Business class on a budget?
Not every business traveller has the luxury of choice - but premium economy can be a comfortable compromise.
It's sad but true: business travel doesn't always mean business class. The past decade has seen an increasing number of work trips booked in economy, even on long-haul flights to the US and – gulp – the UK.
With many companies cutting costs across the board in the face of a tightening economy, the pointy end of the plane is often reserved for the most senior of staff.
That scenario used to mean that everybody else flew down the back of the bus. In a lot of cases it still does: not every business traveller has the luxury of choice in how their travel is booked.
Fortunately, it's no longer an either/or scenario, due to the growth of premium economy as an 'in between' class.
The beancounters love it because premium economy is markedly cheaper than business class, even though it's also quite a hike up from economy.
The managers tolerate it because it's better than, in effect, telling your staff that the company doesn't value them enough to send them in anything but the lowest class available.
As for we business travellers? A wider and more comfortable seat which delivers extra legroom and especially knee room – which treats us like people instead of caged battery hens – has got to be A Good Thing.
The premium economy extras
Most premium economy seats have 38 inches of pitch against the tighter 32-33 inches of economy, along with a deeper recline.
The better quality of inflight food compared to economy is a bonus, as are priority check-in and additional luggage if you don't already enjoy those through your status with the airline's frequent flyer scheme.
"All of these extras help to either streamline or enhance the travel experience, which is what a lot of frequent corporate flyers are looking for" says James Kavanagh, general manager with CT specialist FCm Travel Solutions.
"According to our research the movement between cabin classes for international flights is most prevalent for the premium economy cabin, with almost 7 per cent more tickets issued in 2012 compared to 2011, and 6.9 per cent up on 2010."
The increased sales of premium economy tickets to corporate clients "is likely to reflect corporate customers buying up from economy class rather than downgrading from business class," Kavanagh believes.
Australian business travellers are in the fortunate position of having two of the world's best premium economy seats to choose from.
The premium seats to beat
Qantas set the standard with an award-winning seat designed by Marc Newson and built by Recaro. It's available on all Airbus A380s and upgraded Boeing 747s.
Cathay Pacific launched premium economy earlier this year. It's currently available on most CX flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, and will be fitted to all of Cathay's Australian-bound aircraft by Match 13.
(Those flights will also include Cathay's superb business class and much-improved economy sear, so it's a win no matter which cabin you're in.)
British Airways offers its World Traveller Plus premium economy seats on the daily Sydney-Singapore-London service, with Virgin Australia covering the Sydney-Hong Kong-London alternative.
We've sampled all of these and would rate Qantas and Cathay at the top of the list. Qantas edges ahead by having a padded leg-rest built into each seat, whereas Cathay relies on a swing-down metal footrest bolted to the seat in front of you.
However, if you snare a seat in the first row of Cathay's premium economy cabin – that's row 30 on the Airbus A330s which CX flies in Australia – you'll get a plushly padded swing-up footrest, along with extra legroom courtesy of the space between your seat and the bulkhead wall in front.
But we'd rate Cathay better on the inflight food front. Its main meals are the same as served in business class, only there's a slightly smaller range on the menu to choose from.
It pays to keep an eye open for premium economy sales. They spring up far less often than economy, but airlines remain keen to boost the profile of premium economy as well as its higher yield compared to the cheap seats.
Do you travel in business, premium economy or economy for business trips – and how do you rate those classes on the airlines you fly?
David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.