How To Avoid The Big Squeeze In The Sky

Too close for comfort in coach? Try premium economy class

Passengers who fly coach are used to the no-frills wasteland in the back of the (Air)bus. But a handful of carriers now offer a premium economy tier priced between the lie-flat beds of the business cabin and the ramrod-straight seats of cattle class.

Depending on the airline, premium-economy-style seating can include a few inches of extra legroom or a significantly wider, leather seat in a dedicated cabin for as little as one-third of the business-class fare between New York and London. Perhaps best of all for travelers fearful of inciting cost-conscious accounting departments, premium economy shows up as coach on expense reports. Here are our picks for the best premium economy programs:

1. VIRGIN ATLANTIC AIRWAYS invented the service back in 1992, with the introduction of Mid Class, now called Premium Economy, aboard its transatlantic flights. The carrier overhauled its premium economy cabins last year, introducing 21-inch-wide purple-leather seats—just an inch narrower than in its vaunted Upper Class—and 38 inches between your seat and the one in front of you (six inches more of so-called seat pitch than in coach). Passengers receive preflight champagne and higher-quality meals and amenity kits than in coach. They're also allowed to check in and board with the Upper Class cabin (although they aren't invited to kick back in Clubhouse lounges beforehand). A recent midweek round-trip Mid Class fare between New York and London was $2,362, about $5,719 less than an Upper Class ticket.

2. BRITISH AIRWAYS' (BAB ) World Traveler Plus cabin is not as roomy as Virgin's latest iteration, and there's no priority check-in and boarding. But it offers dedicated meals, amenity kits, in-seat power outlets, and 38 inches of pitch. BA is thinking of launching flights with a mix of just business-class and premium economy seats from continental Europe to New York next year.

3. UNITED AIRLINES' (UAL ) Economy Plus lacks the frills (and wider seats) of Virgin or BA, but it is the most affordable premium-economy seat in the sky. For just $299 a year, you can get an automatic upgrade from coach every time you fly. (Elite members of United's Mileage Plus loyalty programs are offered complimentary upgrades as well.) Passengers receive only four inches or so of extra legroom, but that can make the difference between a few comfortable hours with a laptop and a flare-up of carpal tunnel syndrome.

4. MIDWEST AIRLINES (MEH ) is justly famous for the comfy leather seats and warm chocolate chip cookies of its Signature Service aboard its fleet of Boeing 717s. Flying mostly out of hubs in Milwaukee and Kansas City, Midwest built its reputation on the wide 21-inch seats that trump every competitor on routes across the heartland. A recent Milwaukee-to-Denver flight on Midwest was $473 round-trip, about the same as on Frontier and United. As part of an effort to add capacity, Midwest will pack regular coach seats on all of its flights from now on, but passengers willing to pay a little more can still snag the wider seats and the cookies.

5. ALL NIPPON AIRWAYS offers the only premium economy service within Asia. The seats, similar in pitch and width to BA's, are available on long-haul flights in and out of Tokyo and on ANA BusinessJet flights aboard modified 737s from Nagoya to Guangzhou and Tokyo to Mumbai. ANA expects to include premium-economy seats on its Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which the airline will be the first to fly next year on routes it has yet to announce.

By Greg Lindsay

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