Premium Cabin Airline Seats Haven’t Improved in 30 Years

Thirty years ago airlines offered a mostly flat comfortable seat at the front of the plane with upgraded dining. They called it first class. They also offered a middle cabin featuring recliners and 38 to 40 inches between seats, along with upgraded privileges like priority boarding. They called it business class.

Today airlines offer mostly flat seating up front with upgraded dining. They call it business class. They offer a middle cabin featuring recliners and 38 to 40 inches between seats, along with upgraded privileges like priority boarding. They call it premium economy.

American Airlines Premium Economy

Joe Brancatelli in his (subscription) column this week points to Continental’s 1992 move to eliminate first class and improve business class as the beginning of a cycle that brought us right back to where we started.

Continental’s business class product lagged, and their business class sales lagged. They weren’t making money on first class either. So they introduced better (although not yet flat) seats to business class, gave more room (about an extra 15 inches between rows), and upgraded dining. They called it BusinessFirst. It didn’t offer the true flourishes of a quality first class product, but it was priced the way competitor business class offerings were.

They saw an opportunity to win market share by offering a better product than competitors who gave customers something very similar to what premium economy looks like today as business class. They upgraded their cabins over a six month (!) time period, and didn’t market the new product until they actually had it to offer to customers.

It was 2000 before we began to see flat beds in business class – British Airways was first, offering a product that isn’t materially different today. They will soon begin flying a new seat, the American Airlines seat with a door tacked on, but will roll it out very slowly.

British Airways Business Class

First class — at least on airlines still offering the product and not named American Airlines or British Airways — has gotten better. Whether it’s the Etihad Apartment, new Singapore Airlines A380 Suite, or showers on board the Etihad and Emirates A380 there are true trophy products flying the skies. Although the airlines offering first class, the routes on which they offer it, and the number of seats has been cut back drastically.

For most airlines the front of the plane is the flat seat and better service just like it was 30 years ago, and the middle cabin an improved product over coach, just like it was 30 years ago. It’s only the names given to those products that’s really changed.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Frankly no airline can outdo Spain’s very governmental carrier, Iberia, for what has to be the most pathetic approach to Premium Economy.

    How does Iberia get away with serving the same skanky chicken from Bangladesh in PE as in coach, with the sad explanation of, “but it’s served on china.” Actually, what passes for a multi-course meal of far below average standards should be served on demitasse china! Also, don’t expect a favorable customer experience re beverage service, as your first drink only comes when the meal is served. After that, the liquor cart disappears until the pathetic pre-meal is served about 75 minutes before landing.

    Compare the food & beverage concept and service on Iberia to any other carrier to see how “customer experience” is not in their lexicon. Frankly, I don’t give a hoot how much longer the flights are by going thru Germany to Madrid and beyond, as Lufthansa has not thrown out a standard of service that apparently never existed on Iberia.

    Even funnier when Iberia gate agents admit how pathetic their PE is; stating how even American’s PE favorably surprised them with special menus, open liquor, etc.

    BTW-be careful if you.upgrade to Iberia’s Business Class at the departure airport, as they have a different price for each person. Also, despite paying for your ticket and upgrade with a debit/credit card, Iberia will refuse to refund the $37 charged for selecting your PE seat, claiming they cannot refund debit cards.

    Hopefully EU #261 has teeth in it to deal with Iberia’s shenanigans..?

  2. “Today airlines offer mostly flat seating up front”

    Uh, you mean relative to the vertical geometric plane, right? (Especially based on your photo)

  3. “Thirty years ago airlines offered a mostly flat comfortable seat at the front of the plane with upgraded dining.”

    Not sure what you mean by “mostly flat’ but I have no idea what you’re talking about in this article. You’re saying that the seat I took on AA to London in the 90s, which had no PTV, reclined maybe 45 degrees, and had a person on each side of me has not been improved upon at all?

    I know you like your clickbait headlines, but Jesus

  4. No, premium travel has never been better than today when it comes to hard product. True Lie flat seating, privacy with reverse herringbone like on American’s 777 or actual doors like delta make business class better than most first class seats 15 years ago. That coupled with sometimes great lounges, sometimes great bedding, sometimes nicely done bathrooms like on American’s 777-200, bar/snack areas or actual lounges in the cabin, invalidate all claims written above. Service probably isn’t as good as years ago except some of the Asian carriers but with book the cook the food is even better in some cases.

    The only area where first class or even the old business class has over the new business is floor space and not feeling cramped in a shell. But privacy reigns supreme nowadays and new business is akin to a sleeper on a train versus first class seats in an open train car. The open floor space in front is the only hard product benefit to first class seats on most carriers with the exception of the new Ethidad or Singapore first class that has a seperate bed, Emirates with a beautiful cabin seat.

  5. @ME Singer. I guess you haven’t flown the complete garbage that Air Canada PY is? It makes what you describe look luxurious.

    The TATL PY breakfast consists of a half inch slice of banana bread with so many preservatives it doesn’t have an expiry date.

  6. 1) So many travel articles claim true first class is disappearing. Not true – it’s just renamed.

    2) Beware when booking premium economy on Delta – on their narrowbodies and wide bodies with no true PE seats installed, Delta calls standard economy seats with extra legroom “Premium Economy”

  7. Nonsense. Yes, business seats and service today are in many ways comparable to the first of the past, and premium economy today is similarly comparable to the business class seat and service of the past, but the price and accessibility of both are dramatically lower and expanded, respectively. Value is at an all time high with plane travel, without question.

  8. Except that fully flat seats at the front of the aircraft were virtually no existent 30 years ago.

  9. Like @JamesK, my recollection is different. I recall barcaloungers in SQ F in the mid-90s.

  10. I agree with the premise that we’ve just come full-circle in terms of class-of-service. The only difference is that the fares have each jumped a notch.

  11. @ JamesK — LOL

    @ Gary — This is total bs. Business seats today are WAY better than First seats 20 years ago, and you know it.

  12. Seats haven’t improved? SMH. Late 1990s American introduced the new 777 with their version of a suite, calling it Flagship Suites. That also said they were líe-flat but in reality we’re a few degrees off of fully flat, supposedly to compensate for the slight upward angle of the nose in flight.

    This was an enormous departure from the status quo. Prior to the 777, AAs 767, and MD-11 first class had big thick recliners covered with sheepskin. The food and service in first class back then was enhanced over what it is today, but the seats were less than today’s standard.

  13. I think this may be the straw that breaks my reading of this blog. I really wanted to see how this false-on-its-face headline was maybe, just maybe, shown to be true. Instead, you you point out the obvious fact of name changes (no insight there); then contradict your premise by stating both far better first class products exist now, after noting that lie-flat business class seats are relatively new. In other words – the headline and conclusion are wrong, by your own statements.

  14. Wrong. More than just the marketing names of the product had changed. The food is worse. Look at the Laurent Perrier champagne that Continental served. None of the US airlines offer restaurant quality food or fine wine, notwithstanding Delta’s faux luxury marketing.

  15. You are correct – don’t posters remember the AA FC fully flat seats on certain wide body planes? Who was it that said, the next PE ‘improvement’ will be an angled flat seat?

  16. From my prospective flying AA wide body business today vs 25 years ago – Seats and IFE a big +, food a bigger minus, FA’s – crabbier and grayer.

  17. I get the gist of this post. While names have changed and seats have changed, the idea of 3 class travel is basically the same. Why? Because most businesses will never pay for 1st class. When premium economy was introduced, 1st class began to disappear. Then businesses began to not pay for business class travel. Business class has replaced 1st class, and we have to get used to it. And I work for one of those companies that only pays for Inter. business class for VPs and above. Most traveling employees were stuck in economy. For them, there is at least premium economy now.

  18. Today’s best “Premium Economy” hard products are very similar to the business class hard product of 30 years ago. The soft product is very different. 30 years ago, biz class food and beverage service was substantially better than coach and only slightly inferior to first class. Most premium economy products now feature food and beverage lifted from economy, perhaps with the kabuki of plates and glassware.

    I’ll grant that today’s biz is, generally, superior to even the best first class product of 30 years ago, but it’s nonsense to say we’re back to the same place.

  19. Gary, you’re spot on! I remember taking Delta’s recliner business class to Europe in 2000 – exactly what premium economy has become. Do you think premium economy will go angle or lie flat in the future?

  20. @colleen “I agree with the premise that we’ve just come full-circle in terms of class-of-service. The only difference is that the fares have each jumped a notch.”

    Downwards. Real airfares are at or near a historic low.

  21. Ignoring the miss on the quality of the seats, the gist of the article is right on. My business travel started in 1989 in a Fortune 50 company, for international travel First Class was the standard. Until the early 90’s when business class emerged, suddenly only C level could fly first, everyone else was business class on the overseas trips. 2 things happened, Business Class was always overbooked and First Class was only booked 10-20% full. For about 2 years I hade Platinum status and hand at least 50% of my Business Class trips upgraded to First Class. I was one the last First Class passengers on NWA, flying in the last NGO -DTW flight with First Class. No one in first class on that flight paid for it, all upgrades. So Business class evolved into first class, and became super expensive, companies rolled back the allowed class of service, and viola the old Business Class returns as Premium Economy, but without the service upgrade, only a nicer seat

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