miles for this flight.
On the other hand, had I booked through Austrian, I would have earned mileage based on distance flown rather than dollar spent. Standard premium economy fares earn 150% of miles flown, which would have come out to just under 7,000 redeemable miles for the entire journey.
So in this case, it made sense to book through United only because my ticket was on the pricier end of the spectrum. Had I been able to snag a discounted premium economy fare well in advance, I might have been better off booking with Austrian to take advantage of distance-based earning.
Our go-to card for purchasing airfare is the Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns Membership Rewards at a rate of 5 points per dollar when booking directly through airlines or through American Express Travel. The $1,994 purchase yielded 9,970 MR points, worth about $200, according to TPG’s current valuations.
I had flown the night before from Milan to Budapest with Wizz Air in order to position myself for the early morning departure from Budapest. The BUD-VIE flight was uneventful: We had an on-time departure and early arrival, and the wonderful crew even managed to offer a full beverage service on the 35-minute hop. Austrian was off to a great start.
I touched down in Vienna with slightly over three hours to spare before my overseas departure to Washington, so I proceeded landside in order to experience the full check-in process at Terminal 3. This massive facility houses Austrian’s hub operation, with its Star Alliance partners.
As the largest airline at the airport, Austrian has quite a bit of real estate set up in the departures hall. Passengers were first met with a bustling kiosk area for self-check-in and printing bag tags.
Oddly, while some kiosk areas had long lines and heavy crowds, other sections just a few steps down the hall were not even a quarter as full.
Something I found quite useful was the express bag service. Rather than offering full-service kiosks, this station was designed for passengers who were already in possession of a scannable boarding pass (i.e., on their device), and simply needed to print a bag tag.
With one quick scan of a barcode, the bag tag printed and you were on your way. These stations had no line whatsoever, so this could definitely be an attractive option for bypassing the crowded kiosk areas.
From there, passengers were directed to the fast-bag-drop counters, which, ironically, looked to be anything but fast. The lines were slow and disorganized. Luckily, as a transit passenger, I could skip the mess and proceed straight to my gate.
Although Austrian did not provide any expedited security and immigration for premium-economy passengers, both checkpoints were quick and efficient. It only took me about 10 minutes to reach Concourse G, which houses the majority of Austrian’s overseas departures.
Finally, I reached my gate, G03. Flight OS 93 posted an on-time departure to Dulles Airport.
All passengers were required to check in with a security agent before taking a taking a seat in the waiting area. Seating was ample, despite repeated announcements that the flight was oversold.
So oversold, in fact, that the gate agents were forced to shuffle around passengers: While the economy cabin was heavily overbooked, business was only about half full. Rather than hand out free operational upgrades (or “op-ups”) to its elites, Austrian attempted to monetize the situation. They offered a 450-euro upgrade from economy to business and a 350-euro upgrade from premium economy to business. It wasn’t pocket change by any means, but this was actually a pretty stellar deal, since Austrian typically charges astronomical fares to sit at the pointy end of the plane. At the time I was booking, for example, those lie-flat seats were selling for about $6,800 one-way.
Not surprisingly, the deal garnered quite a bit of interest, and the 14 unsold business-class seats were snatched up in a matter of minutes. These upgrades freed up enough economy-class seats that Austrian was able to accommodate all remaining guests waiting for a seat assignment.
Soon thereafter, it was time to board the aging 767 ahead of our 10:35am departure to Washington, DC.
Cabin and Seat
The small, 18-seat premium economy cabin lies just behind business class, and is laid out across three rows in a comfortable 2-2-2 configuration.
Many premium economy products are on par with the domestic first-class recliners you’d find within the US — in fact, some airlines like American use the same exact seats for both. Austrian’s seats fit the bill: At 18.5 inches across, they’re nearly 2 inches wider than their economy counterparts. The 6-inch armrest between each pair also added a comfortable amount of shoulder room.
If you’re looking for extra legroom, the bulkhead is definitely the way to go. There was ample room for the window-seat passengers to get up without disturbing their seatmates in the aisle.
Since I had booked this ticket quite last minute, I grabbed the last available seat: 12A, a window seat in the third row of the cabin.
I was initially concerned that the wall directly behind Row 12 would inhibit the seat’s recline, but that wasn’t the case.
The seats offered a generous 38-inch pitch, which is standard among premium economy products.
Each seat featured a standard, adjustable headrest that allowed for easier sleeping throughout the long journey.
Unlike in the bulkhead, the footrests for rows 11 and 12 extended from under the seat in front. It was a bit wobbly, but definitely added a comfortable amount of support when in the reclined position.
The shared center armrest housed the seat controls, USB and audio jacks, IFE remote, as well as both tray tables.
The tray tables measured 10.5 inches long by 17 inches wide, sufficient for working on a laptop or comfortably enjoying a meal.
Below the center armrests were dual 110V universal power outlets.
These seats offered pretty decent storage. The seatback pocket was large enough to hold all of the provided amenities, and then some.
Just above above the pocket was a small shelf great for storing loose personal belongings.
A bottle holder was just between the two footwells — somewhat odd placement but convenient nonetheless.
Each seatback featured a modern 12-inch IFE screen, complete with swivel for when the seat in front was reclined.
The screens provided an additional USB port as well as a 3.5-mm audio jack. This was a nice touch — many airlines use nonstandard audio jacks for their IFE systems, essentially forcing you to use the provided headphones. This gave you the flexibility to use your own.
Austrian, like many foreign carriers, does not equip its cabins personal air vents. The overhead panels featured a simple pair of reading lights, which were controlled by the IFE remote in the armrest.
Given premium economy’s location within the aircraft, the cabin did not have a dedicated lavatory. Passengers were required to backtrack a few rows to the two economy-class bathrooms at the middle section of the airplane. Luckily, the wait was never too long. The lavs were standard, although not particularly clean.
There wasn’t much in the way of amenities except for a paper-cup dispenser and a bottle of air freshener.
Amenities and IFE
All premium economy passengers received a pair of noise-canceling headphones — the same type provided to business-class passengers — as well as a mesh amenity kit.
The headphones were comfortable and even came with sanitary ear covers.
Austrian was pretty proud of their offering, which to their credit, provided decent sound quality.
The drawstring amenity kit was stocked with a pair of socks, an eye mask, earplugs and a toothbrush kit.
I really enjoyed the provided pillow and blanket. Both were great quality and very comfortable.
The IFE system provided plenty of content. The TV and movie libraries featured over 200 titles combined, including the standard selection of international hits.
The detailed flight map was great for tracking our progress across the North Atlantic.
The IFE also offered interesting extras from inflight fitness tips to duty-free catalogs.
Austrian’s only real downfall in terms of amenities was the lack of onboard Wi-Fi. None of its 12 long-haul aircraft feature connectivity, yet somewhat counterintuitively, the airline recently equipped their entire short-haul Airbus fleet with the service. I would think most passengers would value inflight internet much more on a 10-hour transatlantic flight than on a one-hour hop within Europe, so I’m not really sure what Austrian was thinking here. As of now, there airline has no plans to install Wi-Fi on its aging 767s and 777s.
Food and Beverage
Shortly after boarding, a round of predeparture beverages was brought around. I ordered a glass of orange juice, which was served in real glassware.
Individual menus were also handed out, although orders were taken on the spot during the meal service.
Less than 30 minutes after takeoff, the lunch service began with a refreshing hot towel and an initial round of beverages.
I ordered a glass of wine, and the flight attendant proactively asked if wanted water to go with it, which I happily accepted. The drinks were accompanied by small bag of packaged crackers.
About 45 minutes later, the lunch trays were brought out. There were three entrées offered: chicken Café de Paris with buttered rice and broccoli; homemade penne with sautéed pumpkin and sage; and red prawn curry with steamed sushi rice.
I selected the chicken, which was accompanied by a warm bread roll, side salad, fruit and cheese plate, and apricot cake. Overall the meal was pretty decent. The chicken was dry but the sauce added flavor.
Once the lunch trays were cleared, hot tea and coffee were brought through the aisles to close off the meal service.
Austrian has made somewhat of a name for itself with its extensive onboard coffee offering in business class. While my post-meal joe was served in a beautiful mug, it was just regular old coffee that was served in economy. Maybe premium economy passengers shouldn’t have the full coffee menu that biz passengers do, but even a pared-down offering would be a great way for the airline to differentiate its premium economy product.
For the next seven hours or so, flight attendants made frequent passes through the cabins offering glasses of water and orange juice.
About 75 minutes before landing, we were served a hot prearrival meal. There was only once choice: homemade gnocchi with sliced turkey and peas.
I love gnocchi, but this dish was borderline inedible, as the pasta was doused in a pool of oil. I’m not a picky eater by any means, especially on planes, so for me to leave the food untouched says a lot.
Overall, I found Austrian’s onboard catering to be a bit underwhelming. Many airlines, including Austrian’s direct competitors, pride themselves on offering an enhanced dining experience for premium economy passengers. Yet for the most part, these meal services were indistinguishable from economy.
For the first meal service, the only noteworthy upgrade was the use of glass and porcelain plateware. Everything else was identical: both food and beverages alike. I did appreciate receiving a hot meal prior to arrival, whereas economy class just got a cold sandwich, but the meal was mediocre at best.
All of my interactions with the crew were perfectly enjoyable, but the service itself didn't feel particularly premium.
Some staff were warmer and friendlier than others, but overall, I’d say the crew provided a pleasant experience on board for all passengers.
That said, when assessing just how “premium” Austrian’s product ranks in the service category, it definitely falls short. While some airlines use a dedicated group flight attendants to serve the premium economy cabin, that wasn’t the case with Austrian: The three rows of premium economy were simply treated as a forward extension of the economy cabin. The service, as a result, felt quite inattentive.
Take the meal services. Once the food and drinks were delivered, we didn’t see the flight attendants again for the better part of an hour. This meant some of the expected service elements, such as beverage refills, were virtually impossible to come by. Granted, this would be normal for a regular economy experience, but I think it’s fair to expect some degree of personalized service when you’re paying nearly double the price.
One standout from the service was during our descent into Washington, when the purser walked back to the premium economy cabin and personally thanked each of the 18 passengers for choosing Austrian. It was a simple yet personalized touch that was certainly appreciated, ending the flight on a delightfully positive note.
On the surface, Austrian’s premium economy is a definitely comfortable way to get across the Atlantic — a wider seat and decent onboard amenities will make any long-haul journey more enjoyable. Yet the product is far from perfect: With unremarkable food and service, the airline falls short when it comes to delivering a distinctly premium experience for its customers.
As such, I wouldn’t go out of my way to fly the product again, but if the price is right, I’d consider splurging just for the larger recliner and extra legroom. Otherwise I’d happily keep my economy-class seat, knowing I’m getting a virtually identical experience — but for half the price.
All photos by the author.
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