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Raising The Bar

Sep 1, 2004
2004 / September 2004

Lie-flat beds, on-demand programming and gourmet cuisine are just a few of the in-flight enhancements that lead us to muse, ‘Could these be the golden days of flight?’

Read on for the results of Global Traveler’s annual first- and business-class survey

Welcome to Global Traveler’s comprehensive business- and first-class survey. It took countless hours to compile this guide for your review. In addition to the Global Traveler staff, representatives from the world’s airlines were involved in the data collection process that has produced, we feel, the most complete business- and first-class survey ever published.

Survey forms circumnavigated the globe several times as airlines returned information about their business- and first-class products. Our goal was to get answers to the questions we know you, the frequent business traveler, ask before you select an airline and make your travel plans. In addition to investigating obvious concerns about cabin seating plans and recline, we’ve gathered information about technology available to passengers, in flight and at the airport, because we know you have little free time
and want to stay connected. We know this because we’re often sitting right next to you as you log on via your laptops in airport lounges or in the air. Most of us have come to expect wireless Internet access. We have it at home, and we demand it elsewhere. Happily, airlines are getting the message. Lufthansa is one of more and more carriers that offer in-flight broadband Internet access — an amenity appreciated by everyone — from the ceo of a Fortune 500 company to the owner of a small business who must stay in constant contact with his staff, even while traveling.

We hazard to say that most of us still want our amenity kits, which give us both practical and emotional gratification. We feel this little gift is our right for paying a premium-class price. Plus, those of us who’ve found ourselves stuck in a Third World country, our bags delayed, know the items in a well-stocked amenity kit can prove quite handy.

Recline can be a tricky subject. Some airlines measure recline like a compass, zero to 180 degrees with 180 indicating a recline that will result in a lie-flat bed. Others measure from a right angle of 90 degrees, in which case 60 degrees is the equivalent of 150 on the zero to 180 scale. Still others prefer to indicate recline in inches. You see the problem.

To further complicate matters, airlines use their own terms and standards in describing their products. That’s especially true in the realm of the ever-increasing variety of lie-flat beds. British Airways insists that a flat bed is not flat unless it reclines to a full 180 degrees. Other airlines say their seats recline to a flat bed, even though the pitch is at a slight angle. This, they say, is to compensate for the upward pitch of the plane at cruising altitude.

Virgin Atlantic’s suite service features a seat that flips to a bed. The catch here is that a flight attendant has to make the switch and make up the bed, so the passenger must vacate the seat — or bed depending on the direction of the switch — for the transition. Detractors argue that passengers who want to doze now and then have to keep hopping up and down throughout the flight.

To simplify things, we’ve requested — for the purposes of this survey — that all airlines give us their recline information on a zero to 180 degree scale. In cases where information was missing, or forms were not returned, we combed the Internet for answers. In many instances, we were able to glean the information from airline Web sites. Consistency was our ultimate goal. We wanted you to be able to compare apples to apples, b747-400s to a340s and b767-300ers to a310s.

So what else is going on in business and first class these days? Read on for an update.

First class grows on you

Nothing beats sitting in the first-class cabin when it comes to long-haul travel — or any travel, for that mat ter. Recently, a number of airlines have decided to dedicate time and money to upgrading their first-class products. Airlines noted for a strong first-class product — and a loyal first-class following — are maintaining momentum. British Airways, for example, always had a strong presence in the first-class market. That share increased substantially when the Concorde fleet was grounded and Concorde passengers switched to ba’s first class. Other airlines have political reasons for touting their first-class products. Some national carriers see it as a symbol of their country’s prosperity. Others develop first class to cater to vips and members of their royal family — a bonus for “regular passengers” traveling on business-class tickets who can expect upgrades when first class is not full.

United Airlines’ new transcontinental service — dubbed p.s. for premium service — features the only flat-bed service on a u.s. domestic route. Slated to debut Oct. 18, p.s. will be offered on direct flights from New York (jfk) to Los Angeles (lax) and New York (jfk) to San Francisco (sfo).

“The level of comfort and distinguished service usually reserved for international flights will soon be available to our customers traveling between New York and Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco,” said Martin White, United Airlines’ senior vice president of marketing.

United’s p.s. service features incredible creature comforts. Settle into the comfortable seat and technology is at your fingertips. Specially prepared meals provide tasty sustenance during the flight, while music and movies on demand offer an entertaining diversion. Let’s face it: The trip from New York to Los Angeles is just as long as the trip from New York to Paris. We expect this kind of service and comfort on a trans-Atlantic trip. United understands that we should be afforded the same treatment on a transcontinental flight.

One plus one is two

A trend that developed a few years ago continues to evolve as airlines reconfigure their fleets to provide two classes of service — business/first and premium economy — while eliminating the first-class cabin. Responding to passenger feedback, Continental Airlines launched its BusinessFirst product in 1992 in an attempt to revitalize its financial standing by appealing to former passengers who had abandoned the carrier. The hybrid service was a resounding success and remains so even a decade later. Other airlines eager to jump on the bandwagon — Alitalia, Finnair and klm/Northwest among them —debuted similar innovations, eliminating the drain of no-longer-profitable first-class cabins and replacing them with combined business/first service.

At the time, one airline executive hyping the change referred to his carrier’s soon-to-be-eliminated first-class cabin as “the most expensive cafeteria in the sky.” The statement stemmed from an observation that most passengers traveling in first class were airline employees flying trans-Atlantic upgrades.

Delta Air Lines followed suit some seven years later with the introduction of its BusinessElite. Delta had assumed the trans-Atlantic service from Pan Am after that carrier’s demise and was continually selling out business class on routes to Europe while countless seats in the first-class cabin remained empty. It was an easy decision to switch to the business/first configuration. Today, Delta’s BusinessElite service is a favorite among passengers traveling to Latin America and Europe.

Imagine the turmoil this growing trend caused for airline executives. To remain competitive, many carriers switched to the business/first configuration. Airlines that elected to stick with the three-class configuration quickly learned that their competitors’ business/first products were nearly as good as (or, in some cases even better than) their own first-class product. To add insult to injury, the combined service left traditional business class in the dust, which eventually led to across-the-board improvement in all classes — a phenomenon that continues to this day.

Malaysia Airlines is retrofitting its first- and business-class cabins with a lie-flat seat/bed this fall. This “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality has greatly benefited passengers as service and seating become more and more comfortable.

Here’s another thing to consider. In the traditional three-class configuration, first class is at the front of plane, far from the noisy engines. Economy class is at the back of the plane, well behind the noisiest section of the plane. Business class is smack-dab in the middle — right at the (usually) noisiest point on the aircraft. In a two-class configuration, business/ first is well ahead of the noisy section of the plane, leaving passengers in that cabin to enjoy a well-earned quiet ride.

Let’s talk technology

Over the past decade, a plethora of technological improvements has enhanced premium-service cabins. Looking back to my very first business-class trip, on klm almost two decades ago, I was seated on the upper deck of a 747-100. Service was exemplary, but I can still remember trying to listen to music through a hollow-tube headset. The sound was atrocious. When it came time to watch the movie, it was shown on an overhead screen, a far cry from the individual video displays with a choice of films we have access to today. Virgin Atlantic led this push for newer and better entertainment options (of course, Virgin Records was a great tie-in) and other airlines followed suit with all sorts of technological gadgets to help passengers pass the time. Many carriers began offering noise-canceling headsets designed to buffer the roar of the aircraft engines and enhance sound quality. United’s new p.s. product offers passengers handheld dvd players with noise-canceling headsets.

Power! We need power!

Three years ago, in preparation for a long-haul trip, I purchased an Electrovaya PowerPad 120. The slim battery was designed to provide my laptop with 10 hours of life. Airlines have come a long way in a short time. First, they introduced power plugs that required adapters. (I remember one flight during which the flight attendant and I rummaged through a bag searching for an adapter to fit my computer.) Now many airlines — China Eastern, Lufthansa, klm, Northwest, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Swiss and tam Brazilian Airlines to name a few — offer the perfect solution, a 110 volt power plug right in the seat so you can use your own power cord just as if you were in your own home or office. This is a monumental achievement!

Another innovation, on-demand programming, is a great boon to in-flight entertainment. While some carriers offer a selection of dvds (Virgin Atlantic and United), others program the selections into the system.

“The more choices the better,” is what one Global Traveler subscriber told us. He said he never goes to the movies at home, preferring to spend his limited free time with family and friends. He catches up on movies and television programming while traveling on airlines that offer superior entertainment options.

The handheld dvd player is another half-step for airlines with large fleets of older aircraft. The on-demand revolution is here, in our homes and in the air. For those that wish to compete, the portable dvd player offers a terrific alternative. Though the airline may only offer a 10- to 15-video library on board, passengers can bring their own dvds, an option not provided on carriers with fully integrated on-demand systems.

Maybe these are the golden days?

Since British Airways debuted the first modern flat bed, other airlines have been quick to follow suit. Some are flying the new beds now, while others are in the process of launching the service. Malaysia Airlines and Air New Zealand are among those getting ready to introduce flat beds.

Still, it’s interesting to note that flat beds have been around for a long time. Philippine Airlines had beds in 1988 — yes, beds! Each passenger had an assigned seat, but could retire to a bed (set up bunk-bed style) on the upper deck during the flight. The catch was that there were more seats than beds, so the beds were released on a first-reserve basis. Clearly business- and first-class passengers are much better off today than they were back in the “golden days of travel” when premium-class service was reserved for an exclusive group of wealthy patrons.

It was the introduction of the Boeing 707, followed by the 747, that opened travel to the masses around the world. In fact, prior to the 747, business class didn’t even exist — it was first or tourist, with nothing in between. The 747 brought the dawn of the three-class configuration. To this day, klm and Qantas vie for the right to claim the first business-class cabin as their own.

According to our research, klm launched the first middle zone — dubbed the “Full Fare Facilities Zone” — which offered a separate seating area and a higher standard of service for full-fare tourist passengers. Qantas took the concept a step further when it introduced the first official business-class cabin with wider seats and more leg room in an eight-across configuration.

So, maybe we are living in the “golden days” of air passenger travel after all. It’s true that airlines are offering a higher quality of service, advanced technology and better seating then ever before in the history of flight. The bar has been raised across the board and the average business- or first-class passenger is enjoying an improved experience no matter which airline he flies.

Next time you hear someone reminiscing about the “good old days” when Pan Am was a shining star in the sky, you might want to point out that 20 years from now people may be saying the same thing about the experiences we’re living — and flying — today.

Janis Donahue contributed to this report.


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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