Airlines add comforts for top-paying fliers Pampering for profits: While slashing services and air fares in coach, airlines are working to create loyalty among first- and business-class travelers.


British Airways PLC is preparing to take first-class service to another plane.

With seating berths designed by a London-based designer of yacht interiors, British Airways is redoing its airplanes to offer first-class passengers the ability to adapt their seating areas to different tasks.

Want to sit up and read? The seat is a comfy armchair with footrest. Want to do some work or eat dinner? A stowaway tabletop pulls out of the airplane's wall. Want someone to dine with you? A seat folds down on the other side of the table.

And when you want to go to sleep, the chair and berth can bend, extend and unfold to make a flat, 6-foot, 6-inch bed.

In all, British Airways is investing about $185 million to remodel its first-class service. A major competitor, Air France, is spending $100 million to redo its first- and business-class sections.

The first-class redos are part of a growing trend among airlines to better cater to their top-paying fliers, even as they slash services and air fares way back in coach. Most major carriers are constantly updating premium service -- from seats, cuisine, wine and video screens to amenity kits and personal masseuses -- to satisfy travelers.

The prize is a loyal customer who doesn't mind spending thousands of dollars for an airplane ride time and time again.

"It's the high-yield business for the airline," British Airways spokesman Sandy Gardiner said. "We've seen our market share grow in first class and business, and we plan to see it continue to grow worldwide. We're talking about the premium passengers. We want to retain them. You have to be innovative (( and give them what they want."

The airline can charge a very high fare with very high profits. If you want first-class service, you'll pay for it.

Airlines charge as little as $269 to fly round trip from New York to London in coach. First class costs $6,734 for the same trip, and the first-class sections between New York and London are often full. Similarly, a round-trip ticket costs $6,804 between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and London and $6,624 between D/FW and Paris in the first-class section. Business-class seats cost more than $4,100. Just one passenger in those sections can out-earn a bunch of coach fares.

At first glance, it might seem difficult to justify the upgrade expenditures for the limited number of premium-class seats on each airplane. But the fares for those classes of services can quickly recoup huge investments, airlines say.

"We all want the first-class and business-class passenger," said Judy Jordan, Delta director of brand management.

The competition is most intense on long-distance trips. As American Airlines Inc. Vice President Henry Joyner said, long trips allow an airline to really pamper a passenger, and that's when passengers want to be pampered.

For British Airways and Air France, the new seating is the focal point of their attempts to refine their service.

With most west-to-east international travel taking place at night, a good night's sleep is one of the most desired -- and elusive -- goals of travelers.

Mr. Gardiner of British Airways said the airline's research showed that first-class passengers wanted more than privacy and flexibility in their sleeping accommodations. "They wanted a bed."

The carrier engaged a London company that designs yacht interiors, Design Acumen, to figure out how to maximize space inside an airplane's first-class section and give British Airways 00 travelers a flat bed.

Its design calls for a row of angled seat-berths along each side of the airplane that convert for different activities. For sleep, the stretched-out bed slants 3 degrees down toward the feet, offsetting the airplane's 3-degree pitch upward as it flies nose-up through the air.

The Air France redesign is not so radical, but it also provides a flat seat that's only an inch shorter than the British Air design. Dubbed "L'Espace 180" for its 180-degree (horizontal) angle, the new chairs replace old first-class seats that offered a recline of 135 degrees.

Meanwhile, Air France's business-class seats will offer 127 degrees of recline, nearly as much as the previous first-class seats.

Air France already is introducing the cabins on its fleet, starting with its flights to Paris from New York and Los Angeles. L'Espace service debuts on the Houston-Paris flights and Miami-Paris flights in early 1996.

Although British Airways announced its changes three months ago, the service is just being introduced on flights this month, with completion by the end of 1996.

The two airlines decided to redo their first- and business-class sections for different reasons. For British Airways, it was part of its strategy to "refresh" its in-flight products -- first-class, business-class and economy -- at least once every three years. British Airways, which has the reputation of attracting the high-fare passengers, wants to build on that reputation.

Air France had two goals -- improve its business-class service and increase its revenue from the first-class section, airline spokesman Bruce Haxthausen said. Too many passengers in first class hadn't paid full fares to get there, instead using frequent-flier awards or negotiated fares.

But before Air France decided to make the changes, it first had to decide whether it wanted to keep a first-class section. Company officials came close to replacing the three-class service with only two classes: an enhanced business class and the economy class.

That's the same step taken on some international flights by such carriers as Continental Airlines Inc., Trans World Airlines Inc., Canadian Airlines International and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

Eventually, Air France management was swayed by the argument that Air France needed the three classes to compete in many markets, particularly on flights to North America and the Far East.

British Air's strategy is strongly oriented toward allowing only full-fare passengers to fly in first class, with Mr. Gardiner estimating that 85 percent pay full price. Air France wants to raise its percentage, Mr. Haxthausen said, although he declined to estimate how many are paying the full price.

However, other airlines said that first-class sections can be important to attract premium, profit-providing travelers even if those customers aren't paying the full first-class fares. Business people remain loyal to their favorite airline so they can earn frequent-flier points needed to get them into the first-class seats.

"Whether or not they're paying the first-class fare, they are higher-yielding passengers on whom we place high value for a good relationship with them," said Mr. Joyner, American's vice president of market planning. "They are producing profit for us, long term."

Although a reputation for fine service attracts first- and business-class passengers, it helps sell the rest of the airplane as well, Ms. Jordan of Delta said.

"It has a nice halo effect on the rest of your operation," Ms. Jordan said. "When's the last time you've seen an ad for coach? Everybody talks about what's happening at the front of the airplane."

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