For decades, ferrying tourists to vacation destinations has helped major airlines cover basic costs, but the front of the plane is where they’ve racked up the bulk of their profits.
So when the pandemic whacked business travel, carriers were left looking for another way to pad the bottom line. Increasingly they’re finding it in premium economy, where travelers can avoid the cattle-car aesthetics of coach without spending thousands of dollars for the expansive digs of business class. And with Covid-19, growing numbers of leisure travelers are willing to splash out for a bit of extra elbow room at fares that are frequently more than double the cheapest economy seats. “People are desperate to take charge of their lives now, and airlines can no longer force them into just one or two categories,” says Juha Jarvinen, chief commercial officer at Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., which pioneered the service in 1992.
The trend was already on an upswing before the pandemic, with installations of premium economy seats—not including the “plus” sections of coach, which offer extra legroom—growing 5% annually in the three years before the coronavirus hit. Researcher Counterpoint Market Intelligence predicts that pace will accelerate as more carriers embrace the idea of a separate cabin on long-haul flights featuring slightly wider seats, several extra inches of legroom, a deeper recline, bigger screens, and marginally better food and drink.
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