You are currently viewing Is American Airlines premium economy worth it?

Is American Airlines premium economy worth it?

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Travel

American Airlines launched its premium economy service in 2016, positioned behind its Flagship first- and business-class cabins as a higher-end alternative to its Main Cabin Extra, main cabin and basic economy offerings. 

American Airlines’ premium economy fares promise an elevated travel experience compared to coach, with on-the-ground privileges such as priority check-in, along with inflight comforts such as more legroom, larger seats, extra amenities and “chef-inspired” dining. The cabin is marketed as a business class-like upgrade of its main cabin and utilizes the same seat as flyers will find in many of the airline’s domestic first-class cabins.

You can find premium economy on American Airlines’ fleet of Boeing 777-300s, 787-8s, 787-9s and 777-200s, which tend to operate long-haul routes between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia and New Zealand. In 2024, American Airlines will introduce new premium economy cabins across its fleet of Airbus A321XLR and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free biweekly Aviation newsletter.

I recently flew AA’s premium economy cabin round-trip between London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) — here’s how it went. 

How to book premium economy on American Airlines

Round-trip cash fares for American Airlines premium economy on nonstop flights between LHR and JFK typically go for between $1,100 and $2,000, but can cost more than $3,000 during peak periods. The lowest round-trip cash fare we found in the coming months came in at $936.

You can also redeem American AAdvantage miles for premium economy on this route, starting at around 100,00 miles round-trip (plus $329.85 in taxes and fees) and rising as high as around 221,500 miles (plus $329.85 in taxes and fees) in the coming months.

TPG currently values American AAdvantage miles at 1.77 cents each, so this equates to between $2,099.85 and $4,250.40 (including taxes and fees). If you fly during peak periods, paying cash could get you better value for this route, with the cost of a premium cabin fare only slightly higher than a main cabin ticket.

Here’s how this compares to main cabin and business-class fares flying the same route with American Airlines, based on the lowest and highest current prices we could find for round-trip bookings.

  Main cabin  Premium economy  Business class
Cash price (round-trip) $600-$2,440. $936-$3,322. $5,000-$10,500.
American AAdvantage miles (round-trip) 60,000-107,500 (plus $200.55 in taxes and fees). 100,000-221,500 (plus $329.85 in taxes and fees). 115,000-513,500 (plus $329.85 in taxes and fees).

 

As you can see, premium economy falls squarely between coach and business class, both in terms of cash cost and mileage redemptions, though it’s closer to economy in terms of paid fares.

For the last-minute round-trip flights I took, TPG paid $2,554 plus $646.65 in taxes. Flight AA107 departed London at 5:05 p.m. and arrived in New York at 8:03 p.m. My return flight, Flight AA106, departed New York at 8:45 p.m. and arrived in London at 8:35 a.m. the following day.

Checking in to premium economy on American Airlines

A premium economy ticket with American Airlines grants you priority check-in at the airport. 

American Airlines operates dedicated desks at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 for priority passengers. Along with premium economy ticket holders, the desks can be used by those flying in first and business and passengers holding Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum and Concierge Key status with AAdvantage, and Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald status with Oneworld. The priority check-in desks are a short stroll from the desks for main cabin economy flyers. Service was quick, polite and hassle-free.

The airport was quiet when I arrived to check in around 2:30 p.m., which meant using the priority desks was really only a smidgen faster than using the economy counters, since there weren’t many folks in line, but during busier periods, it could save a lot of time.

At JFK’s Terminal 8, American Airlines has a closed-off area for priority check-in for passengers flying premium economy and Flagship Business with American Airlines, or Club World with partner airline British Airways. Outside of these fare types, you’re also eligible to use this priority check-in area if you hold AAdvantage Platinum (and are flying long-haul) or Oneworld Sapphire/British Airways Executive Club Silver. The check-in area has the option to use self-service bag-check screens; during my trip there were zero lines since it was 5:30 p.m. and I was boarding an evening flight. Checking my bag was simple and the self-service kiosks were intuitive, with easy-to-follow instructions that even Luddites could breeze through. 

American Airlines premium passengers also receive fast-track security, though these services differ among airports.

At Heathrow, I used the business-class priority security section, which is removed from standard security (and its snaking lines). The space has designated scanners and staff with minimal queuing. I’m used to being barked at by security officers as they hurry along passengers. Here, I was greeted with smiles and a (probably fake, but nonetheless appreciated) compliment on my jacket. What a delight.

Passengers access the security lanes at JFK upon exiting the priority check-in area, where you step into a fast-track security line that eventually joins the front of the standard queue just before you hit security, rather than veering off to a separate fast-track service.

You’re skipping part of the line, but it’s worth noting that if the airport is busy, you could easily still get stuck in a bottleneck at some point. 

I passed through check-in and security at both JFK and LHR within 30 minutes. If you don’t hold status with an airline or haven’t experienced the joys of flying in a premium cabin before, these fast-track options are great, underrated perks. Don’t dismiss how much more pleasant your airport experience is when you can breeze through check-in and security. 

Premium economy tickets with American Airlines do not come with lounge access, unfortunately. If you want to enjoy this gateside hospitality, you’ll need membership in the airline’s lounge club or a program like Priority Pass, or a credit card that gets you lounge access.

Some airline elite status tiers also grant access to lounges when flying partner airlines. Owing to my Oneworld Sapphire status, I could visit lounges on both legs of my journey, paying a visit to the stylish and highly recommended Cathay Pacific Business Lounge at LHR’s Terminal 3 and the relatively new American Airlines and British Airways Greenwich Lounge at JFK’s Terminal 8. 

Premium economy tickets come with priority boarding, which is great if you’re traveling with a carry-on and need space in the overhead bins. I boarded in Group 3, thanks to my Oneworld Sapphire status, but a premium economy fare will usually place you in Group 4 — which is still ahead of the five other boarding groups. On both legs of my trip, passengers in groups 3 and 4 boarded the flight simultaneously.  

How comfortable was premium economy on American Airlines?

My departing and return flights were on different aircraft types, so there were some minor differences between the cabins. 

For the London-to-New York leg, I boarded a Boeing 777-300ER, which had a 2-4-2 layout in premium economy, comprising 28 seats (the last row is just four seats). My seat was 16L, which was an exit row “window” seat; more on this later. For my return flight, I flew on a Boeing 777-200, which also featured a 2-4-2 layout, but in a smaller cabin consisting of 24 seats without an exit row. I was seated in seat 14H, which was an aisle seat.

The larger 777-300ER cabin had four lavatories for both premium economy and business-class passengers situated at the front of the premium economy cabin, between it and business class. By comparison, the 777-200 premium economy cabin shared three lavatories with the main cabin, which were a considerable walk toward the back of the plane. 

The pitch and width of the seats were consistent on both flights, at 38 1/2 inches and 18 inches, respectively. They were noticeably roomier than American Airlines economy seats, which have around 31-32 inches of pitch and around 17 inches of width. The seat width on the 777-300ER flight should be half an inch wider, according to SeatGuru, but I didn’t find this to be the case when I measured them myself.

My exit row seat faced the bulkhead separating premium economy from business class, and just the emergency exit. This created more legroom than a standard premium economy seat, but the additional space had some caveats.

The inflight entertainment screens in this row were of the flip-up variety, mounted on a metal arm that swung out from beside the chair instead of the preceding seat’s headrest. The setup is cumbersome and space invasive. When folded down, the screen reduces the seat width around your legs by roughly 2 inches, which could affect your comfort.

You’re also unable to stow luggage beneath the seat in front of you … as there isn’t one. If you plan on working throughout the flight, laptops must be stored in the overhead compartments during takeoff and landing, which can cut down on your productivity and means getting up from your seat more frequently.

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

The emergency exit has a window, but you’d be hard-pressed to look through it while seated, and I wouldn’t describe this as a seat with a view.

Finally, sitting next to the emergency exit means that if something goes wrong, you’re now part of the flight team, so you better listen closely during the safety briefings. You’ll be asked to confirm verbally prior to takeoff that you’re willing to help if instructed to do so.

For the return flight to London, I was seated in a regular premium economy aisle seat. Exit row quirks aside, the seats on both flights were identical. 

Each seat had a bifold tray table stored within the right armrest. The tray measured 19 inches diagonally (13 inches folded in half), and the size and placement were far better than I’ve experienced in economy. The ergonomic foldaway tray can be brought much closer to your body, and unlike the fold-down style of trays in coach, your tray is unaffected by the reclining habits of the person sitting in front of you. Thanks to its size and sturdiness, I had no issues typing on my 17-inch Macbook Pro as it sat on my table. I also enjoyed being able to place drinks on the wider armrests between the seats and appreciated not having to juggle liquids and my laptop every time I needed to use the bathroom. 

The other armrest had a flip-up lid covering a small storage space with a USB charging port and a universal power outlet. The design is not great, and accessing these plugs was far from easy. I have relatively slim wrists but still had difficulty accessing the plugs without contorting my body. Hopefully, in American Airlines’ next iteration of these seats, it will incorporate more ergonomic placements for them.

In terms of physical comfort while seated, I preferred the exit row seat, which had the addition of a more comfortable leg rest with a built-in footrest, both of which could be controlled independently by using buttons on the left armrest.

The non-exit row seat on my second flight did not have a leg rest built into my actual seat and instead was equipped with only a footrest attached to the seat in front. There wasn’t a control button to adjust the footrest in this aisle seat, and annoyingly, I could not alter its setting by hand either. As a result, it was set too high for the duration of my flight. 

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

 

However, both styles of the seat did have controls to adjust recline (this was the singular control button for the non-exit row seat). 

 

All of the premium economy seats on both flights had headrests with adjustable wings that could be pulled inward and were sturdy and comfortable enough to lean your head against sans pillow.

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

If you’re susceptible to cold temperatures, it’s worth keeping in mind that the exit row gets noticeably drafty during the flight.

Overlooking some design flaws, this is a much more spacious and comfortable offering than economy, though.

Here’s how the seat layouts and measurements differ across cabins. 

Class Economy Premium Business class
Cabin layout 3-4-3. 2-4-2. 1-2-1.
Seat pitch 31-36 inches. 38 inches. 43 inches.
Seat recline 3-6 inches. 6 inches. 180 degrees.
Seat width 16.2-18.1 inches. 18 1/2 inches. 20 1/2 inches.
Screen size  8.9 inches. 11 inches. 15.4-18 inches.

 

Amenities in American Airlines premium economy

One significant perk of flying American Airlines premium economy is the 11-inch seatback screen; the larger size makes watching movies much more immersive than on the smaller 8.9-inch screens in the main cabin. It’s a touchscreen but can also be operated using a remote stored in the left armrest. The content library is extensive, carrying a range of recent releases and a smattering of Hollywood classics. You can also listen to music and podcasts and play games such as Angry Birds and chess.

Premium economy passengers receive plastic American Airlines-branded “noise-reducing” headphones. They are not noise-canceling but are an improvement over the flimsy earbud-style headphones supplied in economy.

Although basic compared to some other kits out there, the Shinola-branded amenity kits added an upscale feel to the experience and contained a dental kit, American Airlines-branded socks and eye mask, earplugs, a small pen and D.S. & Durga hand lotion. These are the same contents given to business-class passengers, but in a different bag. The bag itself is sustainably produced for Shinola by Formia. The quality isn’t extravagant, but I liked its eco-friendly aesthetic, and it reminded me of products you might find at Muji. 

Premium economy passengers were also provided with a Casper sleep set consisting of a light blanket and medium-size pillow. The blanket is better suited to keeping you warm than the thin blankets in economy and is noticeably thicker. The pillow is elongated, making it easier to lock in place between the adjustable flaps on your headrest when you’re trying to get some z’s midflight.

The amenities weren’t hugely exciting but were nice touches that stand out against the basic main cabin offerings.

How was the food in American Airlines premium economy?

American Airlines premium economy meals are served on white china with metal cutlery, which certainly elevates the dining experience from your average coach fare. On both my departing and return flight, the main meal was served roughly 50 minutes after takeoff.

Dishes were brought out together on one tray, just like in economy, rather than by course and came with a polyester napkin rather than paper. I was not provided with a menu of options like in business class, and instead, the choices were announced by flight staff as they served the meal, as in the economy cabin.

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

On my outbound journey, flight attendants offered a choice of pasta in a spinach and cream sauce or a chicken and lentil dish. I opted for the pasta, which smelled amazing. Sadly, the taste didn’t hold up to its enticing aroma; the dish was bland with a floury aftertaste. Even the sweety drop peppers used as a garnish added little to the flavor.

The salad was marginally better than what tends to be served in economy, but still fairly standard, consisting of lettuce, sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan shavings, with a balsamic dressing for extra flavor. The bread roll had a sourdough quality to it, but the texture felt like it had been frozen and defrosted multiple times.

Dessert was a slice of tiramisu — a sort of coffee-tinged and obscenely sugary shortcake that had not been properly defrosted, and was so hard that the tray table creaked and bowed as I attempted to dissect it with my spoon. I managed a few mouthfuls before giving up and bracing for the impending sugar rush.

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

Around 2 1/2 hours after the dinner service concluded and 3 1/2 hours before landing, vanilla bean ice cream, coffee and cold drink refreshments were offered. This occurred at roughly the same point on both flights, with the same flavor of ice cream. If you’re someone that likes to sleep straight through a flight like this, you may find this disruptive, though I personally didn’t mind.

Flight attendants brought out a late meal of cold pasta salad and fruit an hour before landing. The pasta had a mix of sun-dried tomatoes, currants, feta cheese, peas, sweety drop peppers and oranges, the flavors of which didn’t quite meld together. This was served alongside a plate of ice-cold fresh fruit, a refreshing distraction from the pasta.

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

On the return flight, I had the choice of vegetable rotini or beef and potatoes for dinner. I went for the beef. The potatoes were doused in an undefined buttery sauce that tasted better than it looked and made up for the spuds, which were undercooked. The beef was surprisingly tender, cooked just beyond medium and a tasty contrast to the lackluster pasta of the previous flight. This time the food was more akin to business class, as opposed to economy food dressed up on a china plate.

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

Dessert was a hybrid lemon meringue-style American cheesecake. It wasn’t fine dining but tasted considerably better than any dessert I’ve eaten in economy. Cheese and crackers were also served. The cheese was the kind of lab-grade concoction you only get in America. You know the type: plastic but paradoxically spreadable and synthetically orange. Obviously, it was delicious. If loving this fake cheddar is a crime, lock me away and throw away the key, for I am guilty, your honor.

The accompaniments included breadsticks — little to say here other than that they were, indeed, breadsticks — and a chocolate ganache that was light and pleasant.

JORDAN WALLER/THE POINTS GUY

Breakfast was served around an hour before landing and was a plate of fresh fruit, Greek yogurt, a coconut-and-cashew granola cookie and a slightly hard croissant.

Was American Airlines premium economy worth it?

Flying premium economy with American Airlines is much more enjoyable and comfortable than sitting in economy. Still, if you’re hoping for “business class lite,” you may need to lower your expectations. I found the experience closer to economy than the airline would probably like, albeit sprinkled with a few swanky business-class touches, such as food served on china and cute amenity kits.

For a short transatlantic flight like London to New York City, I’d argue it’s not worth the extra cost unless you need additional space to work or can’t handle the roulette wheel of economy food. Larger entertainment screens, extra legroom and wider seats are great but not game-changing enough to warrant the additional cost for a six-to-seven-hour flight. That said, I would consider spending extra for the added comfort if I couldn’t afford business class on a longer flight than the one I was on.

If you shop around, you can find round-trip premium economy tickets on this route for under $1,000 on the lower end. This isn’t exorbitantly more expensive than flying in the main cabin in some instances and could be worth the upsell, considering how much more comfortable the added space makes the experience. On the top end, you could find yourself paying around $3,000 — and the service isn’t worth such a high price. But if you’re able to be flexible with travel dates to get the best deal, it’s an enjoyable experience that’s worth paying for over coach.