Caught in the middle: Why can’t airlines figure out service in premium economy?

Nov 2, 2019

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Premium economy cabins are all the rage in the airline industry. Passengers demanded a product that was nicer than an extra-legroom economy seat at a cheaper price point than a fully flat business seat. The airlines heard them, and many now offer a premium economy cabin on long-haul flights.

But after a recent flight in Premium Plus on United’s Boeing 787-10, I couldn’t help but question whether there’s really much of a difference between the service in premium economy and in economy class.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

On my flight, the flight attendants working the premium economy cabin didn’t serve predeparture beverages, even though it’s recommended in the service protocol. Throughout the meal service, Premium Plus passengers were served from the same carts as the economy cabin, with flight attendants loudly asking across the aisle if you wanted chicken or pasta.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Between meal services, flight attendants congregated at their jump seats and couldn’t have been any less interested in serving passengers. I even saw a flight attendant berate a premium economy passenger for attempting to use the nearest restroom (which United reserves exclusively for Polaris customers).

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

I might’ve been unlucky in getting grumpy flight attendants. Regardless, it’s clear that the service flow that United set for Premium Plus isn’t all that much different than that for economy class. Yet I’d paid about an $800 buy-up from economy, so I was certainly expecting something premium from the service component.

So why didn’t premium economy come with service worthy of the price tag?

It’s hard to blame the crew: United doesn’t staff any additional or dedicated flight attendants for Premium Plus, and basically asks the flight attendants to work harder to serve the premium economy cabin without offering them more pay or resources. And finally, I’m not sure that United has decided or made it clear to flight attendants that Premium Plus should be considered a completely separate cabin from economy, with its own service protocol.

Some things still come down to the crew, though, like the lack of predeparture beverages and the apathetic service I received from individual flight attendants. But I still blame United for the remainder of the service hiccups.

It isn’t just United, either. British Airways World Traveller Plus let us down in premium economy, too. Like United, British Airways didn’t have dedicated flight attendants for the premium economy cabin, nor did the flight attendants remove the plastic and foil on top of the containers. The service was mostly apathetic and really no different from that of the coach cabin.

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

If United needs inspiration on service training, it can take a look at JetBlue Mint. Granted, Mint is a true biz-class product with lie-flat seats, but it exemplifies how service can make or break a premium-class experience. Flight attendants who serve Mint customers receive dedicated training, so it’s no surprise that the service is, on average, much better than the competition. Admittedly, service in business class is more intensive than in premium economy, but training is important.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Virgin Australia premium economy is another model for premium economy service. On one Virgin Australia flight, it was clear that the flight attendants viewed premium economy as premium economy. There were two flight attendants dedicated to serving the small cabin, making it easy for them to provide attentive and helpful service to the passengers. In addition, premium economy passengers were greeted by name, and all trays were presented ready to eat.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

Of course, all this begs a question about realistic expectations: Should customers set a lower bar for service in premium economy?

I don’t think so. Just as the rest of the premium economy product is meant as an intermediate experience between economy and business, so too should the service component be better than that of economy. When service fails, some may blame the airline and others the flight attendants, but customers are paying a significant upcharge for premium economy, so elevated service is table stakes.

It’s great that United’s Premium Plus passengers are served on real china and get an amenity kit and Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and light blanket, but that doesn’t compensate for a service experience that’s no different from economy.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

As premium economy becomes mainstream, airlines need to define an appropriate service flow and consider dedicating flights attendants just to premium economy. There needs to be a clearer definition of what’s to be expected with this in-between product — and that starts right at the top. Until then, you may end up with economy service for a premium price.

Featured image courtesy of Air France

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