Qantas touts its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner premium economy seat as 'revolutionary' and a world champion in the better-than-economy stakes.
There's much to like about Qantas' new premium economy seat, which sits in its own cabin of four rows with a 2-3-2 seating layout.
Sadly, a few issues – not all of them related to the seat itself – keep it from reaching its full crowd-pleasing potential.
First up is the legroom: or to be more precise, the lack of legroom when the seat in front of you is reclined.
We first raised this in our detailed preview of the seats published in February 2017, and last week's launch of the Qantas Boeing 787-9 and its subsequent delivery flight from Seattle to Sydney – during which we spent some hours sleeping in the premium economy seat – brings this into sharper focus.
The seat pitch – which approximates as an indicator of legroom, being a measure of the distance between your seat back and that of the seat in front of you, representing the room that's "yours" during the flight – is 38 inches.
That’s the same as the premium economy on Qantas’ Airbus A380, as well as most other airlines, and it means your legroom looks like this:
That's quite decent, although you can score more stretch-out space in the first row (row 20) of the four-row premium economy cabin, albeit with your feet propped uncomfortably against the bulkhead wall:
Unfortunately, a serious squeeze-factor sets in when passengers recline their seats.
A hint of this is already evident in this glossy PR photo (eyeball the proximity of the model's knees against the seatback) – and that's the recline of your own seat.
When the premium economy seat tilts back into a generous 9.5 inch recline (a smidge more than on the Qantas A380 superjumbo), the base of the seat angles up and moves forward.
Here's a shot of this in situ on the Boeing 787-9...
... and a clearer snap from the seat's launch earlier this year, which illustrates the difference once the seat reclines.
It's a very relaxing position to be in, but that comfort comes at a cost of reducing the knee-room at the very front of your seat.
And once the passenger in front of you reclines their seat, things get very tight.
Part of this is a function of the seat's deep recline – which is usually a good thing...
... and the solid shell which wraps around the seat, giving it more of a 'premium' feel.
Here's the side-on view with a front seat reclined:
Note the leg position of the passenger in the rear seat:
I'm in the shot below, and despite being bog-average in height you can still see how my legs are close to the rear of the seat without even the room to cross them. This won't make for a comfortable flight, especially not on the Dreamliner's 17+ hour non-stop trek between Perth and London.
This all comes back to pitch, to the distance between the seats.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that 38 inches simply isn't enough, and that at least 40 inches would be more appropriate – as this would deliver upwards of an extra two inches (5cm) at the knees.
So while Qantas' designer David Caon has delivered what is in most other respects a superb premium economy seat, the design has been short-changed by the implementation.
Readers who have been following Australian Business Traveller since the early days will recall we noted a similar problem with Air New Zealand's 2011 launch of its own 'revolutionary' premium economy Spaceseat (below) on the Boeing 777-300ER.
Responding to a wave of criticism, Air New Zealand quickly removed an entire row of seats from the premium economy cabin to deliver between four and six extra inches of legroom for each passenger. (The Kiwi carrier eventually ditched the radical Spaceseat design in favour of the more conventional seat flown on its own Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.)
There is, however, another wrinkle in the design of Qantas' premium economy seats: the foot hammock upon which much of the airline's 'revolutionary' claim has been built.
This goes beyond a small section of netting at the bottom of the seat. It's a complete construct combining a supportive calf-rest and a cradle into which you can tuck your feet.
The original concept was developed by Thompson Aero Seating – the same firm behind the Boeing 787’s business class seat – and brought into the real world by David Caon.
Unlike the premium economy seat of the Qantas A380, and most other airlines, there’s no legrest built into the front of the Dreamliner's seat – Caon says this is because it “has a limited range of motion” and “in the end it doesn't fully support your feet."
His solution is this 're-imagined' legrest which works in tandem with the reclined seat with the aim of cradling your body from head to toe.
It works on hydraulics and can be set into a wide range of positions, typically to support your calves while your feet slide into their own hammock.
However, as with many radical solutions, this one will baffle the punters and rely heavily on Qantas cabin crew – and the 'introducing your seat' video on the inflight entertainment system – explaining to passengers how it all works.
First of all, the 'hammock' can be deployed only when your seat is upright – not reclined. And while most travellers will be sufficiently familiar with a seatback footrest to try and swing the calf-rest down with their feet, that struggle will get you nowhere – you need to start by pulling out and holding the 'Footrest' lever under the video screen.
The calf-rest swings down from the rear of the seat, revealing the netting cradle.
Then it's a matter of finding the preferred position for your calf-rest – some passengers will like it up high towards their knees, others further down the leg.
For all that, I didn't find this to be miraculously comfortable during my kip in premium economy.
Perhaps I didn't have it adjusted 'just right' (and if I can't, how is the average passenger going to handle it?), but I'd have been happy for a more conventional legrest-and-footrest combo.
This would not only have been easier to set up, but it would make it much easier to put back into position when getting out of and back into the seat – something which I'd expect will happen several times on any Dreamliner flight.
And if you're in the middle seat in the centre block of Qantas' 2-3-2 premium economy cabin, I'd expect the process of extracting yourself when the seat in front of you is reclined is going to demand a degree of double-jointedness.
In short, all this is going take a lot of getting used to, and I can see many passengers abandoning it altogether and making do with less comfort than they should enjoy in what is, in every other respect, an excellent premium economy seat.
Space to spare
The well-padded seat cushion is 19.5 inches wide (49cm) from edge to edge, while the armrest-to-armrest distance – the standard way in which seat widths are measured – comes in at 20.5 inches (52cm), which is one inch more than on the Qantas A380.
On top of that, there's extra cut-out space chiselled into the wide armrests:
Qantas counts those recesses as ‘storage areas’, although they'd best suited to small slim items such as a notepad, travel diary or maybe a compact tablet in a protective case.
Allowing for this extra space between the edge of the cushion and the inner wall of the armrests brings the total of what could be called ‘hip width’ to 22.8 inches (58cm).
Need a smidge more room?
The middle seat of each premium economy row (the ‘E’ seats: 20E, 21E, 22E and 23E) is actually a bit wider again, at 23.3 inches (59cm), while passengers on the aisle seats (A, D, F and J) can recover more space to spread by pushing down the aisle-side armrest.
The over-sized winged headrest has plenty of vertical adjustment to suit passengers of almost any height, and a thick custom pillow – more like a bolster in some ways – slides over the headrest for added comfort (especially when it's nap-time), an arrangement which also prevents the pillow from sliding around and slipping down behind your back.
The shroud of each seat contains a soft personal LED light.
Caon has added several other passenger-friendly touches.
Each seat has a 13.3 inch video screen...
... with those fitted to the armrests of the front-row seats showcasing how narrow today's video screens have become.
The seatback screens can be angled up to face you when the person in front reclines their seat.
Caon cannily built a convenient tablet-holder in front of the seatback screens, for passengers who prefer to BYO inflight video and movies, with sufficient size to hold even a 13-inch iPad Pro.
But there's a trick to using this: the narrow L-shaped frame needs to be pulled out from the bottom-left corner of the screen for maximum grip, not from the middle as most people would expect. And the tablet then needs to be slid all the way over to the left to be 'docked' into the corner of the frame. There's nothing to communicate either of these points to passengers.
Indeed, if you leave your tablet sitting in the middle of the frame – again, a natural assumption – the small grip area is insufficient to hold the tablet, which then does an Olympic-grade tumble dive into your hands.
Once the tablet is docked in position, hook it up to the nearby USB port and you're good to go...
... although with the low-power port supplying just 0.5A it will keep your tablet's battery stable than recharging it.
Just below the screen is a pocket for stowing your smartphone, reading glasses or other small bits of personal kit.
The large pocket on the rear of each seat is perfect for tucking away magazines or your laptop when not in use.
There’s a second USB jack the middle armrest of each seat, just above the headphone socket.
This is a high-powered 2A port pumping out plenty of juice to fully recharge your travel tech, while the location is ideal for charging up your smartphone, tablet or eBook reader while also using the device.
You can of course tuck your smartphone into the cubbyhole below the video screen and top up its batteries by using that 'upstairs' USB port – it'll just take longer to recharge, but on a long international flight that's ample time to fill up the tank.
Yet at odds with the double-dollop of USB ports is the single AC socket shared between each pair of seats – or two sockets for the middle set of three seats. This is a terrible oversight when you think about about laptop-toting travellers flying as long as 17 hours between Perth and London.
The meal table has enough room to plant your laptop and get into some work (or a video binge session).
If you're read this far into our exclusive review of Qantas' latest premium economy seat – which the airline also intends to fit to its flagship Airbus A380 fleet from mid-2019 – you'll know the take-out: we generally like the seat, apart from the calfrest+hammock combo and shared AC sockets, but we certainly don't like the lack of legroom forced upon it due to Qantas' tight-fit cabin configuration.
This premium economy seat – and Qantas' premium economy passengers on the Boeing 787-9 – deserve better.
David Flynn travelled on the Qantas Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner delivery flight from Seattle to Sydney as a guest of Qantas.