Richard Quest, presenter for CNN, the international news network, says Premium Economy is a case of back to the future

I have a secret for you. Business Class on planes is back. No, not the luxury now seen in the world's executive-class cabins, rather the same modest extras that, a quarter of a century ago, were invented for the corporate elite.

Any regular long-haul flyer will have noticed the change. There's a new curtain, a new cabin, a different part of the plane. The seats aren't quite as big as business class, but things look a lot more comfortable than economy. It even has its own name conjuring up the extras on offer. Premium Economy on Virgin, World Traveller Plus on BA. What is this animal? It's the original business class from 25 years ago.

It was 1977 when airlines first cashed in on travellers' status paranoia. We are anxious not to be part of the great flying unwashed at the back of the bus – we want to be in front of the curtain in a cabin designed for, well, people like us.

What's more, airlines were desperate to wring out extra cash from commercial travellers whose companies wouldn't allow them to fly First Class but would pay something extra for a bit more comfort. And thus Business class was born. It didn't matter what it was called: Club for British Airways, Executive for now long-gone British Caledonian or, with Germanic straightforwardness, Business Class of Lufthansa. They all gave you a curtain between and status above the riff-raff in economy.

On BA, the seats were still 10 abreast. The 1977 Club seat pitch was just just 34 inches – only 3 inches more than today's economy on BA. Lufthansa boasted it gave you free wine and spirits and free headphones; today, everyone on the plane has that. What you did get was the right to sit in front of a curtain with like-minded travellers.

It didn't take long before these meagre offerings weren't enough. Over the past quarter-century, airlines have vied with each other to shovel more goodies into the laps of business travellers: amenity kits, massages, pyjamas, extra food during the flight. On it went, right the way through to the traveller's ultimate: the British Airways flat bed, now offered in Club World. Indeed, short of giving you the keys to the plane, there doesn't seem much more they can offer.

But all this comes at a high price. A Club World return from London to New York will set the company back £3,904. This is now an issue, especially when the trip can be done for less than 10 per cent of that if you sit at the back (I went to New York last month for £178 round trip). Cost-conscious finance directors have invented a litany of rules to prevent staff travelling up front: no business class if the flight is less than eight hours; no business class if you don't have to work when you get off; no business class if the flight is during the day. Sometimes, no business class full stop.

But the airlines are one step ahead and have carved up the plane once again. Enter the Fourth Cabin, World Traveller Plus or Premium Economy. It offers a bit more room (a seat pitch of 38 inches, which is actually four inches more than the original business class of 1977), a curtain you can sit in front of, and of course it isn't business class so it meets the corporate rules and regulations. It's not surprising that on most flights from the United States, the fourth cabin is full; after all, hand on heart sir, I didn't fly Club.

The wheel has gone full circle. Today's enhanced economy cabins are what the original business class was intended to be. A bit more room, a cabin for working and you are separate from families and backpackers. And what is on offer is remarkably similar to what was handed out back in 1977. This is the true business class.

All of which will probably lead the wheel to turn full circle again. It could well turn out that enhanced economy (as it is generically called) becomes more popular and becomes the norm. It is after all a suitable compromise between the knees-round-your-ears experience of economy and the extravagance of full business class.

The result: the goodies will start to roll in. Extras will be added, more trinkets will be offered and the whole messy business starts again.

There is also one other benefit to the airline that they now have as well: the ability to offer their regular economy travellers a little freebie without upgrading to full business class. You are more likely to travel one airline over another if you know they might bump you up into a slightly more prestigious part of the plane.

So, for those of you travelling World Traveller Plus or Premium Economy, sit back and bore your fellow passengers with the fact that you are the true business traveller. And when going to the lavatory, check to make sure that the curtain that separates you from mere economy class is still firmly closed.

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