05/19/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

No Upgrade, But a Happy Surprise on British Airways: The New Premium Economy Cabin

For years, I've been booking premium economy tickets when traveling to Europe, almost always on British Airways: My wife and I love London and use it as our hub for other travel. Why pay extra for premium economy (which BA calls World Traveller Plus)? It enables us to upgrade to business class using frequent flier miles, of which we've got a bucketful -- at least when upgrades are available, which, sadly, is not all the time. And when there are no upgrades, at least we get to sit two abreast in wider chairs with clearance between our knees and the seat ahead of us.

On our most recent flight from New York to London there was no chance of swapping miles for a business class flat-bed seat -- I kept checking the website until minutes before we left for the airport -- so we resigned ourselves to a non-luxurious six hours in our reasonably comfortable premium economy seats. Since it was a daytime flight, we wouldn't need to sleep anyway. When we boarded the plane, though, resignation turned to moderate delight: The showroom-new Boeing 777 had been equipped with the new version of BA's World Traveller Plus seats, which I'd read about but had never seen, much less sat in.

They're a great improvement, in several ways. Most important, the recline is palpably greater than before, and the seat pitch is 38 inches; the seat is a trifle wider too. If I'd wanted to sleep, it would not have been difficult, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have awakened with a stiff neck. In part this is achieved through a new, less bulky seat design. The video screens are larger (10.6 inches -- BA says this is an increase of 60 percent) and have a snazzier remote and user interface, and there's a huge selection of programming. Another welcome improvement is in the computer power outlets, which in the older configuration are those odd jacks for which you never seem to have the right adapter; the new ones accept standard US or UK plugs: one less cable to carry. There are USB ports and RCA jacks which somehow enable your "devices" to interface with the in-flight entertainment system; this is beyond my technological ken and I was busy listening to my iPod anyway.

Food has been upgraded (not just in the new cabins, but throughout World Traveller Plus); meal choices now come from the business class menu. This does not mean that the wise flyer will eat on the wing. It's still airplane food -- and it's nice to board having already had a good meal, or to arrive at your destination with the prospect of a terrific dinner ahead of you. On this flight, we arrived at London Heathrow around 8 p.m. and were eating perfect tagliolini with lobster at Cafe Murano 90 minutes later.

The new premium economy cabin is not available throughout the BA fleet, so there's no guarantee that the improved seating is what you'll find on your flight. Newer long-haul 777-300ERs, 787s and Airbus A380s will have the new seats, so when boarding your flight all you can do is hope for a pleasant surprise -- and keep trying for an upgrade.

A Happy Surprise at JFK Airport: The New British Airways Premium Economy Seating