Battle of the Classes - First, Business & Economy

by AirGuide Online - The Best Source for Global Air Travel

Air Guide
Why Fly First Class?

Business class, these days, is a tough act to follow. With a new generation of high technology ergonomic seats that recline fully to a flat bed and offer adjustable leg and thigh supports and umpteen ways to adjust the headrest, not to mention an ever-expanding galaxy of frills, who on earth will still pay twice the price to travel First Class?

Most passengers flying First Class internationally nowadays have been upgraded from Business Class with miles, an exceptional promotion or someone else is paying for the flight. The average published First Class round-trip fare from London to New York is $8,428 / ?5,704 compared with an already whopping $5,000 / ?3,342 in Business Class, and the average $450 / ?300 for a coach excursion ticket. Concorde would set you back $9,870 / ?6,580 for the exquisite discomfort of sitting in a 100 seat cigar tube. You would have about the same legroom as cattle class, but feel no pain. After all, you'll get there in half the time.

Some airlines still provide First Class service on domestic or regional flights, but for the most part these flights are in fact a domestic Business Class dubbed First Class, not a real First. True First Class is only found in international long haul flights and on private charter jet service.

Pundits predicted the demise of First Class as many airlines scrapped it in favor of a combined ''business first'' product at Business Class prices. Continental Airlines with its successful Business First, Air Canada with Executive First, and Delta Air Lines with Business Elite. Virgin Atlantic set the standard back in 1985 with its Upper Class, first-class service and comfort at Business Class prices, with a 50 to 60 inch / 127 to 152 centimeter, almost-horizontal sleeper seat and a lounge and bar, it is superior to First Class offered on many other carriers. And space is the prime issue in the airlines' battle for the hearts and minds of business travelers. British Airways says it was the first carrier to offer a seat that reclines into a completely flat six-foot / 1.8 meter bed in Business Class, first available on flights from London to New York. Not to be outdone, Virgin Atlantic has introduced Upper Class seats that turn into a full-length bed giving passengers six feet, eight inches of space.

There are still those who are banking on the desire for creature comforts and preferential treatment to keep a certain clientele seeking First Class seating. Due to the great success and proliferation of Business Class service, that section of the aircraft has become quite crowded and passengers do not have the privacy and the exclusive treatment that they receive in First Class. There is still nothing that can match the serene and luxurious atmosphere of traveling First Class. British Airways introduced ''flying flat beds'' in its First Class in 1996. Now there are two ''seat doubles'' in the middle of the cabin, the remaining seats being individual screened compartments with a retractable table, video, adjustable reading light, a facing ''buddy seat'' for visitors, and a table where two can wine, dine or snack at any time during the flight.

All Nippon Airways debuted its 180 degree ''Fullflat'' seat in First Class about the same time. Denizens of the front cabin are offered blankets and pillows, cardigans and sweat pants. Reading lights are attached to the headrest, which has a ''separator'' for privacy. Should you wake up hungry, snacks including Japanese-style rice bowls and noodles are yours for the asking. American Airlines raised the stakes in First Class with its announcement of the Flagship Suite, a new seat hailed as the ''next generation in first-class travel.'' It becomes your ''office, favorite restaurant and bedroom'' in the sky. Seats are 21 inches wide (30.5 inches wide when both armrests are raised). They recline to fully flat six-foot, six-inch bed, and they swivel toward each other so traveling companions can converse or take advantage of the extra space created by two large fold-out work stations. As many as four colleagues can meet and dine together. There will be 16 such seats in First Class, compared with 50 seats in Business Class (that, alas, neither convert to beds nor swivel). But travelers in search of such exclusivity and ''bedrooms in the sky'' might consider chartering a corporate jet. Modern corporate aircraft are safe, fast and comfortable, and enable you to travel to your own schedule.

Corporate icons such as the Challenger 604, Gulfstream V or the Falcon 900 can carry 12 people in supreme comfort across the Atlantic faster and higher than a 747, well above the weather and commercial flights. They have standup cabins, separate from the crew, and all modern conveniences: sleeper seats, even bedrooms, two-way satellite phone, two pilots, a flight engineer and a cabin attendant.

Air Partner, Europe's largest charter broker, can arrange a wide-body Challenger 604 to fly you from just about any airport in Britain to the east coast of North America and back for around $72,000 / ?52,000, which works out to $9,750 ?6,500 a person for a party of eight. Chartering a customized Boeing 737 or Airbus 319 for $120,000 / ?80,000 will carry 30 people for around $3,600 / ?2,600 each.

Hunt & Palmer, a charter broker in Britain, says there is a growing demand for charters across the Atlantic. A recent charter of a Falcon 900 from London-Madrid-Boston-London cost $127,500 / ?85,000 for nine executives, and this was on very short notice. Arranged well in advance, the price might have been as low as $75,000 / ?50,000. At $8,250 / ?5,500 a head, that's less than the published round-trip fare from London to New York.

This begs the question of negotiated fares. Few people will pay the full price and all prices are negotiable depending on the frequency with which you use the jets, but it also raises issues about how business travelers value their time, convenience and comfort. Still, for those traveling by themselves or just with a companion, and the price is right, nothing compares to the feeling of flying First Class.

Luxury or Back to Basics?

We all know that traveling long haul can often be more tiring than the purpose of the journey, particularly time spent hanging around at airports. Facing lines at check in, security and boarding, not to mention, leaving the plane and collecting your luggage can be challenging to even the most sedate traveler. The time in flight can be just as uncomfortable, unproductive and frustrating. By the time you arrive at your destination, you can feel drained and certainly not focused enough to do a productive day of business.

In recent years, most airlines developed deluxe Business Class services to address these issues for their business travelers. Most people would agree that the benefits have really outweighed the financial outlay, but is that still the case?

Following the events of September 11th, Business Class is slowly returning to normal. Check in times have largely returned to pre Sept. 11, although US airlines (and many other airlines, flights bound for the US) still require more time. At London Heathrow, for example, United still requires three hours for Business Class check in.

Equally irritating to many Business Class passengers is the fact that some carriers have been cutting perks and services, trimming some of the luxury aspects but keeping the prices. While most airlines claim there has been no reduction in quality or services, passengers paying thousands of dollars for a ticket will notice, and miss, all the little things.

Some airlines no longer provide a choice of amenity kit or maybe there will be no starter. Things like decaffeinated coffee or herbal tea are now unavailable and wine lists have greatly diminished on other airlines. However, airlines are realizing, that it's the big things like roomier cabins, larger, more comfortable and fully reclining seats, and individualized entertainment that pack the real value and cannot be omitted.

In an effort to keep business customers on board in a downsized economy, many airlines will continue to offer full business services to it's valued customers. Cathay Pacific is one airline that has not cut services or quality. Following extensive research into the preferences of its passengers, Cathay Pacific invested US$260 million on enhancements to this lucrative sector between 1995 and 1997, and continues its upgrades despite the current trend to cutback.

Apart from the visible differences, such as the larger and more accommodating seating, airlines claim to have developed their product, with an emphasis on customer service being key. Business customers have come to expect first-rate services that give the passenger the feeling of importance and value not always apparent in the economy seats. Business Class passengers are growing accustomed to restaurant-style meal service with choices, from what they eat and when, including the ultimate freedom of helping themselves to snacks and drinks at any point during the flight. Indeed the facilities and amenities offered are repeatedly reflecting those we would normally only expect in First Class.

Virgin has gone as far as removing the boundary completely, offering the Upper Class service as a First Class service at a Business Class price. Other airlines have aligned their in-flight services; for instance, Singapore Airlines has made it policy to offer the same cabin crew attention to passengers in both classes. Throughout the industry, teams of world-renowned chefs and wine experts are regularly consulted to design menus offering variety and standard you would expect in a gourmet restaurant.

What is there to do between eating and sleeping? The entertainment philosophy of most airlines these days is what you want when you want it. Individual video monitor screens allow you to access a larger number of films, news and TV programs, even games. Some of the smaller details such as individual seat-mounted reading lights are those which greatly assist the feeling of autonomy that Business Class offers. Now living up to the name, Business Class, many airline are now offering laptop ports and e-mail access in order to allow patrons to continue with their work even enroute.

But the key to a good day's work in every walk of life is feeling focused on the tasks ahead, refreshed after a good night's sleep and motivated to perform at your optimum level. Development of services such as fully adjustable, fully reclining seats, and sleeping zones where passengers can change out of their business clothing into the provided sleep wear and rest undisturbed by cabin crew during the flight, is allowing Business Class passengers a previously unheard-of luxury.

However, be aware that many of these services aren't all they claim to be, and may not be available at all. Two years after Virgin's launch of Business Class flatbed seats, installation remains painfully slow. Although Virgin Atlantic says that all flights out of London Heathrow have the new "lie flat" Upper Class seating, those from Gatwick still have to be switched over.

British Airways, the airline which started the whole ball game, is struggling. Just over half its fleet of 747s and 777s have been fitted with flatbed seating, but the entire fleet, excluding 767s, won't be fitted out until summer 2003. And the airline will give no indication when, or even if, the seating will be extended to its long haul 767s.

Singapore Airlines is another tardy carrier. The airline announced its new flatbed product with much fanfare last August, and yet the seats are still not offered on most aircraft on its network. Japan's ANA, another carrier which has just inaugurated this product, only offers it on a few 747, the same goes for several other major carriers. Check our airline survey to see in detail the airlines' services and aircraft seating in all classes.

In fairness, though, while not all facilities are available from all airlines on all flights, the service providers are investing heavily in Business Class to deliver a high-quality product that suits a wide range of demands, and at the end of the day, Business Class is all about space, comfort and service on the ground, and, the US situation excepted, the airlines continue to deliver on all three. For long haul travel, its still the best deal around.

A Terrific Bargain or a Long and Slow Torture?

For many people, coach seats, especially heavily discounted ones, means the ability to travel, and that's a real plus. For others though, Economy Class is just that: an economic way to get from one place to another, but it is by no means a luxury. In fact, most executives dread flying in the back of the plane, but some companies have less of a choice these days. Although the travel industry has seen a bit of a rebound post-Sept. 11, 2001, many companies are feeling the pinch and are under pressure to find the lowest fares possible. In general, many airlines and travel agents admit that most recent bookings are due to severely slashed prices. We are currently seeing some of the lowest rates in a long time, especially in the back of the plane, and this is by no means limited to the newer "no frills" airlines. Economy Class is an economic reality at the moment.

Many business travelers are now required to avoid full-fare Business Class tickets, since they can take advantage of rock-bottom prices aimed at leisure travelers, and most ticket prices are so low in cost that passengers are definitely, "getting what they pay for". In other words, Economy Class has become more "economic" than ever before. Many domestic carriers have eliminated meal and entertainment services on short-haul flights. Which is great for a family of five, to visit grandma, but for those who fly frequently and are accustomed to flying business class or better, it's a bitter pill to swallow. There is some good news, because of a "temporary economic downturn", airlines are retiring older planes, and many will replace them with new ones once capacity returns to normal. Although, the FAA's predicted full-capacity rebound is not for another two years, when this does happen, passengers will be boarding much more spacious fleets.

In fact, in the effort to lure more business travelers with low fares and keep them happy many airlines are continuing with previous plans to upgrade coach services, particularly international carriers, who have not been as affected as those in the U.S.. Cathay Pacific is rolling out electrical outlets and data ports, and All Nippon Airways inaugurated Premium Economy on its Tokyo to London. ANA's Premium Economy offers luxuries such as slippers, digital on-demand audio and video channels and a separate check-in area. Amazingly, the seats in Premium Economy cost no more than regular economy; they are available to full-fare coach passengers on a first-come, first-serve basis.

There's also the options that servers such as JetBlue and Midwest Express offer travelers, amenities like individual televisions with JetBlue and fresh-baked cookies with Midwest. Seats on these planes are marginally more spacious than those belonging to the major airlines and that's no small comfort, even if you'd rather be flying First Class.

The trend towards upgrading economy to a roomier coach is catching on. Although it's true that not all seats are created equal, as anyone who has flown First Class will attest to, there is now some comfort available for those who fly coach. As airlines compete for passengers in a slowing economy, they are focusing more closely on the one component of an airplane outside the cargo hold that makes money: the Seat.

British Airways, Midwest Express, Garuda, Virgin Atlantic, Aloha and Air France are among the airlines seeking to give more space and better service to passengers paying full economy fares. Still, airlines can squeeze in as many passengers as they like, subject to the plane-maker's specifications and an internationally agreed upon minimum seat pitch of 28 inches. The pitch is the distance between an attachment point on one seat and the same point on the next seat, and it is definitely not the equivalent of legroom. Pitch also does not take into account the thickness of the seat back, the magazine pouch, or the tray. Then you still have to contend with the passenger in front of you, who insists on reclining his seat into your lap. That's why many airlines have introduced thin and hard seats in Economy Class. This allows a bit more room for your knees, but an awful alternative for the rest of your body.

Some companies see the low-margin passengers as a valuable profit, and the trend is toward an improvement in economy. Airlines go to all sorts of lengths to find out what their passengers demand from seating. They typically carry out investigations through focus groups and passenger questionnaires, or have their staff members test drive the seats. In addition to more comfort, passengers will soon be expecting seats with built-in entertainment systems and laptop ports throughout the planes.

With hard economic times forcing more business passengers to the back of the plane, some airlines are being forced, in turn, to focus attention on the quality of travel in coach. A few are creating what is, in effect, a fourth class for passengers paying full economy fare, offering more space, better service and the ability to use personal computers while in flight.

United Airlines started the trend toward a U.S. premium Economy Class in 1999 by offering several rows of more spacious seating to its frequent fliers. American Airlines responded by offering more room throughout the coach section; the airline removed 7,200 seats from its fleet of 700 aircraft. Recently, Scandinavian Airlines System introduced its new Economy Class for long haul flights in connection with the debut of its Airbus A340 aircraft. Called "Economy Extra", the class "between economy and business" offers more leg room and wider seats than the airline's regular Economy Class, plus power ports for laptop computers, adjustable headrests and footrests. All Economy Class seats on SAS's new planes have video screens in the seat backs. As you can see, each airline is taking steps to improve "the back of the bus", and hopefully we will see more improvements in the near future. Comfortable travel, plus the ability to work, all at an acceptable price, is the trend to follow.

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