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Airlines Roll Out New Premium Concepts Sure to Please Business and Leisure Travelers

by Richard Newton

Oct 6, 2023

PHOTO: © ETIHAD AIRWAYS

October 2023

The money is at the front. First- and business-class seats account for around 12 percent of passengers on international airlines but up to 75 percent of profits. Competition proves fierce, and before COVID-19 airlines engaged in a race to introduce ever more luxurious products.

Then came the great global shock that temporarily stopped international air travel. When it resumed, demand changed. Business travelers, who had been a dependable revenue stream for airlines, opted to conduct business by Zoom, flying less. Yet demand for premium travel surged, in part due to vacationers upgrading their flights but also due to an increase in bleisure travel — business travelers combining business with leisure, often with their families.

PHOTO: © ETIHAD AIRWAYS

It has taken time for airlines to respond to the changing market. Etihad Airways’ flagship double-deck Airbus A380s sat in long-term storage in Spain. Four of the 10 aircraft returned to service in June 2023, initially on the London–Abu Dhabi route. That marked the return to the air of the celebrated The Residence suite, with living room (sofa made from the same soft leather used in Ferraris), double bedroom and en suite shower. The rest of Etihad’s A380 first-class cabin is divided into nine apartments, self-enclosed spaces that can convert into bedrooms.

In 2022 Etihad introduced Business Studio on its Airbus A350-1000 fleet, featuring fully reclining seats, huge 4-K TV screens and multiple options for connectivity and storage. In 2023 the product rolls out on the airline’s 39 Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

One of the complexities of choosing premium seats is the products often vary considerably between aircraft types on the same airline. Emirates exemplifies this trend. The first-class seats on the A380 have been around for several years, are quite cramped by the latest standards and do not offer total privacy. The new first-class suites on the Boeing 777, however, offer self- contained rooms with floor-to-ceiling walls and closing doors. One limitation of this new product: You’re also sealed off from any travel companions.

© AIR NEW ZEALAND

Air New Zealand addresses that issue with its new Business Premier seats, debuting on its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner fleet in 2024. Partitions on middle row seats can open to allow passengers to share the space. Some of the suites also include a buddy seat, enabling two passengers to dine together.

Air New Zealand’s swanky new business class comes at the expense of first class. ANZ is one of several airlines (American Airlines, Qatar Airways, Delta Air Lines and Turkish Airlines, among others) dropping first class entirely in favor of a significantly upgraded business class, usually featuring individual suites with privacy doors — once the exclusive preserve of first class.

© STARLUX AIRLINES,

Newcomer STARLIUX AIRLINES enters the field with its trans-Pacific flights connecting Taipei and LAX. The Taiwanese carrier’s brand-new A350 boasts interiors designed by BMW Designworks and features ambient lighting customizable to both the season and every stage of each flight. First-class “personal suites” have 60-inch-tall partitions, a sliding door and a 32-inch entertainment screen, while business class offers 48.5-inch partitions and 24-inch screens. Both classes offer fully lie-flat seats which can be placed in “Zero G” mode, based on NASA technology, said to alleviate fatigue and relieve pressure.

American Airlines will introduce its new Flagship Suites on its Airbus A321XLRs and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners from 2024. Removing first class will allow the airline to increase premium seating across its fleet by 45 percent. Each Dreamliner will accommodate 51 Flagship Suites, self-enclosed with lie-flat seats. As with Air New Zealand, the middle row seats feature openable partitions.

Air France began phasing in a similar business-class product on its Airbus A350 fleet in July 2023, having already introduced the service on its Boeing 777s. The airline uses the promotional slogan, “Travel in your own cocoon,” with the design based on the “3F” concept: full flat (the seat converts to a 6.5-foot-long bed), full access (every passenger has direct access to the aisle) and full privacy (sliding doors enclose the suites). As with other airlines, the middle row suites adjoin, but with a partition that can remain raised or lowered.

Fitting multiple suites into a single cabin proves something of a puzzle. Some airlines maximize space by facing some seats backward and sometimes using virtual windows with live video in the middle row to compensate for the lack of actual windows. These variations result in a range of seat designs within the same cabin on some airlines.

PHOTO: © LUFTHANSA

When Lufthansa rolls out its new Allegris business class at the end of 2023, seven variations of the design will offer different degrees of privacy and space. Some will have sliding doors, others won’t. There will be double suites for couples and others with throne seats providing storage and work space on each side. Some will convert into extra-long flat beds. Just as there is no standard Allegris seat, neither is there a standard price; fares reflect these extra features. Lufthansa’s partner airline, Swiss International Air Lines, will adopt a higher-spec version of the Allegris concept from 2025.

PHOTO: ©QANTAS

Also in 2025, look for the long-heralded Project Sunrise from Qantas, with ultra-long flights connecting Sydney and Melbourne with New York, London and Paris. These mammoth, 20-hour, non-stop flights will utilize the Airbus A350-1000, unsurprisingly featuring some onboard modifications to make the journey less of an ordeal. All passengers have access to a Wellbeing Zone, where they can stretch their legs and enjoy snacks. At the front end, upgraded first- and business-class suites have been designed by Safran, with additional styling by David Caon. The suites feature noise- dampening materials as well as tactile finishes providing a homey feel. Along with 52 business suites, six first-class suites will feature a separate seat and bed plus a 32-inch entertainment screen.

Safran also proves instrumental in the reinvention of Air India. The Tata Group took over the faded, much-maligned airline in 2022, and it is now in the early stages of a $70 billion upgrade it hopes will transform it into one of the world’s best airlines. The airline recently unveiled a new, modern livery. From December 2023 a variation of Safran’s Qantas product will appear in Air India’s business class, with uniquely Indian stylistic touches. The Air India rebrand has been code-named Vihaan, the Sanskrit word for “dawn.” The airline expects to upgrade a third of its widebody fleet by March 2024.

The seats present just part of the story when it comes to premium air travel. You’re also paying for service. The attentiveness of Singapore Airlines’ cabin crew is legendary, though other airlines now match that high bar. In the Skytrax 2023 cabin crew awards, Garuda Indonesia bypassed Singapore to earn first place. Asian airlines dominated the top 20, with only Qantas (No. 13), Austrian Airlines (17) and British Airways (20) sneaking in from the rest of the world.

Ultimately, premium flight is an ephemeral experience. Even on long-haul routes, it’s all over in a matter of hours, and you return to the real world without cabin staff on hand to attend to your every need. But one aspect proves lasting: the amenity kits and other gifts handed out to front-end passengers.

PHOTO: © ALL NIPPON

All Nippon Airways currently provides the cutest amenity kits, presenting the usual amenities — toothbrush and toothpaste, eye mask, moisturizer — within a miniature, Victorian-style leather suitcase. The attractive Qantas kit comes in a case designed by an Aboriginal artist and contains items by Australian brand Li’Tya.

© KLM

But since the 1950s, KLM has provided the best first- and business-class gifts: miniature Delft Blue houses filled with Dutch gin. Each house is modeled on an actual building in Amsterdam, with a new house introduced Oct. 7 every year to mark the airline’s anniversary. There are currently 103 houses to collect, with an online app to enable you to keep track of your collection. Being a premium passenger on KLM is about more than just the flight; it’s a route into a new hobby.

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