Airlines court first-class fliers


All those who deride airline service as an oxymoron, take note: Somebody out there is worrying that your head could flop around as you snooze.

True, travelers must pay first-class fares or cash in hefty mileage awards to get this level of concern for their welfare. And whether anyone notices or appreciates the fine points is another matter. But one thing is certain -- airlines are churning out new ideas for the front cabin at an unusual pace of late as they compete for the loyalty of the well-heeled traveler.

In many cases, they are digging into history for inspiration, borrowing from the 1930s such ideas as sleeper berths and private cabins, which were necessary when a transcontinental trek by air lasted 16 hours.

Changes to the first-class cabin include the following:

* British Airways announced this week that it would reconfigure its first-class section to give passengers additional space and privacy.

Each passenger in first class will have a wing chair, a table and a facing "buddy seat" for a fellow passenger to chat or do business with. When it's time to sleep, the table and the extra seat fold away, and the wing chair becomes a 6-foot, 6-inch bed. A wooden panel as high as the chair's back lends some measure of privacy between rows. Passengers can also help themselves to food and drinks with the new "Raid the Larder" offering.

* Air France this month trumpeted its new L'Espace seat as the industry's first to fully recline. It also has movable partitions at the side and head for privacy.

* United Airlines introduced its "arrivals service" this summer. When they arrive, passengers who pay full fare for a first-class or business-class seat to Europe can hop into a free limousine that will take them to a day room at a hotel where they can shower, nap, use phones, faxes and photocopiers, and eat a free breakfast.

Several other airlines say they too are upgrading their seats, with such features as headrests that expand at the side to solve what one airline executive referred to as "that awful floppy problem" that sometimes leads to passengers' sleeping on their neighbors' shoulders.

* Virgin Atlantic Airways says it is considering building sleeper berths into new planes on long-haul routes to South Africa and Australia. The idea, which Virgin officials say is "very much at a conceptual stage," would be to offer curtained-off bunks to travelers who want to bed down for the night. Among the first planes to offer such accommodations was the 1935 Douglas Sleeper Transport. As planes grew faster, of course, such accommodations were considered less necessary.

* Japan Airlines started offering an electronic massage chair last year in first-class cabins on its long-haul flights. It said it was also upgrading its food, with a light meal on overnight flights to Hawaii.

* Delta Air Lines in November will include a line of amenities called Essentials -- lotions, facial mists, aromatherapy products, etc. -- in passenger kits and in the bathrooms for business-class and first-class customers.

These and other changes are motivated by simple economics. While a round-trip fare in coach may cost only a few hundred dollars, fares in first class typically run up to several thousand dollars, at times making the difference between a profitable or unprofitable flight.

Although business travelers, who airline executives say occupy about 80 percent of the seats in first class, rarely pay full fare because of discounts negotiated by their corporations, airlines are trying to win over these travelers as long-term customers in their frequent-flier programs.

So they are boasting new features that better serve the varied needs of business travelers. On their outbound trip, business travelers typically tap away on a computer or want to eat a quick meal and then quickly go to sleep to be refreshed for a morning meeting.

Airline executives say that on the way home, however, these same travelers are often more in the mood for relaxing and taking in every luxury the airline has to offer.

"Airlines are competing for the business traveler, and the front cabin has been rededicated to that audience," said James V. O'Donnell, chairman of Seabrook Marketing, an aviation consulting company based in Houston.

Airline executives said they were responding to renewed demand for premium seats after a period in which the cabin had been ill used, often filled with airline employees and frequent fliers who at times abused the system for upgrades.

The drop in demand for these higher fares in the most recent recession prompted several carriers -- including Scandinavian Airlines System, Finnair, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and, more recently, Trans World Airlines -- to abandon first class altogether. On many routes, Continental Airlines and USAir have also replaced first class with business class.

But now the airlines that have stayed in the market are in many cases expanding their front cabins. American Airlines, for instance, has enlarged the first-class section of its Boeing 757s from 12 to 22 seats.

"Demand for first class is coming back and driving a lot of the product changes," said Henry Joyner, vice president of marketing and planning at American Airlines.

In recent years, many of the changes in first class have centered on technology, as airlines have rushed to install phones and personal video-screens. And that race continues to some degree. Lufthansa said it would soon offer real-time stock quotes and regular updates on business news.

But airlines appear to be focusing more on creature comforts and intangibles as they try to further personalize and customize their service. Delta, for example, hopes to develop a system in the next year or two that would make customers' personal preferences for seating, meals and the like readily available to flight attendants.

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