by The Telegraph, April 30, 2018
When the first-ever premium economy seats launched 27 years ago, people scoffed. Airline passengers already had ample choice, critics argued, with both business and economy classes, not to mention first. There was no value in inventing yet another option to sit in the middle.
Taiwanese carrier EVA Air predicted otherwise, and in 1991 became the first carrier to implement the initiative. It worked. These days, it’s a well-established industry standard, and a seating class offered by more than 60 commercial airlines.
And that’s all very well, but surely there’s no need to introduce further subcategories into the mix? Wrong again. Norwegian, the low-cost, long-haul go-getter, has been selling basic economy tickets in three price tiers for a while (in addition to its premium economy), and has only been going from strength to strength.
Now, it's the turn of Sir Richard Branson to hop on the bandwagon, with Virgin Atlantic introducing three of its own economy offerings: “economy light”, “classic” and “delight”.
Norwegian, by comparison, sells: “Flex” (the most expensive), “LowFare+” (middle) and “LowFare” (the cheapest). If you opt for a LowFare ticket, you'll have to pay extra for checked baggage, meals and to reserve a seat. If you go for a Flex ticket, that's all free, and you get to change or cancel your booking for free should you need to.
Virgin’s margins are a little smaller, only ranging by around £100 from the lowest to the highest economy fare; while Norwegian’s “Flex” tickets tend to be substantially more expensive than the “LowFare” ones.
So, what exactly does your money buy you with Virgin? More legroom, if you go for the highest tier, “delight”. A number of standard rows have been ripped out of its aircraft to make space for 36 “delight” seats per plane, all providing a pitch - the space between one seat and the one in front - of 34 inches. By comparison, the airline’s premium seats - which are considerably more pricey - offer 38 inches, and their "classic" and "economy light" seats have 31.
Virgin has not, unlike Norwegian, started charging for meals in the lowest tier - they remain free throughout the cabin. Available to all passengers as of this summer, are fresh options including afternoon tea - a menu designed by master pâtissier Eric Lanlard - and real soft scoop ice cream (complete with a Flake) courtesy of a new collaboration with Wall’s. Then there’s the new espresso martini machine.
With food a given, the main difference when you upgrade from “economy light” to “classic” is that you can take checked baggage and select your seats ahead of time. Bump yourself up to “delight” and, along with more legroom, you also get to check-in at the premium desk, and enjoy priority boarding.
I have to say I was skeptical of this fare model initially, but having last week taken one of Virgin’s six-daily flights between London’s Heathrow and New York’s JFK - in economy delight - I’m officially on board.
Mainly because it makes the fares fairer. It’s refreshing to be able to choose the extras you are willing to pay extra for, and dismiss those you don’t need. It’s also a plus that Virgin’s new layout improves the fleet’s existing space.
Whether entirely physical or partly psychological, the economy delight section of the cabin did the trick. It felt roomier than I’m used to and the seven-hour flight was surprisingly pleasant.
Then again, my neighbours in economy light appeared no less satisfied - perhaps glad in the knowledge that they’d saved money on their tickets.
Conclusion? Virgin is a great airline, but seldom beats its budget rivals at Norwegian on price. Anything than can lower those fares in line with the competition - while still serving espresso martinis - gets a thumbs up from me.
Virgin Atlantic’s new economy tickets start from £310 (London to NYC). To book, visit: VirginAtlantic.com .