Extra legroom economy class seats: The rise of 'economy plus' seats on airlines

Leaving aside the differences between one airline and the next, on a long-haul sector you can fly economy, which is cheap and awful, Business, which is fantastic but it gnaws a cavernous hole in your wallet, premium economy which I don't get since it costs twice the price of economy for just fractionally more room – but hallelujah - there's now a tweener class.

Going by several different names - "Economy Plus", "Economy X", "Economy Space" - this new class gives you enhanced legroom and that's about it. The same meal, the same seat width, the same baggage allowance as standard Economy, but for a modest fee it's well worth considering for flyers looking to avoid displaced kneecaps.

It's not yet widely available. Only a handful of airlines are offering this new class, but those airlines that have implemented it have shown solid commitment. In some cases they're flying aircraft with almost as many of these upgraded economy seats as standard economy seats on their aircraft.

United Airlines kicked this particular ball off when it introduced Economy Plus back in 2015, and they've been running hard with it. Their Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, operating between San Francisco and Sydney among other routes, features 88 Economy Plus seats and 116 seats in Economy.

According to Seat Guru, United's Economy Plus flyers get an extra 7.5cm of seat pitch and 2.5cm greater recline angle. Width is the same at 45.7cm and therefore cabin configuration is the same for both Economy and Economy Plus flyers, 3-3-3. The Economy Plus cabin is located at the front of the aircraft, behind business class. Toilets are located at the rear of this section, shared with standard economy passengers, and there are only four toilets shared between all 204 seats.

Aboard the Boeing 747-400 that Qantas operates on the same route, the aircraft features either 32 or 36 Premium Economy seats and either 255 or 270 Economy seats.

For a return Sydney-San Francisco flight 10-30 January 2019, Qantas is charging $1984 for an Economy class seat, or $4181 for a seat in premium economy class. The pitch in the Economy seat is 78.7cm. The figure for Premium Economy is 96.5cm.

United is charging $1873 for Economy-class flights on the same dates. For an extra $527 you could be sitting in Economy Plus all the way, at a total price of $2400. What you get for that is a seat with a pitch of 88.9 cm, or 7.6 cm less than a Qantas Premium Economy seat.

Bottom line – if you want more than the crunched-knee syndrome that comes with an economy class seat on a Sydney-San Francisco flight, would you be prepared to pay $1781 more for the Qantas Premium Economy seat, or go with United's Economy Plus? The Qantas PE seat gives you slightly more width, in a cabin with eight seats across instead of the nine across aboard United and an enhanced meal choice, but just 7.6cm extra pitch over United's Economy Plus seat. That's about the length of my middle finger.

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See also: Airline review: United Airlines Economy Plus class

See also: Airline review: Qantas A380 premium economy

Virgin Australia, meanwhile, introduced its own upgraded Economy X seats back in mid-2017. Aboard the airline's Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, used for some of its international flights, Virgin offers 75 Economy X seats with a generous 96.5cm, the same as Qantas' Premium Economy seats, and 7.6cm less than Virgin's own Premium Economy seats aboard the same aircraft. Width and recline angle are the same for both Virgin's standard Economy and Economy X seats.

A return VA flight between Brisbane and Los Angeles on notional mid-week dates in February 2019 is priced starting from $1406 in economy class. Choosing an Economy X seat adds another $199 per sector to the ticket price, so a total of $1804 if you were to fly in an Economy X seat on the outward and return journeys.

That's worth considering, however caution is needed. VA also lists the bulkhead, exit row seats at the front of the rear economy-class cabin as Economy X seats. Would you pay a total of $398 extra for the pleasure of an economy class seat located smack behind the toilets? Where passengers often loiter in front of the seat, with an entertainment screen stowed within the armrest which must be stowed for take-off and landing? Aboard the A330-200 which VA uses for its flights between Australia and Hong Kong, the only seats listed as Economy X seats are those very same exit row bulkhead seats, and that's not a happy place to be.

The UAE's Etihad Airways is the latest to hop on the crunch-free bandwagon with its Economy Space seats. To be introduced from December 2018 aboard Etihad's A380s, seat pitch is 12.7cm greater than in the airline's standard economy seats. Etihad's fleet of Boeing 777s and Boeing 787 Dreamliners is to be outfitted with Economy Space seats by the end of 2019.

For a flight from Melbourne to London in April 2019, a seat in one of Etihad's Economy Space seats would set you back $225.30 on the sector between Melbourne and Abu Dhabi and $204.80 for the Abu Dhabi-London sector. For total of just $860.10 on top of a standard Economy seat, some flyers would surely be tempted provided Etihad's Economy Plus seat lives up to the hype, but in view of the scorching reviews Etihad has been getting for its economy class service in particular, the airline needs to prove its Economy Space seating is worth the asking price.

See also: The reason why airlines make so much money from premium economy

See also: Singapore Airlines struggles to fill premium economy on world's longest flight

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