By Ed Perkins

Delta Airlines announced that it was adding a semi-premium economy section in planes it uses for long-haul international flights. The new "Economy Comfort" section will provide "up to four additional inches of legroom" and greater recline than regular economy. Delta will complete the installation of the new configuration in the first few rows of the economy cabins of "more than 160" 747s, 757s, 767s, 777s, and A330s by "this summer."

Travelers can buy their way into that cabin by paying an extra $80 to $160, depending on the route, on reservations starting in May. Delta will accommodate highest-ranking frequent flyers and travelers on full-fare tickets in Economy Comfort without any extra charge, and lower-ranking elite frequent flyers will pay less. In addition to extra legroom, travelers in this cabin will enjoy early boarding and no-charge "spirits" during the flight.

Delta is not adding Economy Comfort to planes it usually uses on domestic routes. When the normally international planes fly domestic routes, Delta will reserve the Economy Comfort seats for high-ranking frequent flyers and travelers on full fare tickets. Ordinary tourists will not be able to buy into the roomier seats. Delta told me it "has no plans" to change regular economy seating. Plans, however, can change; stay tuned.

Delta says its new product is "similar to upgraded economy services currently available in Delta's joint venture partner AirFrance/KLM," but that's not quite accurate. Air France's premium economy is a true premium economy, with wider seats as well as greater legroom; KLM, on the other hand, has installed ultra-narrow 10-across seats on its 777s, compared with Delta's wider 9-across. In fact, the closest parallel to Economy Comfort is Economy Plus on United, which features extra legroom but with the same regular narrow seats. The main difference is that Delta travelers get the "spirits."

Although all sorts of travelers complain about ultra-tight economy seating, premium economy has been very slow to catch on with major airlines. Airlines have taken two basic approaches:

-- Delta joins United and KLM in offering what I call "semi-premium" economy. That means extra legroom but no increase in seat width. United offers its version throughout its fleet, including on regional jets; KLM limits it to intercontinental flights.

-- Alitalia, ANA, British Airways, EVA, JAL, Qantas, SAS, V Australia, and Virgin Atlantic offer a true premium economy, with wider seats along with better legroom than in semi-premium. These versions of premium economy are generally confined to intercontinental flights.

-- Air New Zealand is currently in both camps: Its older 777s have semi-premium economy, but the newest versions feature a true premium economy.

Clearly, true premium economy is a far better product than semi-premium. Unfortunately, however, current true premium pricing represents a very poor "value proposition" for most leisure travelers. When AirFrance announced its new premium economy, it proudly trumpeted "40 percent more" room -- and charged 100 percent higher fares. Other lines' fares are similar. Currently, on British Airways, a round-trip ticket from Chicago to London on British Airways in March costs $703 in regular economy, $1,640 in premium economy. On AirFrance, a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Paris is $887 in regular economy, $1,474 in premium. The best premium economy deal I could find is on EVA: Round-trip Los Angeles-Taipei is $1,027 in regular economy, $1,437 in premium. On Delta and United, the extra cost of moving to semi-premium seats is much lower, and elite frequent flyers and full-fare travelers generally get in "free."

I've found one other problem with premium economy: Not all the big online agencies and aggregators provide for premium economy fare searches. As of now, Expedia, Kayak, and Vayama offer premium search; Orbitz, Travelocity, CheapTickets, and many others do not.

Anthropometric measures show that current regular economy seats are at least a couple of inches too narrow to accommodate American men comfortably at shoulder level. Unfortunately, however, the price of an adequately wide seat is far too high for most of you leisure travelers. Semi-premium is probably as close as you'll get to escaping the cattle car -- and it's not much of an escape.



Travel | Delta Airlines Opts for Semi-Premium Economy