Business Travel: Upwardly mobile
Flying start or waste of cash? Anthea Gerrie asks if business class is worth the extra fare
Is business class travel a non-essential luxury, which should be ditched to save money in these credit-crunched time? Successful entrepreneurs, for whom every minute counts, will tell you the upcharge is justified in terms of working time saved and minimising the impact of travel stress on body and soul.
The advantages start even before you make your journey, with faster check-ins for business passengers and lounges with work-stations at main line stations as well as airports.
However, rail passengers are unlikely to get the superb facilities available at the best airport lounges.
Virgin's Clubhouse is legendary, even if it doesnt offer guitar lessons to wannabe musos any more. Its catering is surprisingly superior to the bland offerings in Upper Class - I recommend the eggs Benedict with smoked salmon for breakfast.
Having launched Upper Class as a halfway point between Business and First, Virgin has now beefed it up with flat beds, sleep suits and a convivial bar and become a three-class airline. It has won awards for i5w Premium Economy, worth considering for those who just want decent legroom, a footrest and food served on real china and prefer not to pay for extra frills.
Bmi's Great British Lounge at Heathrow is not bad either. When I urgently needed to conduct a phone interview in the hour between check-in for a recent flight and the final boarding call, a comfortable chair and absolute privacy were provided. Also welcome were the drinks and snacks in The Local, a "typically British" pub area within the lounge.
For those facing delays or long stopovers, there is even a Sleep Zone, with curtained-off beds for privacy. But bmi's most useful advantage is its 30-minute check-in at Heathrow.
Bmi also offers business lounge access to customers travelling on Flexible Economy tickets. They also get guaranteed seating at the front of the economy section - another time-saver - and free food and drink which have pretty much vanished for economy passengers on many short-haul routes.
BA, which does still serve free food in steerage, has six lounges at Heathrow's Terminal Five, accommodating 2,500 passengers, including an elite of 156 in its Concorde Room. Here there's a concierge and a boardroom, as well as a restaurant. The Galleries lounges are class-divided - First or holders of a Gold Executive card get a champagne bar, while mere help-yourself drinks await Silver Card holders and Business travellers. First-class passengers can get free spa treatments, also available at the Virgin Clubhouse, but immediate availability of therapists is never guaranteed.
Jet Airways, which has captured a big share of the India travel market since starting London operations five years ago, has made the comfort of business travellers its priority this year.
There is a new lounge at Heathrow, boasting not only a wine bar but an oxygen bar and flat beds that convert to a "virtual living room". Each passenger in the business cabin gets an oversized table accommodating a laptop in comfort, a power supply and access to telephone, text and email. Business class is also now available on Jet's domestic services within India.
Business class travellers should also consider that it's not all over at touchdown... the Arrivals Lounge offered by many airlines is a real boon if a business meeting looms before there's a chance to go home and change. These sanctuaries have showers, mirrors, styling aids, refreshments and usually wi-fi access to catch up with emails which have come in during the flight - 30 minutes spent in the lounge can make all the difference to the ensuing business day.
Gatwick arrivals who don't think they can justify a business class fare can still buy a shower, internet access and continental breakfast in the arrivals lounge at the Sofitel for just £25.