Really premium economy: A review of WestJet Premium from Toronto to London on the 787
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[tpg_rating ticket-class="premium-economy" tpg-rating-score="80" ground-experience="6" cabin-seat="27" amens-ife="24" food-bev="13" service="10" pros="Exclusive cabin on brand-new aircraft; crisp, large entertainment screen; friendly, efficient service that maximized sleep time." cons="Could not connect to the internet on the inflight Wi-Fi." /]
More and more airlines are offering true premium economy on long-haul flights. And, depending on the airline, it’s not just coach with extra legroom, it’s a whole separate cabin and class of service, with different seats.
The big attraction for most flyers is the extra legroom, with seats equal to the domestic first class of U.S. mainline carriers. Upgraded food and service and a better ground experience should also be part of what you get with a premium economy ticket, although many airlines are still not good at differentiating the service part.
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Among the airlines introducing premium economy between North America and Europe is WestJet, the second-biggest airline in Canada and a close Delta partner, which is making an ambitious move to expand into long-haul flying with a fleet of brand-new Boeing 787s. All its Dreamliners feature a true premium cabin, as well as a business class with lie-flat seats that made a good impression on our reviews editor, Nick Ellis.
Does WestJet’s premium economy — marketed simply as Premium (or Privilège in French) — prove as good as its biz class?
We bought a cheap one-way ticket from New York LaGuardia (LGA) to London Gatwick (LGW) via Toronto Pearson (YYZ) for $557.09, a very good deal for a true premium economy across the Atlantic. We put the airfare on the Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x points on airfare booked with the airline or Amex Travel, so we got 2,785 Membership Rewards points, worth about $56 at our current valuations — a nice return on our spending.
If redeeming points to fly WestJet, your options are limited to WestJet's own WestJet Rewards or to Delta's SkyMiles. For passengers who want to earn SkyMiles, flights in premium economy on WestJet planes not booked on Delta.com earn 100% of miles flown as Delta Medallion Qualification Miles and 20% of miles flown as Medallion Qualification Dollars. Flying on partners such as WestJet is a good strategy to meet the spend requirements to qualify for Delta elite status, and it helped me qualify again for Platinum Medallion status for 2020.
The New York-Toronto-London itinerary netted 4,076 Medallion Qualifying Miles and $786 Medallion Qualifying Dollars in my SkyMiles account, as well as 3,932 redeemable miles. The latter are worth $47, by our valuations.
Note that I had to ask Delta to credit the flight to my account. It had not shown up automatically, even though my SkyMiles account number was attached to the booking and also appeared on my boarding pass.
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Checking in on the WestJet app was intuitive and painless. If I had wanted to check in at the airport, I could have used a self-check-in kiosk, affixing my own tags to any checked luggage and then dropping it off myself, or I could have gone to a classic check-in desk.
WestJet clearly prefers the former; the staffed desks were well behind the kiosks, and fewer than you’d expect to find, as if the airline had wanted to discourage people from using them. But there were employees hovering about the kiosks, ready to help, and I didn’t see anybody struggling to use the self-check-in process.
This willingness of WestJet staff to assist passengers was on display throughout my journey to Gatwick, and it spoke to the airline’s nature as not quite a low-cost carrier. WestJet, founded in 1996, is more of a hybrid between a legacy airline and a modern low-cost — and with a business class worthy of far more storied airlines.
Between my incoming flight from LGA and the 9:50 p.m. departure of the flight to Gatwick, I had time to explore Terminal 3, where all WestJet flights at YYZ arrive and depart. It offered many dining and shopping options in a well-lit, pleasant environment. It exuded, however, a bit of the shopping-mall feeling you get at airports all around the world these days. Take away the distinctly Canadian touches, like the Tim Hortons coffee shops and the bilingual signage, and T3 at YYZ could be an airport terminal anywhere.
WestJet premium economy tickets don’t give you access to a lounge, and the airline doesn’t have proprietary lounges — it’s currently building its first one in Calgary — but I could access the Premium Plaza lounge in Terminal 3 as a Priority Pass member.
Related: The best cards for Priority Pass lounge access
The Premium Plaza, one of the two at YYZ, isn’t a top-notch lounge, but on this visit did its job well enough. It was quiet, had plenty of room to sit and a perfectly good buffet — the jerk chicken was, in fact, excellent — plus fast Wi-Fi. On a business-class ticket, this would have been a subpar lounge experience, especially because of a minimally stocked self-service bar, but on a premium economy fare, it was nice to have. (Because the fare did not include lounge access, we haven’t factored it into our score.)
When I showed up at the gate at 8:50 p.m., just before the announced start of boarding, nobody was hogging the boarding lanes. Passengers were seated and waiting for their boarding zone to be called. Almost unheard of!
Possibly aided by proverbial Canadian politeness, boarding began and ended right on time. Business and Premium boarded together in the first group, a nice touch for passengers in the latter class, who definitely could feel they were getting some privilège indeed.
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Flight WS3 was operated that day by a 787 with the registration C-GURP, identifying it as the second delivered to the airline. WestJet has a total of 10 on order, all of the 787-9 model, the middle of the three 787 siblings by size. Just over 8 months old, this was a gleaming bird, with seats and fixtures that looked and felt new.
I'd caught a glimpse of it hours earlier, as I arrived from LGA in the rain and the 787 was being cleaned and unloaded from its previous flight. The blue exhaust cones of the engines, not yet discolored by use, marked it as a very new jet.
The 28-seat premium economy cabin on WestJet’s 787s is directly behind business and ahead of a large galley and restroom area separating it from economy. That adds to the feeling of coziness and exclusivity — you can’t see, or hear, coach class. And you also get two dedicated bathrooms, not shared with coach.
Laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration, far roomier than 3-3-3 in coach, it's a beautiful, elegant cabin, with WestJet's shades of blue, green and gray the dominant color notes, and the airline's stylized maple-leaf logo on the back bulkhead.
Sitting in 6K confirmed the positive impression. With 19 inches of width and 38 inches of legroom, this was exactly the same as most domestic first-class seats, but with a far crisper and bigger entertainment display in front of it. It featured a height-adjustable headrest, with wings that cradled my head in place and actually stayed put.
The extendable footrest was controlled with a smooth mechanical button on the armrest, next to the one that reclined the seatback. The buttons were between the stowed remote control and the storage cubby, the latter a perfect place for glasses, phones, tablets and other small objects.
The tray table extended smoothly from the other armrest, right under the electronic dimming controls peculiar to 787 windows, with the pull of a small lever that eliminated the need to fish awkwardly for a handhold. The smiling, solicitous flight attendants serving premium economy were happy to explain the seat controls and the entertainment system.
The seatback in front contained the usual literature, including the airline’s own not terribly exciting onboard magazine, plus headphones and an amenity kit. A bottle of spring water was on each armrest.
Be aware that Row 5 at the front of premium economy has less legroom than rows 6, 7 and 8.
I found the two dedicated bathrooms spotless and stocked with toiletries by Canada-based Rocky Mountain Soap. The toiletries all had a strong fragrance, which might not be to everyone's liking, but that's a problem with most airlines and most hotels. Fragrance-free options are rare.
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At boarding, pillows and blankets were waiting on each premium economy seat. Kudos to WestJet for the premium-quality blanket, vastly better than what’s usually found in economy, but minus points for a flimsy pillow that wasn’t in the same class as the blanket. With the cabin kept at a cold enough temperature to keep most American passengers (used to air conditioning at full blast) happy, that good blanket came in handy.
Premium passengers also received amenity kits. These were branded by Rocky Mountain Soap and contained socks, an eye mask, earplugs, lip butter and an CA$11.50 (about $8.50) voucher for hand cream from the company's site or store locations. All the essentials, minus a toothbrush/toothpaste combo.
WestJet has a good inflight-entertainment system on the 787s, presented on a large, pivoting 13.5-inch touchscreen and with headphones providing decent sound quality. However, I was unable to connect to the satellite internet on two different devices, even though both devices indicated that I had connected to the network. (On his review flight in WestJet's biz class, Nick found the internet connection reliable and the prices fair.)
I certainly was not bored, thanks to about 100 movies of satisfying variety, including major new releases, and 18 TV shows, plus a music selection including a 1980s channel featuring some classics of that era. Also a nice throwback, but to the early 2010s: finding "Angry Birds World Tour" in the games section, a pleasure to play on the crisp, sensitive touchscreen.
The IFE was intuitive to navigate either with the touchscreen or the remote, and the favorites function was a handy place to store things you might want to watch without diving deep into menus every time. The moving map offered a lot of views to satisfy the aviation geeks. I would have had plenty to watch on a flight twice as long.
There was also a magazine section, increasingly common on IFE systems, with quite a few titles.
The headphone connection, international power outlet and powered USB outlet, at the back of the cubby under one armrest, weren't easy to find. The supplied headphones worked just fine in stereo, despite having just a single standard jack in a two-prong outlet.
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WestJet got the meal-service flow perfectly right on this flight. It was an example of what dinner and breakfast should be on a six-hour eastbound flight across the Atlantic: uncomplicated good food served fast, but not in a rushed manner — and maximizing time to sleep.
The two flight attendants serving our cabin were off to a good start when they brought out trays offering prosecco or orange juice as a welcome drink immediately after boarding was completed.
Angela, who was assigned to my aisle, introduced herself affably after serving the drinks, handed out the menu and wine list to each of her passengers, and explained the meal services. We'd get a late snack and breakfast, she said, adding she'd be back in a few minutes to take our breakfast orders.
The wine list was international-standard: mass-appeal wines with two whites, two reds and one sparkling. Note that two were Canadian wines, a fitting choice from a Canadian carrier.
Hot towels were distributed and picked up about 10 minutes before pushing back from the gate, and we were airborne on schedule at 10:20 p.m. The curtains between biz class and premium economy and between us and coach were closed a few minutes later, and just 25 minutes after takeoff, the crew put white tablecloths on our trays and took drink orders. Just half an hour after wheels up, dinner was served on trays made of a grippy plastic that helped keep things in place during a spell of mild turbulence.
Not all airlines put logos on napkins, but WestJet did.
Just 25 minutes later, the crew took the trays, and after 10 more minutes turned off the cabin lights. With such chop-chop service delivered with a smiling attitude, I didn't really care that the cheese tray I'd just had was middling.
The service flow meant we got almost three hours to sleep, uninterrupted by any announcements from the crew, before lights came back on at half power. Passengers who were still sleeping as breakfast service began were served later without any fuss. Little bits of courtesy like that were sprinkled throughout the service.
As a pleasant smell filled the cabin, the white tablecloths came out again for a more substantial meal than the previous snack: warm croissant, fruit bowl and a choice of a spinach omelet; egg bites with spinach, feta cheese and red pepper; or a Nutella and banana crepe, all plus yogurt with honey and granola.
Not a bad breakfast, if nothing fancy, and a good way to start the day after an early-morning landing. The flight attendants moved fast but never looked harried, and we were done in 25 minutes, just like with dinner. As we broke through the clouds on the descent, I could feel the upbeat mood among the premium economy passengers.
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This was premium economy done right, and the service was a big part of that. Cabin crews can really make or break a flight for passengers, and that's true for economy class, too, premium or otherwise.
On review flights by TPG staffers, WestJet has consistently behaved like a full-service airline — and a good one, at that. We have flown WestJet now in every class of service, and every time has been a positive experience, including in coach. The other major Canadian airline besides Air Canada is onto something and making solid profits, with fast-growing revenue.
The announcement from the flight deck as we began our descent into Gatwick was a perfect summation of the overall experience: warm, friendly and to the point.
“Good morning, I'm First Officer Tom,” the voice came on the P.A., telling us we could stretch our legs one last time. “On behalf of Captain Brian, thanks for flying the Dreamliner with us. Our crew is awesome people, and we look forward to having you with us again real soon.”
Forty-five minutes later, we touched down smoothly, with reverse thrust kicking up a small storm on the wet runway. The foul weather outside couldn’t dampen the spirits in the cabin; we had just crossed the Atlantic in the hands of a nice crew, aboard a beautiful new airplane, in pretty good seats. I suspected I was not the only one thinking of flying WestJet’s Premium class again.
All photos by the author.