THIS week, Air New Zealand announced that it is to beef up the premium economy seating in its forthcoming fleet of B777-300ERs, by adding a “lie-flat” bed that will means passengers will not have to sleep sitting up. They are also adding new conventional convection ovens, so that staff will be able to whip up a poached egg or an oven-cooked steak. Passengers will also be able to order food by tapping orders into their screens.

Air New Zealand’s additions are the latest step in the evolution of premium economy, which has become the business traveller’s best friend ever since it was first started appearing around the turn of the millenium. BA and Virgin were among those early to introduce premium economy. The area is growing, but is it worth it?

That depends on the airline. Generally, in premium economy you get a couple of inches more seat-width, and a little more legroom. Among the leaders in the sector, it really can be a lot better than economy. Thai Airways, for example, offers a 42-inch seat pitch (the distance between your backrest and the one in front) and a 135 degree recline to make sleeping easier.

Australian airline Qantas has elegant designer seats, with a laptop plug so that you can work in the air, and a phone with a text-message function. Food is “inspired” by Aussie chef Neil Perry. Virgin offers a 21-inch wide seat, as much as many business class seats, and a seat pitch of 38 inches. Air France’s recently-launched premium economy offering has a seat with a nealy 50-inch pitch, a 123 degree recline and you get the same pillows and so on as business class. It will be rolled out across the fleet during 2010.

But is it worth the money? Airline comparison site says that, in general, a premium economy seat will cost 85 per cent more than an economy seat if booked in advance, 35 per cent more if booked closer to the time, and 10 per cent if booked at the last minute. It will be 65 per cent less than a business class seat. With businesses watching costs, premium economy is looking ever more attractive.