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Class wars

Frette bed linen? Check. Flat beds? But of course. A three-room suite? Right this way. Airlines are making premium class even more opulent in a bid for the affluent passenger dollar.

"TOO BAD THE FLIGHT WAS ONLY SIX HOURS LONG.": Etihad Airways' The Residence - a notch above its First Class cabin - is a 125 sq ft, three-room private suite.
Etihad Airways' The Residence.
Etihad Business Class.
TAKE SIDES: Cathay Pacific’s new Business Class has extended bedding surfaces with extra knee space for sideways sleepers.
FRESH LOOK: Emirates First Class cabin.
FRESH LOOK: Emirates First Class cabin includes an onboard shower.
Emirates Business Class.
PLUSH: Qatar Airways First Class cabin.
PLUSH: Qatar Airways First Class bed.
Qatar Business Class.

IF layovers and boarding gates are a state of purgatory for travellers, think of the front end of the plane as aviation's nirvana. Here, in Business Class and beyond, lies a sanctum of hushed conversations and reverent tones, where every little whim is unflinchingly fulfilled.

("Turn back time, sir? But of course!") Seventeen years on, Gary Ho still remembers the first time he was raised from the huddled masses in Economy, and brought, nay, upgraded to the hallowed grounds of Business Class. "That was the bee's knees," the frequent corporate traveller tells BT, recalling the Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight to Melbourne. "You get so much space, food and attention. You feel like the king of the hill."

These days, Mr Ho flies in premium class three to four times a month. "Now, I go onboard and tell (the crew) not to disturb me," he says.

Frequent travel in the front end of the plane has made him more blasé about the whole thing, he says sheepishly. Now and then, he reminds himself how lucky he is.

Premium passengers have been getting luckier over the years, as airlines make luxury travel more gilded than ever before.

Airlines now offer premium passengers a bacchanalian array of perks at 35,000 feet. A three-room suite comes with a Savoy-trained butler, for instance. At the bar, you have your pick of signature cocktails and canapes.

For dinner, you'll order something from a gourmet menu crafted by Michelin-starred chefs, and eat your meal off Wedgwood china. In a post-prandial daze, you might pop into a bathroom suite (with heated floors, no less) for a hot shower.

After that, it's lights-out for you in a bed that has already been turned down, complete with Italian Frette linen.

Premium cabins have come a long way since the late '70s, and airlines are pulling out all the stops to win over First and Business Class travellers, who represent the aviation market's deepest pockets. A Business Class seat, for instance, could cost four times as much as an Economy fare.

Already, sleeper suits and swanky amenity kits by Giorgio Armani and Bvlgari are de rigueur in Business Class. On Virgin Atlantic, upper class passengers get aromatherapy kits to help them fend off jetlag.

Last year, Emirates invested heavily in its wine programme, buying more than 13 million bottles of wine worth US$140 million. Most of these bottles will only be served onboard in seven to 10 years' time.

Survival of the fanciest

In fact, today's Business Class offerings have improved so much that they are better than yesterday's First Class products, SIA's senior vice-president (product & services) Marvin Tan points out.

For instance, SIA's current Business Class seat is in a 1-2-1 configuration with direct aisle access. Previous incarnations - its SpaceBed product in 2002 and its 1998 Ultimo product - were in a 2-2-2 and 2-3-2 configuration, respectively.

"Over time, you see a pretty continuous evolution of the products in our front cabin," says Mr Tan. "We like to think we're one of those that push the boundaries. Obviously, there are a lot of players in the market as well now introducing different products with various features. In some ways, you could say the bar is being raised continuously."

And there are some pretty formidable competitors out there, he says.

The airline, which unveiled its last cabin upgrade in 2013, is due to launch new products in 2017 as it receives the first of five A380s on order. As part of the new roll-out, SIA's most premium offering on its A380 - its already-palatial Suites - will become even more spacious.

For Business Class, the airline will, among other things, use new materials to make seats even more comfortable and capacious. It will also introduce thoughtful stowage options, in response to passengers' requests.

Meanwhile, its upcoming B787-10s and A350 medium-haul variants will also boast a new Business Class product from 2018.

"Whenever we place a new aircraft order or get a new tranche of aircraft - even if that is mid-stream in terms of our product life cycle - we want to see if there are changes or improvements we can introduce," SIA's Mr Tan says. "Staying ahead of the competition is very important."

SIA is not alone in its approach. Qatar Airways has plans to introduce what it dubs a "Super Business Class" on its B777, while Emirates will launch a refreshed Business Class seat on incoming B777s from November this year. On Emirates, the improved Business Class seat will have a 23-inch screen and an enhanced 72-inch seat pitch. This is up from a 20-inch monitor and a 65-inch seat pitch, presently.



Over at Cathay Pacific, its new Business Class seats on its A350s already have snazzier in-flight entertainment monitors, as well as extended bedding surfaces so travellers can sleep better.

"We understand from research (that) a significant portion of people prefer sideward-facing sleeping positions," said a spokesman for the Hong Kong-based airline. "While maintaining bed length is very important, we paid special attention in optimising the seat shell structure and shape to provide extra knee space."

This arms race in the luxury travel segment is set to continue, and not only because this market brings in a substantial chunk of change. SIA, for instance, typically receives more than 40 per cent of revenue from premium seats.

"Airlines feel they need to do something because their competitors are doing something," said Centre for Aviation (CAPA) analyst Brendan Sobie. "Then there's what's available from a technology perspective."

In-flight entertainment screens have gotten bigger, for one thing, and some airlines offer a separate touch-screen handset for the multi-tasking traveller. At the same time, the industry's transition to improved satellite connectivity means speedier in-flight WiFi, while better materials have resulted in lighter and more comfortable seats.

The drop in jet fuel prices has also helped to bolster the bottom line for carriers, which allows them to upgrade their Business and First Class products. The International Air Transport Association (Iata) estimates this year's jet fuel price will average US$55 a barrel (bbl), roughly half the US$115/bbl in 2014.

Airlines - especially the cash-flush Gulf carriers - have also been ploughing funds into a fleet of brand-new, fuel-efficient aircraft. Qatar Airways, for instance, was the first airline to start using the new A350 at Changi Airport.

Seatbelt sign is on

But this is not to say that it's clear skies ahead for airlines. Intense competition is putting downward pressure on yields. Overall passenger yields for 2016 are expected to slide by seven per cent this year after sinking some 10 per cent in 2015, according to Iata figures.

At the same time, the well-travelled premium passenger is becoming more discerning.

"I look for the best return for money spent, like impeccable service on the ground," self-professed aviation geek Gino Bertuccio tells BT.

This means separate check-in areas, priority lanes for security checks and lounges catering exclusively to First Class passengers.

"Escorted boarding is also something that I appreciate the most," the Miami-based businessman adds. "During the flight I look for, of course, seat comfort, a good choice of champagne and wine and an impeccable meal service."

Comparisons of airlines, too, are inevitable.

Frequent corporate traveller Mr Ho notes that Delta's upcoming business class cabin will even include a sliding door. "The Middle Eastern carriers have been upping the ante, as have the American carriers," he says.

In contrast, the Asian carriers seem to be lagging behind, Mr Ho reckons.

But as expectations of premium travel soar, corporations whose employees tend to populate the front of the plane have battened down the hatches in a slowing global economy.

Some firms have raised the bar for trips that warrant a Business Class ticket, from a three- or four-hour flight previously, to a minimum five-hour flight.

Managing director (APAC) of American Express Global Business Travel (Amex), David Reimer, says that Amex isn't seeing a lot of corporate demand for First Class these days.

"Business Class is the preferred option for travel," Mr Reimer says, adding that even some of those who have the capacity to fly First are choosing not to, because of how it might look.

Against this backdrop, some airlines are shifting their focus from First to Business Class.

United Airlines, for instance, will remove its First Class cabin on international routes as it rolls out its new Polaris Business Class at year-end.

On SIA's upcoming five A380s, the number of Suites onboard will be cut to better match demand. Its existing double-decker jets have 12 Suites each. And on some of SIA's retrofitted 777-300ERs, the number of First Class seats have been trimmed from eight to four, while Business seats have increased from 42 to 48.

More, more!

Airlines will continue to compete for Business Class passengers, Mr Reimer reckons, which means that service and amenities will also improve. Ultimately, the whole door-to-door experience is key, and factors such as network, lounge access and complimentary airport pick-up count towards the travel experience, he adds.

For example, United Airlines and SIA this year both announced direct services from Singapore to San Francisco, which cuts flight time for time-starved business travellers who would otherwise have to opt for a stopover via another hub.

Even after the flight is over, there is room for airlines to leave an impression on passengers. Aviation enthusiast Mr Bertuccio reckons that airlines should have post-sale follow-ups with customers.

"It's very rewarding and important to feel that the airline really cares for your business and it's also a way of keeping customers away from competition," he says. "Sometimes airline managers and executives think that their job ends when passengers deplane at the destination. I personally think that at that point, the job should continue."

For all the jetsetters' world-weariness, it is still possible to thrill this particular crowd so much that they leave the plane with some reluctance.

In December 2014, Mr Bertuccio became the first passenger to fly in Etihad Airways' The Residence - a notch above its First Class cabin - on an A380 from Abu Dhabi to London. A round-trip ticket on that route in the 125-square-foot, three-room private suite today costs over US$20,000.

His time there was "amazing", he says, "from the ceremony at the lounge to pre-boarding and the onboard experience."

"Too bad the flight was only six hours long."

Even so, the seasoned traveller's needs can evolve to the point where they are distilled into several key fundamentals. Airlines just need go back to basics, our other frequent traveller, Mr Ho, believes. This means having sufficient space, a comfortably flat bed, practical nooks for passengers to store their things, and a cabin crew that delivers quality service.

Mr Ho might have been agog at all the food and attention he got on his very first Business Class flight, but these days, he prefers to eat in the lounge on the ground. There, he says, the food is fresher, and he'll be able to rest uninterrupted onboard.

"Now it's about wanting to sleep on the plane. That's why corporate travellers pay for Business Class," he says.

"There's no need for grand gestures - it's about ergonomics and understanding your traveller. That goes much further than having the greatest, the best and the biggest."