You're not alone these days if corporate cost-cutting policies are forcing you to book economy flights rather than business. The accountants may not realize that sitting in a middle seat just ahead of the lavatory might put a squeeze on your ability to be productive en route, not to mention your ability to relax enough to be ready to do business when you arrive.
But what can you do?
It's been a long time since the advice of dressing for success and asking politely for an upgrade at the gate could score you a bigger seat. Unless you happen to be a platinum elite member of the airline's frequent-flier program or are willing to give up thousands of your personal air reward points to buy yourself an upgrade, booking economy means flying in economy.
But on an increasing number of flights, there is an option that gives you the added comfort and legroom of a premium seat while still technically flying in the cheaper part of the plane.
By booking premium economy, business travellers can get a more comfortable seat and still meet company policy for economy travel, says Lauren Sullivan, site editor for cheapflights.ca. In a scan of fares available online, she found it costs an average of 50 to 60 per cent more to fly in premium economy rather than economy to Europe from Toronto, no matter the month.
"They're seldom discounted. Business-class seats may be had for about a third off their full price if you're booking more than two months in advance, but even at that, premium economy is still at least half as expensive as business and may include much of the same comfort and perks, Ms. Sullivan says. "With that in mind, premium economy is a much more accessible perk or upgrade."
On a recent Air France flight to Paris from Toronto, I was in a seat in the separate premium economy cabin. It had the size and feel of a business seat, with options such as an adjustable reading light, noise-cancelling earphones, an amenities kit, a bottle of water and business-class meals. It cost about 50 per cent more than economy, but the round trip was at least $3,000 less than what it would have cost to fly in business class, whose advantage is seats that recline into a bed.
There has been a proliferation of introductions of premium economy seats on longer-haul flights this year.
This fall, Cathay Pacific's Toronto and Vancouver flights to Hong Kong were the first to get planes equipped with a new premium economy service. "Canada is a sophisticated market and we got priority over other routes," according to spokeswoman Jennifer Pearson in Vancouver.
The new seat offers six inches more space than regular economy and the seat is wider and has a bigger recline.
British Airways has offered bigger World Traveller Plus economy seats for several years, and is in the process of upgrading the service with new seats, larger in-seat entertainment choices and ports for personal electronic devices, New York-based BA spokeswoman Caroline Titmuss says. The bigger seats have more leg room and recline more than in economy, and menus from the Club World Business class have become extremely popular with both business and leisure travellers, she says.
An alternative for business fliers to Paris is a special British Airways service called Open Skies. A custom-furnished fleet of planes flying between Kennedy Airport in New York or Newark Airport in New Jersey and Paris is laid out with economy seats with leather upholstery, a premium-plus cabin with 28 leather seats that recline almost into a flat bed and business class with 20 seats that recline fully into beds. All customers are offered fast-track priority through airport security and a personal iPad loaded with more than 70 hours of entertainment.
The premium seat trend has been slower to catch on in North America.
Air Canada has been offering what it calls Comfort Plus on an experimental basis on three of its 767 airplanes that fly from Toronto to Athens, Barcelona or Dublin and from Montreal to Athens or Barcelona. For an extra $149 to $249 each way, passengers get bigger seats with an extra 10 inches of legroom. But there are no plans to expand the service to other international or domestic routes, says Peter Fitzpatrick, spokesman for Air Canada in Toronto.
"Premium economy is a trend that we are studying. While it clearly provides some benefits and more airlines are offering this class of service, the big factor is the capital cost to transform airplanes," he says.
WestJet is reconfiguring its planes to offer premium seats with more legroom. Customers seats will receive priority boarding, complimentary inflight amenities and greater flexibility to make changes to their itinerary for free.
And Air Transat offers Club Class cabins, whose seats are spaced 7.6 centimetres three inches further apart than economy. For an upgrade fee of $200 to $300 a flight, passengers receive a 40-kilogram baggage allowance, separate check-in and priority boarding and upgraded meals..
U.S. carriers United and Delta offer premium space by just shifting some seats at the front of the economy section further apart. United Airlines found it could get people to upgrade at the gate for Economy Plus, for an extra $19 to $99 (U.S.) depending on the length of the flight, to get between four and five inches more legroom between seats. It's now expanding the concept to the Continental Airlines fleet.
Internationally, United and Delta put nine seats across in a row on their Boeing 777s, which is the same as in their regular economy. By contrast the premium economy on Air France is eight in a row and on Air New Zealand it's just six.
When planning a trip, Ms. Sullivan suggests searching several airlines that have premium economy seats because the best premium economy fares may not be on the same airline with the best regular economy fare.
"Search specifically for a premium economy ticket and price versus an upgrade on the airline where you are considering booking," she advises.
The worst time to book premium economy is at the last minute, when the premium can be as much as 80 per cent higher than economy. However, you may be able to get a deal if you offer to buy an upgrade at the airport when you check in, Ms. Sullivan suggests.
"The flight may have unsold seats, or an elite passenger who gets moved up to business class, and you can make an offer."
The strategy works best with U.S. airlines out of hubs such as New York or Chicago that have more competition than Canadian airports.