How Airline Upgrades Are Bringing Class Back to Economy Class

Long-lost perks and enhanced services are finding their way back to economy cabins.

How Airline Upgrades Are Bringing Class Back to Economy Class

The skies are getting friendlier these days, even for those flying in the back of the plane.

Photo by Shutterstock

Virgin Atlantic is offering afternoon tea in the air. Qantas provides amenity kits with socks, eye masks, and earplugs. Qatar Airways promises to serve desserts that are 50 percent bigger. And all of these extras are being bestowed upon the poor, long-deprived souls of economy class.

Yes, economy fliers, having become accustomed to having their knees jammed into their chests, are newly getting a little love from the airlines. There have been some notable recent improvements on allotted seat space (though according to, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, the average space between economy seats has shrunk by three inches since 1978), while other extras, such as free food and entertainment, are making a comeback in coach.

“After years of what seemed like this inexorable race to the bottom in economy, service has bounced off its lows in meaningful ways,” says Seth Kaplan, the founding editor of the newsletter Airline Weekly.

When fuel prices spiked and passengers tapered off due to the recession in the mid-2000s, “airlines cut everything and added fees to everything,” he adds. “Now that they have more breathing room, they’re asking themselves which of those things made sense and which were penny-wise and pound foolish.”

Foolish in the sense that even legacy carriers started to look a lot like ultra-low-cost airlines, such as Spirit and Frontier, and soon needed to distinguish themselves from those cheapest carriers by bringing back a few freebies in coach.

Don’t expect free checked bags on anything other than international flights anytime soon. But for many airlines, the following perks are back for those in the back of the planes.

Air New Zealand introduced its “Skycouch” configuration in economy class, which is now being copied by airlines like Joon.

Air New Zealand introduced its “Skycouch” configuration in economy class, which is now being copied by airlines like Joon.

Courtesy of Air New Zealand

More Room in Coach

Economy seating remains tight, but a few airlines are experimenting with innovations in comfort. In 2011, Air New Zealand introduced the Skycouch, a row of three economy seats that convert to a flat surface. That early innovation was copied last year by Joon, the low-cost carrier from Air France that flies within Europe (and a few destinations in Africa and South America), with the Cosy Joon configuration. Designed for families with young children, the seats convert to play areas or child-size beds when the headrest is inserted between the seat and the seatback in front of it to create a flat surface. In another family-friendly move, they cost just 20 euros more per seat than standard fares.

This spring, All Nippon Airways will launch Tokyo–Honolulu service on its new Airbus A380s with 60 couch seats, sets of three or four consecutive seats (bookable for one to four passengers) where the leg rests fold up to create a flat-surface bed, atop of which a mattress is provided. The cabin will also have a walk-up bar for drinks in-flight and a multipurpose room, perfect for changing clothes or having a stretch.

Innovating a new solution for all-around comfort with reclining seats, Qatar recently announced a freshly designed economy cabin, coming in 2020 on its new Boeing 777x aircraft. It will feature a hard-shell seat that moves little relative to the row behind it but slides back to a 19-degree recline. That’s a real improvement, when compared to the possible seat pitch found on low-cost airlines like Spirit; theirs max out at just three inches (according to, which maps airline configurations).

The longer the flight, the more attention seems to be paid to economy cabin comfort. Qantas’s Dreamliners rolled out in 2017 with more roomy economy seats featuring upgrades like personal device holders, USB ports, larger screens, and the airline’s popular “footnet,” a net that folds down from the seat in front of you, creating an ottoman. Last year, it started offering a complimentary amenity kit on select long-haul flights, too, including socks and eye masks, to aid onboard sleeping.

While seating 10 abreast in economy is the new norm, Delta is holding the line at nine across on its 777s that fly internationally. Last month it introduced the roomier A220, which will eventually replace 20 percent of the domestic fleet, with seats affording a relatively spacious 18.6 inches in width—whereas 17 inches is closer to the norm.

Virgin Atlantic has added a dainty afternoon tea spread to its in-flight service.

Virgin Atlantic has added a dainty afternoon tea spread to its in-flight service.

Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic

Free Food and Elevated Culinary Offerings

Free food is standard on international flights, but upgrades are ubiquitous as airlines concede that passengers are sated, diverted, and therefore happier when fed frequently. British Airways substantially increased its meal service in economy last year to include a welcome drink and snack, four-course meal, second meal, periodic snacks, and an open bar (formerly it offered only a three-course meal and a light second meal).

In some cases, the food upgrades are qualitative. In February, Virgin Atlantic introduced afternoon tea in the air to economy fliers during daytime international flights from both the United States and United Kingdom. Designed by celebrity chef and master pâtissier Eric Lanlard, tea features a mozzarella and pesto sandwich and a scone with jam and clotted cream.

In March, Qatar announced economy improvements upcoming in 2020: On the culinary front, dishes from appetizers to desserts will grow in portion size between 20 and 50 percent, with more choices on the menus and real cutlery. The airline’s CEO Al Baker says the redesign “proves our commitment to offering the very finest experience to all of our passengers, no matter what class they are traveling in.”

Domestically, peanuts are back, as are pretzels and, on American, free Biscoff cookies. Both Delta and American have reintroduced free meals in economy on transcontinental flights.

Yet, food for sale is here to stay in economy, at least on most domestic routes. Luckily, menu items have been improving. Last year, American partnered with Mediterranean fast-casual chain Zoës Kitchen to design hummus plates, sandwiches, and wraps. As of April, passengers on Southwest Airlines to Hawaii can get island-sourced craft beer and rum drinks, too.

Entertainment and Wi-Fi Enhancements

U.S. carriers are largely considered lax in their economy service offerings with one notable exception: They’re the leaders in getting Wi-Fi in the air.

The trend on many U.S. carriers (such as American and United) is to ditch seatback screens, which add weight to the aircraft, and instead rely on fliers using their own devices. Supported by airline-provided Wi-Fi, they can then access complimentary entertainment libraries (although note there’s a charge to surf the web). Most new aircraft interiors even have mini seatback shelves designed to hold cellphones and tablets in place and have added seatback USB chargers to keep those devices running.

American’s recent Wi-Fi upgrade allows domestic fliers fee-free streaming from Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go, and it’s installing power at every seat on its 737s and Airbus aircraft. For passengers who want to go online or check emails, access starts at $10 for an hour.

In the past year, Southwest Airlines has made all of its in-flight entertainment free, including movies and live TV. Wi-Fi bandwidth has increased speeds sevenfold and costs a reasonable $8 a day per device.

JetBlue built its brand on comfortable seats with free TV and Wi-Fi. Now JetBlue’s new Airbus A320s (which will make up the majority of the airline’s fleet by this spring) not only offer slightly roomier 18-inch-wide seats but also come with seatback screens equipped with more than 100 channels of live TV that sync up with your personal device. There’s power at every seat and free Wi-Fi gate to gate, including in the Caribbean and Latin America, which wasn’t possible previously.

International carriers aren’t far behind. British Airways promises to have the fastest Wi-Fi possible on 90 percent of its fleet by year’s end; more tech advancements in the international sector are imminent.

In short, while reconfiguring aircraft interiors and offering extra amenities can cut into an airline’s profit on their cheaper economy fares, these companies have realized that such improvements afford considerable bang for their buck when factoring in the payoff in customer satisfaction and loyalty.

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Elaine Glusac is a freelance writer, the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, and on Instagram @eglusac.
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