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Airlines Are Ripping Out Business Seats to Create a New Middle Class

Premium economy lets flyers avoid the cattle-car feel of coach, and it’s super profitable for carriers.

Premium economy seats on American Airlines.

Premium economy seats on American Airlines.

Source: American Airlines

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.