Pleasure and pain in premium

I’ve never been able to sleep on air journeys. I don’t know anybody who can, though there must be some because I’ve heard them snoring on those long haul flights that feel as though they’ll never end, however much you yearn the hours away.

Back in the days when I had an employer willing to stump up for business class travel on the theory that I’d get off the plane after 28 hours and go to work, sleep was certainly possible.
Thankfully, I’m now able to keep air travel to a minimum.

The airlines seem to have stumbled on to the concept of business class, having started it in the late 1970s as a means of extracting an extra few bucks from those willing to pay for more leg and arm room.

My own first foray up the sharp end was in the early ’80s in Marco Polo class, then the business class brand of Cathay Pacific. Sure you got more room, but no sleep.

It didn’t take long though for the airline bosses to get the message: business class travellers would and could pay more for stretch-out comfort in an effort to arrive ready for work after a 30-hour journey.

A vital money spinner was up and away.

Meanwhile the rest of us cattle class flyers take anything up to three days to recover.
Cue premium economy class.

Have the airlines stumbled on another bright idea to lift revenues? It’s probably too soon to tell but it’s unlikely that they can leave the premium economy concept as is.

“It doesn’t matter where you sit in the plane, you all arrives at the same place at the same time,” was a favourite adage of a favourite uncle.

And on the Brisbane-Sydney or Brisbane-Melbourne run he was dead right.

But if you have to go from Brisbane to LA or, worse still, London, the accuracy is still, strictly speaking, intact but those down the back can in effect add another couple of days of recovery to their travel time.

So does premium economy justify the cost in reduced jet lag?

Probably not but it does make the journey easier, especially for those of us who are less resilient than we might have been a few decades back.

So here’s some personal experience.

Back from five weeks in the UK with daughter (her 21st present), we travelled premium economy both ways via Hong Kong from Brisbane – non-stop outwards to be in time to satisfy said daughter’s wish for a Scottish Hogmanay and breaking the return journey in HK to visit friends.

It was Cathay Pacific on the Brisbane-Hong Kong sector and British Airways to and from London.
You’d normally expect to pay somewhere around $5000 for the two of us in cattle class.

We paid a total of $9,200 for premium economy seats.

So what do you get for the extra four grand?

You get a separate cabin right behind your business class betters, bigger seats and more, but not much more, personal space.

There’s priority boarding (most of the time).

You get a printed meals menu though the food’s the same as economy.

And, well, that’s about it – though it must be said those little extras make a difference.

Having scored bulkhead seats on the flight to Hong Kong, we arrived ready to face the 13-hour hop to Heathrow.

There’s no sensation of height on the upper deck of the BA Airbus A380 as the priority boarding airbridge means you see no stairs but arrive direct in the upper cabin where premium economy seats are arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration across the wide-bodied behemoth.

After the Cathay A330 haul from Brisbane (which stopped in Cairns) this was more like it.

While the food was airline – mine might have been part of a fish at some stage – the flight was comfortable thanks to those plush and roomy seats. Big tick BA.

I think I may even have slept a little.

Coming back was, well, different.

At the Heathrow gate our premium economy tickets were waved away with an imperious backhand flick of an unbelievably arrogant ground attendant who wordlessly pointed us towards the back of the queue.

And when, eventually, we boarded things looked different. The premium economy seats were in a 2-4-2 format this time and looked decidedly narrower and thinner than those on the outward trip.

A check of the safety card told all.

This was a Boeing 777 – a fine aircraft no doubt but it lacked the space and comfort of the big bird.

A rummage through the carry-on luggage told me the ticket didn’t say what type of aircraft would be servicing the route. Big black mark BA.

Ready to go home now after five weeks away we pitched up early at the Cathay Pacific check-in desk only to be told that the plane (another A330) was flying full and we might not be able to sit together. My experience of such advice translates to “you will NOT be able to sit together.”

However. The check-in lady vowed she’d send an “urgent message” to the gate to see if this could be sorted. Yeah, right.

So we sat in separate rows in the middle four seats. All but one of the 24 seats in premium economy were taken – but with a bit of effort it surely could have been possible for father and daughter to sit together. Need to do better Cathay.

Premium economy, as its name suggests, isn’t quite business class but is a (small) step up from economy. You really do arrive in better shape.

You could shop around for better deals (we were restricted in dates of travel) but be wary of what’s really on offer for your extra bucks.

Remember, what you spend on the flight usually has an impact on what you’ll be able to spend at your destination. Think before you buy.

But if you decide to splash out, I’d go for the big bus every time.

Ask the airline which plane they’re using on each sector of your journey and if they can’t tell you, worry.
Emirates uses the A380 on all its long haul flights so it may be worth a look.

But, apart from the fish, I had no complaints with the BA big bus flight Hong Kong-Heathrow.
Russell Hunter travelled as a guest of nobody. He paid his own way.