Imagine you are stepping into the business class cabin of any major airline in 1994 – what would you expect? A few rows of recliner seats, slightly wider than their economy class siblings, with around one-metre pitch (the distance between the back of one seat and the back of the seat in front). No seat back screens. Slightly better meals. Nothing compared to the plush private suites, Michelin-starred dining and hotel-quality bedding you will find on many airlines today.
So what happened?
Airlines began to introduce separate business class cabins in the 1980s, following the lead of Qantas in 1979, and almost immediately began the process of leapfrogging each other to offer better services. According to expert Geoffrey Thomas, editor in chief and Asia-Pacific bureau chief of airlineratings.com, major airlines were the big trendsetters and once they introduced something new, the rest of the pack was quick to follow suit. As a result, business class is now more luxurious than first class ever was.
And while flatbeds were the battleground of the 1990s and early 2000s, privacy is the new frontier. “Passengers are the new isolationists,” Thomas believes, and prioritise their own space. Airlines are introducing larger privacy screens and closed-door suites, once only found in first class, are moving back into business – Etihad is set to fit its business class out with the same suites as Emirates runs in first. This isolation also extends to the in-airport experience for premium passengers. First class passengers travelling through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport can have their passport stamped in the lounge and are taken to the plane by luxury car.
But as things improve up the front, they are only getting worse down the back.
Boeing 777-300s were originally designed with nine seats abreast in economy. Some carriers, like Gulf Air and Emirates, have increased this to 10 abreast and there are rumours of airlines introducing rows of 11 seats. Seat pitch has gotten smaller by around 10 per cent in the last decade. Charlie Leocha, head of the Consumer Travel Alliance, told the New York Times “the difference between first and worst has never been wider. Passengers in the front of the plane travel in a totally different system.”
Expansion of Premium Economy
To fill the ever-widening gap between the classes, more airlines are introducing a new product between business and economy – premium economy, which is on par with the business class of 1994. According to Thomas, “premium economy is the pot of gold for airlines”. Even flagship carriers like Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa have recently announced they will be adding premium economy, a decision they have resisted for fear it could cannibalise their business passengers.
Apartments in the sky
More airlines, particularly those that are in direct competition with Etihad, will undoubtedly introduce something similar to the new ultra luxury The Residence three-room first class suite that will be introduced on flights from Abu Dhabi in 2015. But the market will remain small and Thomas believes “there will be a limit to the number of airlines that introduce these”. While they can offer a private jet experience in the air, apartments on commercial airlines are unable to offer one of the primary benefits of private jet travel – bypassing airports and their associated hassles. But there is a knock on effect. Raymond Kollau, industry expert and founder of airlinetrends.com, argues that “airlines are betting that the image of luxury they project for the front helps attract passengers to the rest of the plane”.
Fewer First Class cabins
Many major airlines, like United, American Airlines, Qantas and Lufthansa, have dramatically scaled down their first class offerings in recent years. Others, such as Qatar, are amalgamating first and business class into a new “super business class” across much of its fleet. With a tiny first class market, it makes more financial sense to focus on an improved business class product. Thomas believes that some airlines, like Emirates, will continue to offer first class and be successful, while others have realised that their strengths (and profits) lie elsewhere.
While airlines have been consistently improving their product, airports are lagging behind. Premium passengers generally have the opportunity to fast track, but Thomas believes that these opportunities will become available to economy passengers as well – for a price. People will pay for faster check-in, expedited security and priority baggage. “Low-cost carriers have been very successful at packaging up extras like extra legroom, priority boarding, French champagne – you have to pay but it makes it a very pleasant experience. Airports need to start doing the same thing and making the experience better,” says Thomas. Expect airport dining to leap ahead too – Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Food opened at Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2008 and this year Heston Blumenthal opened The Perfectionists’ Café in Terminal 2, serving traditional British favourites that are at their best when cooked at speed. Think crunchy fish and chips or ice cream made with his signature liquid nitrogen.
Specialised services will give passengers a more personalised – and more luxurious – experience. Entertainment options will be based on preferences stored from previous flights or from data stored on their own mobile devices. British Airways has equipped 2,000 senior cabin crew with iPads, onto which are loaded the details and preferences of premium passengers. Kollau says airlines will begin borrowing personal touches from hotels; “first class passengers boarding Singapore Airlines’ A380s find a note on their seat that says “This suite has been cleaned for you by…”, while Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines welcome premium passengers with a handwritten “Welcome Onboard” note.”