Premium economy class is proving popular with passengers, but what do you get for the money? David Flynn investigates.
With airlines cutting every corner to keep down the cost of economy tickets, and at the same time boosting business class to woo cashed-up travellers, there's a growing gap between the back of the bus and the pointy end of the plane.
That's become an opportunity for increasingly popular 'in-between' category of premium economy which offers a significant upgrade from the economy experience without the high price of a business class fare.
Cathay Pacific is the latest airline to embrace premium economy on selected flights from Sydney to Hong Kong – and onwards to New York, Vancouver and Toronto, with London to follow in May.
The Hong Kong flag carrier joins Qantas, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand in the premium economy push.
With extra legroom, wider and more comfortable seats, better meals plus sweeteners such as priority check-in and additional luggage, premium economy's increasing appeal to travellers is easy to understand.
"Australian travellers have definitely taken a liking to premium economy seating as a mid-range alternative, which offers a little bit of luxury for a reasonable price" says Colin Bowman, marketing manager for Flight Centre.
Qantas introduced premium economy in 2008 on its flagship Airbus A380 and some Boeing 747s, with an award-winning seat designed by Marc Newson and manufactured by Recaro.
A Qantas spokesperson says the Airbus A380's premium economy is a favourite with passengers because "of the small dedicated premium economy cabin" which is located on the upper deck, behind business class.
The Red Roo is now busily upgrading nine Boeing 747-400s with the A380-grade seats and boosting the number of premium economy seats in its international fleet.
Qantas says there has " been a noticeable rise (in premium economy sales) on our Sydney-Hong Kong route and to European markets".
Belinda Gurd, Asia-Pacific PR manager for Virgin Atlantic, reports premium economy as "the most popular cabin on the plane. It sells out first and fills up first because it's such an affordable piece of luxury."
On flights from Sydney to Hong Kong the premium economy cabin is typically 75 per cent full throughout the year, Gurd says, "and on to London it's around 90 per cent full."
Unlike the low-cost economy cabin and the bells and whistles of business class, premium economy has across-the-board appeal.
Tickets are purchased by "travellers of all ages and backgrounds, from young professionals to families, baby boomers and retirees" says Flight Centre's Bowman.
"Anecdotally, the leisure travellers in our premium economy cabin are what we term 'empty nesters' and retirees" explains Gurd.
"They're the over 55s whose kids have moved out of home, they're now retired and are spending the kids' inheritance on their own holidays."
"We also get a lot of honeymooners and people celebrating their anniversary. These passengers are generally treating themselves because it's a special occasion."
Premium economy is also the holiday choice of corporate travellers who, after flying in business class for work, aren't keen to downgrade all the way to 'cattle class' for personal trips.
Some travellers are also using premium economy for one leg of the long trek to the UK or Europe.
"Mixed class fares that offer economy and premium economy are becoming more popular" reports James Brodie, Head of Marketing for Harvey World Travel.
"You fly economy to Asia, which is just 6-8 hours, and then premium economy through to Europe. This gives you more comfort to sleep on that flight which can be a flight of up to 13 hours."
Virgin Atlantic's Gurd also sees many business travellers in premium economy.
"Traditionally they're small businesses and entrepreneur types, but since the GFC a lot of large corporations have changed their travel policy to include combo fares. Their executives travel to Hong Kong in premium economy and then onto London in (business class)."
Is it worth the money?
Premium economy fares typically cost 30-50 per cent more than an economy ticket.
However, the difference can soar much higher during peak seasons or when heavily-discounted economy fares are factored in.
That's when the premium economy equation falls out of balance.
As Traveller columnist Clive Dorman recently observed, "most airlines that now have premium economy price it as an upmarket 'product' one rung down from business class, not as a comfortable alternative to economy class."
Alex McGowan, general manager of product for Cathay Pacific, deftly describes the experience as "more premium than economy".
"The key ... is to understand that it's an economy plus product, not a 'business class minus' product."
That said, premium economy seats and service can be compared to business class just a few decades ago – and some airlines continue to narrow the gap.
Air New Zealand's revolutionary approach to premium economy is the Spaceseat, created in consultation with leading US design firm IDEO.
Nestled in a space-age cabin in Air NZ's Boeing 777-300ER, the Spaceseat's angled privacy-friendly layout and versatile design could easily be sold as a regional business class product.
How premium economy flights compare
So what perks does your premium economy ticket buy? Here's a rundown of what you'll get flying from Sydney to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.
At the airport
All three airlines offer a separate check-in desk and priority boarding ahead of the crowd, which is especially handy on a large aircraft like Qantas' A380.
However, Qantas allows two carry-on bags of up to 7kg each against the single bag rule of Cathay and Virgin Atlantic.
With 38 inches of legroom against a tight 32 inches in economy, and an 8 inch recline, each airline's premium economy seat provides enough space to stretch your legs almost straight out.
Virgin Atlantic is slightly ahead with a seat width of 21 inches, against 19.5 inches for Qantas and Cathay.
While Cathay's premium economy seat is generously padded we'd rate Qantas as having the best seat of the bunch due to the inclusion of a padded leg-rest built into each premium economy seat. By comparison, Cathay and Virgin use a swing-down footrest attached to the seat in front.
We feel Cathay has the widest and freshest range of movies and TV shows. It's also the only airline with a large 10.6 inch seatback screen and the ability to play video from your own iPod or iPhone.
Every airline's premium economy seat includes noise-cancelling headphones and an AC powerpoint for keeping your laptop or tablet juiced up. Instead of a conventional AC outlet Virgin Atlantic uses an oddball connector which required to to bring your own special adaptor.
Food & drink
Starters like a glass of champagne on Cathay and Qantas get the trip off to a good beginning.
Premium economy also gives you a wider range of higher-quality main meals, drinks and snacks, with everything a noticeable jump from economy fare.
Cathay Pacific has the edge here because its main meals are the same as served in business class, only with a slightly smaller selection.
The writer travelled as a guest of the airlines.
Have you flown premium economy? How do you rate the class against regularly economy? Is it worth the extra money? Post a comment below.