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Devil's Advocate

Review of Various Premium Economy Options in the US

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Introduction

 

As a taller person in a shrinking world I've finally been forced to give up on economy seating for all but the shortest of flights. Coach pitch was always somewhat uncomfortable for taller adults, but these days it feels more like a knee crushing vein squeezing health risk than a mere uncomfortable inconvenience. For several years I was a huge fan of TWAA's MRTC. When MRTC was unceremoniously dissolved I started booking United's E+ instead. After falling out with United it was time to start exploring other options again. Most of the US majors are just as lackluster today as they've always been, but two of them stood out with premium economy services that were comfortable and pleasant enough to make flying relatively enjoyable without breaking the bank.

 

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Airlines

 

Alaska Airlines Premium Class Satisfied. Priority boarding, free cocktails, little snack pack, plenty of legroom, reasonably priced. This is the way to do it. If it's offered on your flight I recommend it. Not much else to say other than that. Verdict: A

 

America West dba US Airways dba American Airlines - Main Cabin Extra – Mixed Reaction. AA doesn't really give you much to work with. No priority boarding. No cocktails or snacks. Best case scenario you'll upgrade to the same legroom as TWAA's MRTC from way back. On a recent A319 the extra legroom was greatly appreciated and the staff were friendly. However, on an older CRJ9 I honestly couldn't tell the difference between MCE and basic coach. It's almost as if AA was selling MCE upgrades on contracted regional jets without actually changing anything. If you're flying on a regional jet I'd only upgrade to MCE if bulkhead or exit row seats were still available. Which isn't to say I'd fly AA coach in that case. I'd simply fly another airline entirely. Supposedly AA is planning to add free cocktails and designated bin markers to MCE. I saw one aircraft with bin markers and another flight gave me one free drink but I think that was compensation for a maintenance delay. Verdict: C

 

Delta Airlines – Comfort Plus – Satisfied. Delta offers priority boarding, free cocktails, extra legroom, extra recline, and dedicated bin markers. In general I like the Comfort Plus experience but it's a bit of an outlier in some ways. For instance, you can't simply upgrade from a coach fare since DL considers Comfort Plus to be a separate cabin from coach. That means the process for searching and booking is different and it can complicate upgrades for travelers with loyalty status. It's a nice service but for now it's the quirky outlier that needs to be planned before booking and some of the benefits (free cocktails, pillows/blankets) are duplicated in coach class on long haul international flights. If and when the other airlines move their own premium economy offerings into a separate fare structure prices will probably rise (as it appears to have done with DL) but eventually prices might fall again as it will be easier to compare PE prices across multiple airlines without having to check each website individually. Verdict: B

 

Southwest – Business Select/Upgraded Boarding – Unsatisfied. Southwest is great for carrying extra luggage or bypassing tedious fortress hubs or for last minute full fare trips, but it doesn't have a true equivalent to premium economy. You can buy up to priority boarding and (usually) extra legroom by booking Business Select or paying the Upgraded Boarding fee on the day of travel but it's really not ideal. Business Select comes with one free drink but that's it. If Southwest Airlines offers the only nonstop flight for your city pair or you're buying a walk-up ticket this may be your best option, but it's not a good solution for people who want dependable access to extra legroom on a regular basis. The one saving grace is that Southwest flights are generally short domestic/regional hops that don't necessarily need extra legroom to be practical. Verdict: D

 

United Airlines Economy Plus – Unsatisfied. It's been a while since I've flown United but I've been familiar with their E+ seating for a long time and so far as I'm aware it's no different now than it was a decade ago. Among the legacy carriers it's by far the least impressive option today. Which would be fine if it was really cheap but in my experience that's rarely the case. I double checked United's E+ service for any major changes and it looks like the only way you can come close to duplicating the Alaska and Delta experience is to tack on several additional upgrades unrelated to E+ itself. The only benefit UA has over any other offering is that (unlike AA/AE's MCE) E+ provides reasonable legroom on regional jets. Verdict: D

 

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Hotels

 

As traditional services and staffing levels have decreased while taxes and surcharges have increased I've also started looking for "premium economy" hotels to see if there's a market with a reasonable bargain/benefit to be discovered there as well. So far I've found the Embassy Suites and Drury Inn chains to be the closest match to a premium economy concept with (usually) reasonable rates and fewer nickel and dime charges for typical use of available amenities. On a recent trip I chose a Drury Inn over a Hilton Garden Inn. The Garden Inn had a nicer lobby with better food and drinks but I ended up saving $100 or more across four days thanks to the included breakfast/snacks/dinner and cocktails. The food and drinks weren't fancy but the selection was more substantial than the typical Holiday Inn Express or Hampton Inn fare. The Drury rooms were nearly identical to the Garden Inn so the money saved was genuine. Although it's early in my research I've also found the Embassy and Drury staff to be less stressed and confrontational, possibly due to having fewer room types, amenity charges, and usage fees to squabble over?

 

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Your Own Experiences

 

So are there any other premium economy services worth trying? Have you had better/worse experiences with premium economy airlines/hotels than my own examples given above? If you were in charge of your favorite (or least hated) airline/hotel's premium economy options what would you change?

Edited by Devil's Advocate

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In September/October I flew to/from PDX on 3 Airlines (UA, DL & AS) in both regular economy & premium economy. My verdict is that while there is more legroom, the regular 29”-31” pitch is not really that bad. (I’m 6’0” BTW)

 

I had plenty of legroom in regular economy, but the only thing is that sitting by the window (if I had to get out to use the lavatory) the other 2 people also had to get up. With 35” pitch, that was unnecessary.

 

Given the choice, personally I don’t think it is worth the extra cost in cash or miles.

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Regarding AA, domestic flights using certain widebody aircraft (all A332, some B777) offer a nice perk for Main Cabin Extra (MCE) These aircraft have been retrofitted with a separate-section of Premium Economy (PE) seating - much wider , more legroom (38" pitch), all power options, larger IFE screens, foot rests, etc. Premium Economy is sold as a separate class of service for international legs with upgraded meals and free beverages, but when one of the PE-fitted planes is used on a domestic leg, the PE seats are sold as regular economy with the MCE upcharge. For mid-level elites (Platinum) and above, MCE is free. There are not many domestic flights that use one of these widebodies, but one of the PHL-SFO non-stops does, and seating-wise, it is as good as domestic F. My wife and I flew that flight a few weeks ago in the PE cabin, and it was a very comfortable ride.

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I agree about Alaska Airlines.Its my first choice when available, but I don't fly that often anymore.For short flights Southwest is more than adequate IMO.

 

As for hotels, I find the Hilton lesser brands perfectly adequate, and when it comes to Motels, La Quinta and Best Western Plus are really worth the reasonable charges.

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I don't fly that often, but when I do I'm 100% sold on Alaska if their schedules don't make the trip (re: layovers) unreasonable. Since I fly almost exclusively from SMF, going to the PNW, Hawaii and SoCal are easy with AS. They just started direct flights to Austin from SMF as well (there is a current price and route war being waged with Southwest; one I personally root for Alaska to win.) However, if flying to the Midwest or East Coast, I'm pretty much out of luck since I'd be dealing with severe layovers. This issue still remains even after the Virgin takeover; Alaska does not see much transcon market out of SMF and instead forces me to a Bay Area airport; my drive to the airport would rival the flight time unfortunately.

 

In such a case, that's where Delta comes to the rescue. Albeit, with a layover in Salt Lake City (about 45 minutes) but I can go transcon in Comfort+ and enjoy the trip a little better. JetBlah also has a non-stop transcon JFK-SMF; a lesson in budget-driven punishment, I'll never fly that sh*ty airline again.

 

I see Southwest as nothing more than Greyhound with wings. Not a fan, even with their no-charge checked luggage. I'll pay for checked luggage on Alaska, or get an upgrade for occasionally around the same charge that comes with free checked bags, and recieve the extra perks of better seats/better service/points on the best FF program in the domestic industry and access to their international partner network.

 

I barely even glance at AA or United; they're not on my radar unless I'm flying to Canada. There's not much choice except to fly on United North Air Canada... At least they're now flying into SMF too.

 

 

 

As for places to lay one's head, I do frequent Best Western properties when on no-frills trips. Earning points with them on their Best Western Rewards is pretty generous (especially since they do a no-questions status match; I'm Diamond Elite with BWR because I'm SPG Gold/Marriott Gold and Hilton Gold.) I'm becoming less and less impressed with Hilton; I find them too uptight and "corporate" in every way. Plus their rewards point values are pretty awful. I'm spending more and more time (and money) at SPG/Marriott properties. I stayed at the Marriott in San Jose during a conference recently and was treated like royalty; incredibly impressed with the customer service as well as the hard product. I have similar experience with Westin (SPG) and have become a regular at their Westin Kaanipali Ocean Resort Villas property on Maui (and flying Alaska First Class to get there, too. Non-stop from Sacramento.)

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At 5'5", I don't have an issue with seat pitch. That said, I will fully support everyone's good reviews of Alaska Airlines. They earned a customer for life during my trips to Seattle and Victoria a few years ago. From the call center to the gate agents to the flight attendants, they were top notch.

 

Their free snack pack is really good too. :)

 

As for Best Western, I'm going to start frequenting them more often. They have one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in, so much so that I went a-Googling to see if I could find out which make/model they use. (Hint: It's Serta - https://www.us-mattress.com/about-serta-hotel-series.html).

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I flew Alaska for the first time on my recent trip. I paid for a premium seat since it was going to be my longest time on a plane (PHL-SEA). I will consider Alaska for future flights.

I’ve always like Delta so they are my preferred airline.

AA is so-so, but usually have the best option for me eastbound from San Jose.

 

As for hotels, I look for ones that make booking an hearing accessible room easy.

 

 

Sent from my iPhone using Amtrak Forum

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Since the vast majority of my flying is done on your tax dollars (thanks!), I'm captive to whomever won the GSA city pair contract. It has forced me onto a number of different carriers as my travel patterns and contracts have changed.

 

Concur with your assessment of AA's MCE. Significant experience there in the smaller aircraft flying the southern half of my usual BWI-CLT-PNS/MOB trips. Sadly, those trips are done for me. For the period of time that Delta had the contract, it was BWI-ATL-PNS/MOB, and Comfort Plus was amazing. Unfortunately in the middle of that run, Delta changed it from an add-on to a separate fare class, which put it out of reach for me (you guys only pay for basic coach, at 6'3" and 300 lbs, I gladly come out of pocket to get what space I can). I've heard from folks that Delta went back on that and it's back to a reasonable upgrade as an add on.

 

The vast majority of my flying has been on WN (sadly). There I just pay the small dollars to get Early Bird check in to make sure I can get a decent seat. Most days I just head for the back, grab an aisle and hope that I score an empty middle seat. The lone exception to that was the last trip to San Diego. When my 0600-1400 nonstop return flight was cancelled, I was rebook for an early afternoon flight with a transfer in Vegas. Seeing a hellscape of disruptions before me, I sprang for the $130 upgrade to Business Select, which turned out to be a good thing. Not sure if it is purposeful or not, but the computers spit out a new drink coupon every time a boarding pass is printed. I bounced around between flights so many times, that I ended up with more drink coupons than I had time to spend. Ended up on a later LAS-BWI flight than planned, and ended up with an A1 boarding pass that I turned into the exit row seat with the missing seat in front of me, an empty middle (the plane was only about 50% full), and the previously mentioned fistful of drink coupons. Turned out to be one of the greatest flights I've had (except for the part where I arrived home at 0230 Saturday morning), but I'm certain that the experience is atypical.

 

On the hotel side, I've been a devoted Marriott guy, as this is the one remaining area where there is choice in making travel arrangements. Sadly, even that era is coming to a close as the DoD is now dictating that if you're going somewhere that has government lodging available, you're going into that. A fellow traveller on the last trip ended up sharing a 4 room suite with three junior enlisted guys that had different priorities than that of the business traveller sharing their suite. He was.... unhappy, to say the least. Overall, I've found Marriott to have an acceptable floor at the lowest end, and solid at the upper end. For my travels, the top end was definitely the Riverview in Mobile, with their 28th floor concierge lounge overlooking the shipyard and Mobile Bay. Many a happy hour in that room, free breakfast and heavy enough food in the evening to pass for dinner on nights that we didn't feel like spending money. Cash (honor system) bar, but the attendants also didn't have an issue with us bringing a bottle of our own to enjoy sporting events on TV and the like. Did I mention that I was sad that the Mobile trips are over for the time being? :D

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Regarding AA, domestic flights using certain widebody aircraft (all A332, some B777) offer a nice perk for Main Cabin Extra (MCE) These aircraft have been retrofitted with a separate-section of Premium Economy (PE) seating - much wider , more legroom (38" pitch), all power options, larger IFE screens, foot rests, etc. Premium Economy is sold as a separate class of service for international legs with upgraded meals and free beverages, but when one of the PE-fitted planes is used on a domestic leg, the PE seats are sold as regular economy with the MCE upcharge.

I live in a medium sized centrally located spoke city, which means there is virtually no situation where I'll be offered a widebody domestic flight under normal circumstances. If I'm traveling to a hub city I'll have one narrowbody flight and if I'm flying to another spoke city I'll have two narrowbody flights. These days it's usually in the form of a tiny regional jet. I'm unfamiliar with AA's intercontinental Premium Economy. I've read that DL also has a special intercontinental Premium Economy section for certain high profile long haul routes, but when I recently booked a TPAC flight they only offered Comfort Plus.

 

 

For short flights Southwest is more than adequate IMO. As for hotels, I find the Hilton lesser brands perfectly adequate, and when it comes to Motels, La Quinta and Best Western Plus are really worth the reasonable charges.

Southwest was great until they joined the 31" pitch club a couple years ago. I've stayed in some really dumpy La Quintas over the years. They seem to be better today than before, in fact one of them even charged me $250 per night in the middle of nowhere, but it's hard for me to forget how bad they were in the past. I honestly have no experience with any level of Best Western so I can't comment on that.

 

 

I see Southwest as nothing more than Greyhound with wings.

I hear this kind of sentiment a lot but I've actually bumped into more executives, more politicians, and more multimillionaires on Southwest than any other carrier. Here in TX flights on Southwest are treated like the company jet. Show up anytime, buy a fully changeable/refundable walkup fare, and travel whenever you're done with the day's work. For intrastate travel it's faster and easier to fly Southwest than to scramble the corporate fleet.

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As for Best Western, I'm going to start frequenting them more often. They have one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in, so much so that I went a-Googling to see if I could find out which make/model they use. (Hint: It's Serta - https://www.us-mattress.com/about-serta-hotel-series.html).

Their new logo is just so mediocre, though. (I have the same issue with Holiday Inn.)

 

That wouldn't prevent me from staying at a Best Western, though. I'd just ask for a room where I can't see the sign out the window.

 

Way back in 1997, I booked a one-night stay at the "Best Western Washington Motor Inn" in Washington, Pennsylvania. When I showed up, they had just lost their affiliation and had covered over the Best Western logo on their signage with a giant letter "A," thus turning them into "A Washington Motor Inn."

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As for Best Western, I'm going to start frequenting them more often. They have one of the most comfortable beds I've ever slept in, so much so that I went a-Googling to see if I could find out which make/model they use. (Hint: It's Serta - https://www.us-mattress.com/about-serta-hotel-series.html).

Their new logo is just so mediocre, though. (I have the same issue with Holiday Inn.)

 

 

The new Best Western logo reminds me of something, but I can't figure out what. It's sort of a cross between the Dairy Queen logo and a bottle of NyQuil.

 

I miss the huge, flashing Holiday Inn signs from my childhood.

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Well I do a lot of flying a year for either work, interviews (to leave the railroad), or for Leisure and I'll rank my airlines by choice.

 

International

1. Lufthansa

-regular economy I find doable for a standard international flight. The route at my closest airport is 2-4-2 seating and I always try for the 2 side so it isn't that bad. The food is decent, and I'm satisfied with the leg room but I'm 5'6".

-A380 Economy. I will always pay the upgrade charge to get seat 76A or 76K because the row ahead is the exit row and due to a slight curve in the door 75 is missing an A seat. So I get the distance of a row, plus a full bulkhead/exit row. It's worth the $200 round trip. 75 isn't that bad either.

-Premium Economy is great. The welcome gift is appreciated and a nice touch.

-service wise they are one of my favorites.

-travel agent benefits. Horrible off don't move a lot of product

 

2. WestJet

-Economy is just fine for what it needs to be. I had no trouble with leg room and no complaints about the service.

-WestJet Plus has a little extra pitch but no additional width. But they are only the aisle and window seat with an empty middle seat.

 

3. Air Canada

-Economy I found it to be quite comfortable with great customer service. But so far I've only flown a short hop with them. I'll let you know more when I get my 75 percent discount international with them how the long hauls are.

-Travel Agent benefits. The best if one wants to go international with 75 percent off with no sales requirements.

 

Domestic

 

1. Alaska Airlines

-Economy is excellent with great customer service. I have no complaints with this airline. And I will always fly them if given the chance.

-Premium Economy is amazing the snack pack, the service, leg room make this my preferred class to travel with Alaska. Also the first time I've seen a AC plug on a flight.

-Travel Agent Benefits. The best in the industry with flying standby at 90 percent off.

 

2. United

-economy. I personally have no problem with their hard product. And the soft product isn't bad either. And the regional jets are often better then the mainline.

 

3. Spirit

-economy. Yes it's cramped and yes they nickel and dime you the entire ride. Don't forget the fun credit card sales pitch in the middle of the flight. But for the price paid its more then sufficient. Spirit is an airline you like if you remember what your paying for. Basic transportation.

-big front seat is generally not worth the money unless you are on one of the few transcon flights. I've flown big front a few times mostly on the ATL-LAX route.

 

4. Delta

-Economy I've found to be decent with the right amount of pitch for me. And they have a great entertainment system on a decent amount of their aircraft. Plus if you live in the south there is a good chance you can catch a domestic wide body flight as a positioning move. My most recent flight was ATL-SLC on an A330-300.

-economy plus again it's a great product for the price paid I would argue.

-economy basic by far the best of the legacy basic prices.

 

5. Southwest

-economy is the same regardless on the flight. And I really do like the fact that seats aren't assigned. On my last flight with them I was facing a time crunch with the trimet system shutdown time. So being able to chose an aisle near the front was a great thing for me.

 

6. American

-Economy. I personally don't like American that much and I think it's more of a corporate tone that makes me not like them. But the actual product isn't bad.

 

In my never will I ride category is Allegiant. But that's mostly due to a subpar safety record.

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When our cross country train trip was cancelled because of the Savannah derailment, we flew non stop to LAX on VirginAmerica getting the last two seats. We were amazed at the comfort of the seats. It was a completely sold out flight but there was one no show. Would you believe it? He had the window seat in our row. My wife drank a glass of wine in his honor! One in a while bad luck turns into good luck.

 

 

Sent from my iPhone using Amtrak Forum

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Regarding AA, domestic flights using certain widebody aircraft (all A332, some B777) offer a nice perk for Main Cabin Extra (MCE) These aircraft have been retrofitted with a separate-section of Premium Economy (PE) seating - much wider , more legroom (38" pitch), all power options, larger IFE screens, foot rests, etc. Premium Economy is sold as a separate class of service for international legs with upgraded meals and free beverages, but when one of the PE-fitted planes is used on a domestic leg, the PE seats are sold as regular economy with the MCE upcharge. For mid-level elites (Platinum) and above, MCE is free. There are not many domestic flights that use one of these widebodies, but one of the PHL-SFO non-stops does, and seating-wise, it is as good as domestic F. My wife and I flew that flight a few weeks ago in the PE cabin, and it was a very comfortable ride.

Yes, they use an A330-200 on the PHL-SFO. They also use a 787-8 on ORD-LAX and a lot of widebodies go on JFK-MIA, DFW-MIA, and DFW-LAX. Sometimes there's A330s on PHL/CLT-PHX as well and sometimes they use 767-300ER on ORD-MIA. That seems to be about it.

 

All AA Domestic widebody schedules can be found here: https://www.aacargo.com/downloads/schedule/WB_Mar1-Apr30_2018_US_Domestic.pdf.

 

All of the widebodies will soon have PE. They're working on finishing the 777s right now. I actually do prefer AA's strategy of price-dumping Basic Economy to compete with LCCs and offering both MCE and PE.

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Regarding AA, domestic flights using certain widebody aircraft (all A332, some B777) offer a nice perk for Main Cabin Extra (MCE) These aircraft have been retrofitted with a separate-section of Premium Economy (PE) seating - much wider , more legroom (38" pitch), all power options, larger IFE screens, foot rests, etc. Premium Economy is sold as a separate class of service for international legs with upgraded meals and free beverages, but when one of the PE-fitted planes is used on a domestic leg, the PE seats are sold as regular economy with the MCE upcharge. For mid-level elites (Platinum) and above, MCE is free. There are not many domestic flights that use one of these widebodies, but one of the PHL-SFO non-stops does, and seating-wise, it is as good as domestic F. My wife and I flew that flight a few weeks ago in the PE cabin, and it was a very comfortable ride.

Yes, they use an A330-200 on the PHL-SFO. They also use a 787-8 on ORD-LAX and a lot of widebodies go on JFK-MIA, DFW-MIA, and DFW-LAX. Sometimes there's A330s on PHL/CLT-PHX as well and sometimes they use 767-300ER on ORD-MIA. That seems to be about it.

 

All AA Domestic widebody schedules can be found here: https://www.aacargo.com/downloads/schedule/WB_Mar1-Apr30_2018_US_Domestic.pdf.

 

All of the widebodies will soon have PE. They're working on finishing the 777s right now. I actually do prefer AA's strategy of price-dumping Basic Economy to compete with LCCs and offering both MCE and PE.

 

 

All widebodies but the A330-300's. Those former US aircraft are to be removed from service over the next year or so and will not have PE installed.

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Regarding AA, domestic flights using certain widebody aircraft (all A332, some B777) offer a nice perk for Main Cabin Extra (MCE) These aircraft have been retrofitted with a separate-section of Premium Economy (PE) seating - much wider , more legroom (38" pitch), all power options, larger IFE screens, foot rests, etc. Premium Economy is sold as a separate class of service for international legs with upgraded meals and free beverages, but when one of the PE-fitted planes is used on a domestic leg, the PE seats are sold as regular economy with the MCE upcharge. For mid-level elites (Platinum) and above, MCE is free. There are not many domestic flights that use one of these widebodies, but one of the PHL-SFO non-stops does, and seating-wise, it is as good as domestic F. My wife and I flew that flight a few weeks ago in the PE cabin, and it was a very comfortable ride.

Yes, they use an A330-200 on the PHL-SFO. They also use a 787-8 on ORD-LAX and a lot of widebodies go on JFK-MIA, DFW-MIA, and DFW-LAX. Sometimes there's A330s on PHL/CLT-PHX as well and sometimes they use 767-300ER on ORD-MIA. That seems to be about it.

 

All AA Domestic widebody schedules can be found here: https://www.aacargo.com/downloads/schedule/WB_Mar1-Apr30_2018_US_Domestic.pdf.

 

All of the widebodies will soon have PE. They're working on finishing the 777s right now. I actually do prefer AA's strategy of price-dumping Basic Economy to compete with LCCs and offering both MCE and PE.

 

All widebodies but the A330-300's. Those former US aircraft are to be removed from service over the next year or so and will not have PE installed.

 

Yeah, I forgot about those as well as the 767-300ER which is also getting retired.

Edited by Swadian Hardcore

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