Small and satisfying: Flying premium economy on Scandinavian Airlines' new A321LR from Washington to Copenhagen
Flying premium economy across the Atlantic in a wide-body aircraft might not be a unique experience, but how about in a narrow-body jet?
Scandinavian Airlines has offered premium economy since 2004 on its Airbus A330 and A350 flights to the United States and Asia. However, in December 2021, the airline took delivery of its first Airbus A321LR aircraft, making it the first SAS narrow-body aircraft with premium economy installed (as well as business class and economy).
With a range of 4,000 miles, the aircraft has the ability to operate medium-haul flights from northern Europe to the East Coast of the United States. SAS has now deployed its A321LR on routes from Copenhagen Airport (CPH) to both Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Boston Logan International Airport (BOS).
When I saw the new SAS aircraft would feature a true premium economy product I was intrigued. With only 12 seats, would this be one of the most intimate cabins in the skies? How would the experience compare to that on a larger jet?
After flying west across the Atlantic in business class on this A321LR aircraft from Copenhagen to Washington, for the return journey back to Europe, I chose SAS premium economy for what I hoped would be a unique experience.
Get the latest points, miles and travel news by signing up for TPG’s free daily newsletter.
Unfortunately, you cannot redeem United MileagePlus miles or Air Canada Aeroplan points for premium economy flights operated by partner airlines like SAS, so I booked a cash fare from my home airport of London Heathrow (LHR) to Washington, D.C., via Copenhagen so I could review business class in one direction and SAS Plus premium economy on the return leg for $2,295 total.
Related: A game of thrones: Flying business class on Scandinavian Airlines’ new A321LR from Copenhagen to Washington
A round-trip ticket in premium economy in both directions between Washington and Copenhagen will cost you upward of $1,424 depending on your travel dates.
The flight from Copenhagen to Washington, D.C., operates five times weekly (Monday, Wednesday and Friday-Sunday) over summer, increasing to daily from Nov. 1. The service is currently blocked out at nine hours, 15 minutes, departing at 11:45 a.m. and arriving in Washington at 3 p.m. The return departs Washington at 5:15 p.m. and arrives in Copenhagen the following morning at 7:15 a.m., with a flight time of eight hours.
I arrived at Dulles International Airport three hours before departure and admired the dramatic sloping concrete ceiling of the huge check-in area.
SAS did not have a dedicated priority lane for SAS Plus passengers, though with only one narrow-body flight that day, it took only a minute or two to be assisted by a cheery agent using the regular queue.
SAS Plus passengers are not provided with lounge access as part of their ticket and I have no Star Alliance elite status. I do however have a Priority Pass membership which granted me access to the Turkish Airlines lounge at Dulles.
I've been to dozens of Priority Pass lounges around the world in my travels, and many of them have been very forgettable, especially when their offerings have been scaled back because of the pandemic.
This was one of the best Priority Pass lounges I have visited. With a friendly and welcoming staff, regularly replenished and fresh-tasting hot food, floor-to-ceiling windows and even a bartender mixing complimentary cocktails, it was a lovely space to wait for my flight.
How is this for a lounge view, with an ANA jet parked right outside?
Boarding commenced at our nearby gate at 4:30 p.m. I observed no SAS aircraft parked at the gate, but rather a uniquely Dulles mobile lounge attached to the jet bridge, which meant we would be driven to a remote stand.
I gazed enviously at the adjoining gate where British Airways passengers headed to London Heathrow would be boarding their aircraft directly via a jet bridge rather than being bused to a far-flung corner of the airport.
Boarding was conducted in groups, with SAS Plus passengers invited to board straight after business class and Star Alliance elite members.
Ultimately, it didn't make much difference when we were all crammed into the gate vehicle together.
With a light load in the coach cabin, all passengers on my flight managed to squeeze into the one mobile lounge.
After the chaotic boarding experience for my outbound SAS flight in Copenhagen, this was a much calmer affair even with the mobile lounge lurching around the airport to our aircraft for a good 10 minutes. I strategically positioned myself at the lounge door I hoped would connect to the aircraft to try and be among the first to board the plane.
It was a unique experience as the mobile lounge connected directly with the aircraft door at our remote stand with no stairs involved, but I would have preferred the aircraft to be closer to the terminal.
Cabin and seat
Located immediately behind the 22-seat business-class cabin, the SAS Plus premium economy cabin aboard the Airbus A321LR consists of just 12 seats spread across three rows in a 2-2 configuration with economy directly behind that. A curtain separated the premium economy and regular economy cabins but there was no other divider. The crew did not close this at any stage during the flight.
SAS chose the Collins Aerospace MiQ seat with 10 inches of recline, 22 1/2 inches of width, 38 inches of pitch and thickly padded cushions. The color scheme was a rather drab gray with a black antimacassar.
I had selected a window seat in the third and last row of the section as it was the only seat with a free seat next to it during the check-in and boarding process. I monitored the seat map on ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures) right up until the moment I walked onto the aircraft.
My 15-inch laptop easily fit on the tray table that folded out from the window-side armrest.
There was a pocket under the inflight entertainment screen and a thin document holder for storage, as well as a compartment in the center armrest (where charging points and a small screen remote were housed), but that was the extent of the storage.
The seat had a decent recline of around 10 degrees, and a padded leg rest, both of which were operated by buttons in the center console. A footrest also folded out manually from the bottom of the leg rest and could be extended slightly for taller passengers.
While I never sleep well sitting almost upright on these relatively short overnight flights, I did manage a few hours in this seat and prefer the fabric coverings to the leather found in Virgin Atlantic's premium cabin.
I've flown several different airlines in premium economy and the seats have all been very similar in terms of width, pitch, recline, armrests and general comfort. The SAS hard product was no different. It has slightly more space and comfort than economy but there's a massive leap between premium economy and business class.
Amenities and entertainment
Awaiting me at my seat were a plump pillow with a soft cotton pillowcase and a plastic-wrapped, reasonably thick blanket that kept me warm throughout the night, though the cabin temperature never dropped to a cold level. I also found a bottle of water, cheap earbud headphones and a small amenity kit.
It's a nice feature to receive an amenity kit in premium economy and the SAS version was in the form of a shoe bag. This is the first time I have seen this offered as an amenity kit and I thought it was a clever and memorable design option. Inside were earplugs and a surprisingly good-quality toothbrush and mini toothpaste that I took home and continued using. A decent eye mask would have been a nice final touch, alas.
On the seatback was an 11-inch touchscreen with 57 movies and 87 television shows — the same number of options as the business-class and coach passengers can watch. There were some basic video games, a handful of music albums and a moving map, though I was more interested in sleeping on this flight.
Wi-Fi was available on this flight, offered free to both business-class passengers and those seated in SAS Plus, which I thought was a remarkable inclusion. I could connect one device at a time by entering my passenger reference number and surname on the login screen. I managed download speeds of 13.4 Mbps which was not super fast but Wi-Fi wasn't a priority on this overnight flight.
At the rear of the aircraft were two minuscule bathrooms for both the SAS Plus and SAS Go (economy) cabins to share. You may struggle to change your clothes in this very tight space if you want to put on fresh garments before landing.
Food and beverage
No drinks were served before departure to the premium economy cabin, which surprised me. This is an easy way to differentiate this product from regular economy and a missed opportunity for the airline. There were also no menus, physical or digital, available, which was disappointing.
Approximately 30 minutes after takeoff, the crew offered a choice of beverages. I chose the Philippe Dublanc sparkling wine and sparkling water, both of which were served in plastic cups. I was pleased to see the same cashew nuts served in business class offered to premium economy passengers.
The entree options for dinner were communicated to passengers verbally by the crew. They included chicken with rice and salmon with potatoes. I chose the chicken and was subsequently handed my entire meal on a single tray, which sped up the meal service on this overnight flight.
I appreciated how the items on the tray were neatly lined up — fellow European airlines British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have not bothered to arrange the trays neatly on premium economy flights I have taken in the past.
Related: A fine mess: A review of Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy on the A330 from London to New York
Removing the covers revealed an attractive and fairly tasty meal, save for the hard, stale and cold bread roll. Both the salad starter of greens, sliced turkey and mixed lentils and the lemon tart dessert were of business-class quality (and presentation). Unfortunately the chicken and steamed carrots, bok choy and rice looked more like a frozen microwave meal.
I loved the shape of the iconic SAS-branded glassware from Swedish designer Orrefors, though.
Trays were cleared around 90 minutes after takeoff, which was fairly speedy for a flight of this length.
I wasn't particularly hungry when breakfast was served less than five hours after dinner but the plate of cold cuts, granola with strawberry yogurt, a small apple muffin and orange juice with a choice of tea or coffee served 90 minutes before landing seemed like a sensible selection for a light breakfast.
Having been very strategic during the boarding process in my attempt to be the first passenger to board the aircraft, I was surprised to see one seat already taken when I stepped aboard and initially thought this was perhaps a passenger who had needed special assistance. As I walked down the aisle I realized the passenger was both wearing a SAS uniform and had their wrist bandaged.
When I reached my seat I also realized this person had taken the seat directly next to my own.
She explained to me that she was due to be operating this service as a cabin crew member, but had been injured just hours earlier, and was flying home as a passenger as she was unable to perform her duties as cabin crew. She was extremely apologetic about the situation and I, in a mild panic knowing the complex review task ahead of me, repeatedly offered her the window seat as I explained I would likely regularly be in and out of my seat during the flight. She politely but firmly refused and I knew from monitoring the seat map so carefully during the flight that there were no other spare seats in the premium economy cabin.
I quickly went about my business taking dozens of photographs, jotting down notes about the seat and experience, even measuring the dimensions of the seat with a measuring tape I had brought on board. She noticed my unusual behavior as we were seated just inches apart and was exceedingly friendly about her unusual situation. We ended up having a good conversation about the history of SAS and her experience as a long-haul cabin crew member during the pandemic.
The (other) crew members serving the premium economy cabin gave excellent service to both of us throughout the flight — it was noticeably more personable than I had experienced in SAS business class on the same aircraft type a few days earlier. This may have been because the premium economy cabin is so intimate, or perhaps it was because of my special seatmate. She may well have tipped off the crew in her native tongue how closely I was noting every element of the flight experience. That said, I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary about the service, as though I was receiving special treatment, so I feel comfortable evaluating the experience like any other passenger would have.
This was an unusual but overall enjoyable experience across the Atlantic.
Having watched the seat map so carefully right up until I walked onto the aircraft I was initially surprised that an injured crew member would be occupying what I had expected to be an empty seat next to me. However, it probably made the flight better as she was great company and we both received excellent service.
The SAS Plus premium economy seats themselves were perfectly fine — as you would expect with a true premium economy product, you will enjoy a wider seat with more legroom, recline and a wider seatback screen than those in economy. It was also great being in a cabin of just 12 passengers.
There are a few improvements SAS could easily make to its premium economy soft product, though. For instance, the curtain between premium economy and economy should be closed once at altitude for a more exclusive-feeling cabin. I also expected to be served some form of predeparture beverage, even if this was only a choice of water, orange juice or sparkling wine.
Unlike the business-class cabin, though, all seats in premium economy are equal beyond a choice between window or aisle, so seat selection is less important. Especially if I could manage to score two seats to myself, it's a good product that I would fly again.