When you get right down to the nitty-gritty of long-haul economy-class flights, it's those precious centimetres between your knees and the seat in front that dictate the pleasure of the in-flight experience for many of us. That experience has taught me that as a 181cm male, on any flight where the pitch in my economy-class seat is 31 inches (78.7 centimetres) or less, comfort flies out the window.
Which is why I heave a sigh of relief when I walk down the aisle of Hawaiian Airlines flight HA451 from Honolulu bound for Sydney and sit myself down in 15H. This is what Hawaiian Air calls an Extra Comfort seat. What makes this different from a standard Hawaiian Economy seat is the seat pitch, which is 36 inches (91.5 centimetres), as opposed to the standard Economy seat pitch of 31 inches (78.7 centimetres). That 12.8 centimetre difference is about the length of a smallish smartphone but the comfort boost is big. Instead of my knees touching the seat in front – or squished back if the passenger seated there chooses to recline – I've got plenty of knee room, even with my iPad, paperback and other inflight essentials tucked into the seat pocket. That knee room is the one thing I'm prepared to pay extra for when I'm flying economy. How much you ask? In the case of Hawaiian, $179 per sector, and for a 10-hour-plus flight, I reckon that's well worth it.
There are a couple of extra perks that come with Hawaiian's Extra Comfort seats. In addition to the USB port that's standard with all seats, Extra Comfort passengers have a power outlet, regular economy flyers do not. Also, priority security clearance at most of the US airports served by Hawaiian. I completely forget about this – and at Honolulu Airport there's a slow-moving line waiting for TSA screening that stretches way out the door. Happily, the taxi driver who took me to the airport told me about a much shorter queue in the baggage reclaim area. My queue time – 10 minutes - as opposed to the 50 minutes my seat buddy waited for TSA clearance in the upstairs line.
Sitting in between economy and premium economy, this new class is exactly what I'm looking for when I fly. It gives me the one thing I really need, without the fancy frills - the business lounge, the noise-cancelling headphones, the lie-flat seat, the French bubbles - that come with a super expensive business class seat.
Of course for the flyer looking for more comfort without the huge cost of a business class seat there's also premium economy, but I just don't get that. Pay twice the price of an economy seat for about 15cm more legroom than an economy seat? That's slightly less than the length of my hand, wrist to fingertips. Ok there's more to it than that. The seat is fractionally wider, there's a slightly better menu than in cattle class, priority check-in, upgraded headphones, increased baggage allowance and priority boarding but for double the price, I'd expect more than just a fractional increase in real estate.
Hawaiian isn't the only airline offering a better economy seat for a modest price. It all began when United Airlines launched its Economy Plus seats back in 2015 and it's been a big success. The Boeing 787-9 that United flies between Melbourne and Los Angeles, or between Sydney and San Francisco for example, features 88 Economy Plus seats and 116 seats in Economy.
What you get with a United Airlines' Economy Plus seat is 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. For a return flight Melbourne to Los Angeles departing November 8, returning December 11, the cheapest price with United is $694. An Economy Plus seat will add $197 to the outward leg, $208 to the return. For a flight that's almost 15 hours on the way out and closer to 16 on the return journey, that's worth considering.
Several other airlines that operate long-haul flights to Australia have followed in United footsteps with an upgraded economy seat, but in the case of Virgin Australia at least, the offer is less than convincing. Virgin Australia introduced its Economy X seats back in mid-2017, but rather than a new seat with better legroom the airline simply rebranded its exit row seats and its bulkhead seats and slapped on a premium. True, this does give you enhanced legroom but it puts you front and centre of the bulkheads where the bassinets are located. If you happen to be near a restless infant for the entire flight, you'll wish you were out on the wing. You've got a lift-up video screen in the armrest which means no viewing until the seatbelt sign goes off after takeoff and no seat pocket to store your inflight goodies – and it's galling to be asked to pay extra for the privilege.
Etihad Airways introduced its Economy Space seats in December 2018, with a seat pitch 12.7cm greater than in the airline's standard Economy seats. That's a plus, but again care is needed. Aboard Etihad's Airbus A380s you'll get a wide choice of seats in rows 40 to 47, but on some other Etihad aircraft the Economy Plus seats are bulkhead or exit row seats, and the value is questionable.
Latest to join the club is Air New Zealand. Starting in 2020 the airline will introduce Economy Stretch on its widebody fleet which will give flyers a roomy 35-inch (89cm) seat pitch and extra amenities such as a premium headset. Air New Zealand is currently reconfiguring its Boeing 777-200, 777-300 and 787-9 aircraft to install a stretch-seat zone with up to 42 seats at the front of the economy cabin. Economy Stretch will be available for purchase from early 2020, with availability on all Air New Zealand long-haul flights from late 2020.
There's an obvious risk here in that these seats could compete with Air New Zealand's Premium Economy seats, and these are some of the best in the business. Air NZ is one of the very few airlines that offers a dedicated toilet for the exclusive use of its Premium Economy flyers, available on the airline's 777-300 services. The airline is betting that it will tempt passengers to pay a little extra to upgrade from Economy to Economy Stretch, rather than downgrading from Premium Economy and pocketing the savings. On the other hand, United has only recently introduced Premium Plus – UA's version of premium economy. That too suggests they don't see those seats and their Economy Plus and their Premium Plus seats competing against one another.