Qantas boasted of a "revolutionary" design for its all-new premium economy seat created for the Boeing 787, but too little legroom and an overly-complicated footrest system detract from the seat's many positive traits. Australian Business Traveller travelled in premium economy on the Dreamliner's inaugural international flight from Melbourne to LA to bring you this review.
- Frequent flyer program: Qantas Frequent Flyer, Oneworld.
- Checked baggage allowance: 2x23kg bags as standard on flights to North America, boosted to 3x23kg for Qantas Club members, Qantas Silver and Gold frequent flyers and most Oneworld Emerald cardholders, except for Qantas Platinum and above where the allowance is a higher 3x32kg.
- Carry-on baggage allowance: Choice of 2x115cm bags, or 1x115cm bag plus 1x185cm garment bag, up to 7kg per piece (14kg in total).
- Airport fast-track: Access to priority check-in and boarding lanes, although not Australian 'Express Path' facilities such as for security and passport control, or priority security screening when departing the USA: these perks of business class don’t trickle down to premium economy.
As with most airlines, lounge access isn’t included with a Qantas premium economy ticket, although Qantas Club and American Airlines Admirals Club members plus Gold frequent flyers and other Oneworld Sapphire cardholders do have access to the Qantas international business class lounge in Melbourne when flying Qantas.
The lounge also welcomes travellers with single-entry Qantas lounge passes, such as provided to Qantas Silver frequent flyers and with many credit cards, including the popular Qantas American Express Ultimate and Qantas American Express Premium cards.
Higher-tier Qantas Platinum, Platinum One, Chairman’s Lounge and other Oneworld Emerald frequent flyers can instead relax in Melbourne’s Qantas first class lounge, where restaurant dining, Champagne and complimentary day spa treatments await.
Priority Pass lounge members could instead visit Bar Pulpo by MoVida or Urban Provodore for $36 in dining credit in lieu of lounge access, when the restaurant processes one 'lounge visit' on your Priority Pass account.
Still not set for lounge access or a pre-flight meal? You can also buy your way into the independent Marhaba Lounge in Melbourne at a cost of $65 per person for up to four hours.
And, from early 2018, American Express and Plaza Premium will open independent lounges in the city’s international terminal which passengers on Qantas and all other airlines can access, so even though your ticket may not include a lounge, there are a plethora of options to replace waiting at the gate.
Premium economy on Qantas’ Boeing 787-9 jets comes as a cosy four row, 28-seat cabin just behind business class and in front of economy, arranged in a 2-3-2 layout (AB-DEF-JK: the green seats).
There’s 38 inches of pitch between each row (the measurement from your headrest to the same place on the seat in front), and 20.5 inches of width (the cushion itself being 19.5 inches): except in the middle ‘E’ seats where the width is 23.3 inches.
On boarding, you’ll find a pillow on your seat, and while this can be used as any regular back pillow, it slides over your headrest too for a more comfortable ride, whether you’re sitting upright or tilting far back.
The seats have a shell around them for a little extra privacy, and this also incorporates an angled ‘mood light’, which isn’t bright enough to be a reading light (a shame there’s no dimmer to make this so), but can be used to slightly illuminate the space around you: useful when working on a laptop when the main cabin lights are out, without disturbing your neighbour more than necessary:
You’ll find the control for this at the top of the inflight entertainment screen, along with the actual overhead reading light, which is much brighter.
Meanwhile, the seat’s recline button, headphone outlet and a high-powered USB port (useful for charging tablets like iPads or the Microsoft Surface) are all next to you:
For more juice, there’s one AC power outlet shared between two passengers in the outer pairs, and two outlets between three passengers in the centre trio – an unfortunate downgrade to having one proper power point per person as many other airlines offer in premium economy.
That said, a second, lower-powered USB charging port is located directly in front of you for charging smaller gadgets like smartphones, or keeping larger tablets powered up without actually recharging them…
… along with a mesh pocket that’s suitable for smartphones, watches and other small items, and is a good place to keep your smartphone if it’s plugged into the nearby USB charger, as it’ll be out of your way…
… and if you pull the silver tab below the USB outlet, you’ll unlock the footrest, which includes two elements: a net which cradles your feet, and a paddle that supports your legs in combination with the foot net (pictured).
Here’s what that looks like from the side:
You can also use the paddle as a footrest of its own, with the height adjustable to suit (just pull the switch until you’re comfortable), even if that’s only slightly above the normal height of the cabin floor:
As for storage, there’s a cocktail table in between each seat – one table between two in the outer pairs, and two between three in the centre seats, much as with power outlets…
… plus a seatback pocket that can accommodate most laptops and tablets…
… a water bottle nook, which is handy if not a little difficult to access when your seat is reclined, or the tray table is deployed – such as when working on a laptop…
… and a little space to the side of the seat, perfect for your amenity kit or other small items:
Passengers sitting by the aisle can also lower their outer armrest for a little more space, but the switch to unlock this is tucked away underneath, so you’ll need to hunt for it.
Once located, press it and your armrest is free to move. However, it can only be fixed in place when completely raised or all the way down (pictured): you can’t nudge it down by only an inch or so – which would make some sitting and sleeping positions more comfortable – else it’ll drop completely.
When it comes to sleeping and relaxing, taller travellers will also appreciate that the seat’s headrest can be raised, including when the pillow is attached, and has adjustable side wings: although unfortunately the headrest itself can’t be angled forward to perfectly cradle your head.
Of course, you can also recline your seat. The whole thing tilts back with you, shell included, and when the person in front of you has only reclined part way as pictured, there’s still plenty of room to move about.
However, these seats can recline as far back as 9.5 inches, which is great for the person reclining, but not fantastic for the person behind. For example, here are three seats: the seat on the left is upright, the centre seat is partially reclined, and the seat on the far right is all the way back:
When there’s only 38 inches of pitch to begin with, when your seat is upright and the person in front is all the way back, that reduces your available space to 28.5 inches at the tightest point (near their headrest), making it incredibly difficult to get out and access the aisle, particularly for the centre and window passengers.
There’s still ample room to work on a laptop when the seat in front is all the way back, owing to that seat being slanted – but there’s less room for your knees, particularly if using the paddle as a footrest.
I made that discovery when the passenger in front swapped from ‘full upright’ to ‘full recline’ rather quickly, which saw my slightly-tilted inflight entertainment screen painfully crash into my kneecaps, even when my own seat was all the way back for maximum space, and rendered the footrest paddle unusable for that purpose unless positioned down near the cabin floor:
I then tried to use the net for my feet and the paddle as a leg rest instead, but didn’t find that particularly comfortable or sturdy – as resting my feet in the net pulled the paddle forward and away from me, so I resorted to sticking my feet out each side of the net, unsupported, just to have the paddle in a suitable spot.
Still unhappy with this, I spent a further 90 minutes trying various positions involving the foot net and leg paddle in an attempt to get comfortable for sleeping, but regardless of which I tried, I didn’t find success, and was left wanting the traditional, solid leg rest of Qantas’ last-generation premium economy seat (shown below).
Also regarding personal space, it’s very difficult to stand up and access the aisle when behind a fully-reclined seat – particularly for centre and window passengers who are further away from that aisle – which saw numerous travellers on my flight walking on the actual seats to get across, and jumping down into their seat and landing with a floor-shaking ‘thud’.
All things considered, on the 14-hour trek from Melbourne to LA, I managed to get literally one hour of sleep. Passengers talking loudly in the cabin didn’t help, but honestly, neither did the seat pitch, the foot net/leg paddle or my seat’s position next to the rear curtain, where I found I was bumped at least half the time somebody walked through, most commonly, when returning from the restroom.
Combine that with being awoken by ‘seat jumpers’ who found this easier than navigating behind reclined seats, and the regular disturbances made anything more than a nap difficult to achieve: and I arrived in LA dreary and red-eyed, despite normally sleeping quite well on planes.
For example, on my last Boeing 787 premium economy flight – from Ho Chi Minh City to Sydney with Vietnam Airlines, on an off-the-shelf seat with a traditional swing-up leg rest and 42 inches of pitch – I slept for 4.5 hours of the eight-hour journey.
By contrast, on Qantas’ Boeing 787 which lacks a traditional leg rest and where the pitch is a smaller 38 inches – not just proving tight, but also inducing passengers to hop over seats, making sleep for others more difficult – I managed only an hour’s kip, which is what I’d expect of regular economy, not premium economy.
Seat aside, a better part of the premium economy experience is the inflight dining, which is more ‘business class lite’ than ‘economy plus’, and begins with a choice of sparkling water, still water or sparking wine before take-off.
Normally, Australian Katnook Founder’s Block Chardonnay Pinot Noir is poured in premium economy in place of Champagne, but being the Qantas Dreamliner’s inaugural international passenger flight, this was upgraded to Jacquart Champagne (from business class) for the first round.
Drinks continue after take-off, where I opted for a simple Coke Zero, served with a snack mix…
… ahead of the dinner service approximately two hours into the flight, where passengers choose one main course to accompany a green leaf salad with balsamic vinaigrette and a peach and vincotto cake, served on the one tray.
On this flight, the options were:
- Salad of smoked salmon with kale and cabbage slaw
- Spice roasted chicken with white bean and chorizo cassoulet and gremolata
- Pork scotch fillet with braised red cabbage, roast vegetables, apple and rhubarb sauce
You can pre-order your preferred dish online up to seven days before your flight to ensure you don’t miss out on your first meal choice on board, however, pre-ordering also gives a fourth option: in this case, a lamb kofta sandwich with baba ghanoush, harissa mayonnaise and pickles, which I'd pre-requested:
The lamb itself was delicious, but much of the bread was overcooked and rock solid: and thus, inedible.
Weis ice cream bars follow for dessert, before the cabin lights were dimmed and remained so until breakfast.
If you’re peckish in between, a selection of bites can be ordered throughout the flight, including a beef brisket sandwich, spinach and ricotta spanakopita, fresh fruit, biscuits and more, although I didn’t indulge.
After a nip of wake-me-up juice, breakfast itself offers two easy-to-remember options: a continental brekky with cereal and a seasonal fruit plate, and the hot breakfast being a feta and spinach omelette, pork and apple sausage, bacon, a hash brown and braised beans, plus a fruit salad.
Normally the latter would be ‘side salad’-sized, but as the cabin crew ran out of fruit salads and I was the last passenger to be served (sitting in the back row) and had requested the hot meal, the crew offered the much larger fruit plate from the continental breakfast instead, which I accepted:
The accompanying Danish with the meal was quite hard, but the hot meal was more than acceptable, and the fruit of the fruit plate was still fresh: particularly the grapes.
Tea and coffee are available with the crew cheerily offering “milk or Baileys” after a passenger further forward makes the request, although espresso options like lattes and cappuccinos as provided in business class aren’t extended to premium economy.
Entertainment & Service
A 13.3-inch HD touchscreen sits in front of each premium economy passenger, or folds up from within the armrest for those in the first row, screening a selection of movies and TV shows on demand, plus games and music:
While the screen begins its journey in line with the seatback…
… when the person in front of you eventually reclines, you can tilt it outward to suit your preferred viewing angle.
There’s no tail camera as found on Qantas’ Airbus A380, but there’s an interactive moving map in its place.
Somebody just needs to check their measurements though, as the map was incorrectly projecting a frighteningly long route from Melbourne to LA of around 25,000km, which would only be accurate if flying from Australia to LA via London and New York, as Melbourne-LA is normally about 13,000km.
While there’s plenty of content to watch outside of the moving map, many travellers pack their own tablets to keep up with their favourite shows: and for that, there’s a tablet shelf.
You’ll find it by yanking forward the tab marked ‘pull’ underneath the screen: then, slot your gadget in, slide it over to the side so that it stays in place in the vertical holder, and let go.
The ledge keeps it firm without being so tight as to damage the screen, but do double-check that it’s snug in place to prevent it ending up on the ground.
However, when a large tablet is in place – a Microsoft Surface in my case – the digital seat controls can’t be accessed properly, such as to turn off Qantas’ own screen behind, to adjust your seat’s lighting or to call the crew, as the tablet blocks your access to these:
It’s also bothersome because the fixed inflight entertainment screen is designed to respond to the heat of your fingers, which works well when that’s the screen you’re using, but not when you’re mounting a tablet: one bump during the installation process and the screen comes back to life, even if you'd previously switched it off.
And, if you do get your tablet snug in the holder without touching the main screen, the heat of the tablet itself wakes it up – and in my case, caused the system to think I was constantly clicking in the same place, which distractingly kept opening and closing tabs, and for a moment, switched the system to Chinese.
If you’re watching the main screen sans tablet, active noise-cancelling headphones are provided – the same as handed out in business class – and while these were of a much better quality than many of the headphones I’ve tried on other airlines, it’s hard to beat a pair of BYO Bose QC35s, which I soon switched to.
Country Road amenity kits are also supplied, containing a dental kit with floss, socks and an eyeshade, with ear plugs available on request.
Overall, service from the cabin crew on today’s flight was excellent, being laidback yet not too casual and polite without being overly formal or familiar: and after introducing myself as ‘Chris’ in response to hearing “Mr. Chamberlin” at the beginning of the flight, that preference was remembered until landing, and again when I bumped into that same member of the crew at US Customs.
During the flight, the crew also advise premium economy passengers to head rearwards and use the economy class bathrooms instead of forwards for the business class lavatories, as there are none in premium economy itself – although allowances are made when trolleys are blocking the aisles between the premium economy cabin and the economy toilets.
Previously, Qantas had advised that premium economy passengers would share bathrooms with business class, but that policy must have changed at the last minute, because the bathroom indicator light at the front of premium economy actually corresponded to the business class toilets, not those of economy.
To see whether the economy lavs were available – the ones you’re supposed to use as a premium economy passenger – you have to turn around and look at a separate indicator light on the rear cabin wall, which is a bit silly.
But all in all, Qantas premium economy gives a taste of business class without the significantly higher price tag, and during waking hours is a comfortable way to fly: that is, until it’s time to sleep and the passengers in front of you recline, which is when you’ll be reminded of the second word in the name ‘premium economy’.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Qantas.