Best premium economy? Qantas vs British Airways vs Virgin Atlantic

By John Walton, August 4 2011
Best premium economy? Qantas vs British Airways vs Virgin Atlantic

For airlines, premium economy is the new black. Or, more accurately, premium economy is the new business class -- since today's business class seats are leaps and bounds ahead of what you'd have found only ten years ago, and the gulf between business and economy has widened significantly.

And for the business traveller, premium economy is both a blessing and a curse. Companies that used to specify economy class travel will sometimes pay for premium economy now, but those that used to pay for business class are tempted to cut back on premium travel and book staff in premium economy.

But the premium economy experience varies widely and wildly across airlines. Cabin layouts, locations and features all differ, and there's a good couple of inches of seat width between the narrowest and widest offerings.

Australian Business Traveller is here to help you sort out the three key players on the 'kangaroo route' from Sydney to London: Qantas, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

We've compared the seats, check-in and boarding, and food across the three airlines' current offerings.

One point to remember for taller business travellers: seat pitch -- the space between your seat and the person in front -- is the same across all three airlines, at 96 cm (38 inches), but the width differs.

Qantas: Premium Economy

Seat: 49.5 cm (19.5") wide, which is wider than BA but narrower than Virgin Atlantic. The cabin has between 32 and 40 seats, and is to the rear of business class -- downstairs in 2-4-2 configuration on the 747 and upstairs in 2-3-2 on the A380. 

Power: Qantas offers 110v AC power, but bring an adaptor if you have a UK plug. (Check out Qantas' specifications for power for full details.)

Check-in and boarding: Premium check-in and boarding line.

Food: The best of the three, with glassware and proper plates: a small salad to start, a decent-sized main course that sits squarely between the Economy and Business Class level of presentation and interest, pre-packaged cheese with biscuits, plus a dessert (usually ice cream, cheesecake or similar). 

British Airways: World Traveller Plus

Seat: The narrowest of the three seats at 47 cm (18.5"). The cabins hold between 30 and 36 seats in 2-4-2 configuration, downstairs on their 747s, and to the rear of business class on 777s. Some 747s -- not usually the ones to Australia -- have the premium economy cabin between First and Club World (Business).

Power: BA provides 110v AC power, but bring an adaptor if you have a UK plug. (Check out BA's specifications for power -- the second section is relevant to flights to and from Australia.)

Check-in and boarding: World Traveller (economy) standard.

Food: Exactly the same as in economy -- the worst offering of the three.

Virgin Atlantic: Premium Economy  

Seat: The seat is the widest of the three airlines at 53 cm (21"). Cabin size varies significantly, from 38 to 58 seats. The layout is 2-4-2 downstairs on Virgin's 747s, and some 747s have 2-2 seating on the upper deck. Their A340s -- which are the main aircraft on the London-Sydney run -- have a 2-3-2 layout. 

Power: At-seat power is available, but a power inverter is needed (buy on board for £55, about A$86). (Check out Virgin's specifications for power for full details of the inverter required, which you may be able to find cheaper on the ground.)

Check-in and boarding: Virgin offers both a premium economy check-in and a premium boarding process.

Food: Somewhat economy plus: better than BA, but not quite up to the Qantas standard. A small salad to start, a main course slightly better than economy, then a brownie or small piece of cake for dessert, plus packaged cheese and biscuits. 

Our recommendation?

Qantas is the one to beat if you're heading to London in premium economy, although the generous seat width of Virgin Atlantic has an edge in terms of personal comfort. Both are far in front of BA's offering.

We've gathered together the relevant stats for each of the airlines' premium economy seats and cabins.For all three, the seat pitch (the space between you and the person in front) is 96 cm/38" with 23 cm/9" of recline.

 Seat widthCabin Layout  Cabin size
BA (Boeing 777 and 747)   47 cm/18.5" 2-4-2 30-36 seats
Virgin (Airbus A340) 53 cm/21" 2-3-2 48 seats
Qantas (Boeing 747) 49.5 cm/19.5" 2-4-2 32-40 seats
Qantas (Airbus A380) 49.5 cm/19.5" 2-3-2 32 seats

(Note that BA released their new World Traveller Plus cabin in mid-2010, but are rolling it out very slowly, so we haven't compared it here. Once it starts on routes to Australia, we'll bring you an updated comparison.) 

If you must get a BA ticket, then try hard to book yourself onto one of the several Qantas codeshare flights for all or part of your journey. 

Australian Business Traveller top tip: You can upgrade from Premium Economy to Business (Club World, Upper Class, or whatever the airline calls it) for between 25,000 and 30,000 miles/points per return sector, depending on airline -- so, from Sydney to London, that's 50-60,000. 

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Jul 2013

Total posts 8

Thanks John for this thorough comparison. Having travelled in several premium economy cabins, I can add the very important aspect - leg rest... One thing is whether it comes from the seat infront or is an "extention" like on QF. I think that's why QF premium product is better then CX (only for premium economy seat!). BUT, NOTHING beats Turkish Airlines premium economy seats (comfort class) for their seats and food and price point!!! Sadly they don't fly to Australia and decided to remove their comfort class seats...

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