Airlines step up luxury to keep rich flyers

Flying has never been so good for those who can splurge.

While most holiday travelers will fight for overhead lockers and go hours without a snack or room to stretch their legs, life in first class is stress-free. It has always been a special place on the other side of the curtain. Now, it is getting even cushier.

US airlines, profitable again after a disastrous decade, are spending almost US$2 billion (NZ$2.6 billion) to upgrade amenities for their highest-paying customers.

On the most profitable international routes, high flyers are being treated with pre-flight champagne, flat-screen TVs and seats that turn into beds. Staff greet them by name, hang up jackets and serve meals on china.

The lavish treatment is meant to keep people like Tim Carlson happy. Carlson, the chief financial officer of a semiconductor materials company, has taken 189 flights in the past two years, traveling 353,176 miles on United and its partners.

After the pilots, Carlson might just be the most important person on the plane. United will do anything to make sure another airline does not steal his business. Agents call him about delays and reroute him so he does not miss meetings.

“I go to the top of the list for the next flight,” he said.

Most of the 3.4 million Americans expected to fly this Thanksgiving holiday week will not get anything close to that treatment.

They have paid a little under US$400 for their round-trip tickets. And it is a cut-throat business. To save $5, passengers are likely to choose another airline.

So, it is no surprise the most loyal customers, and those willing to pay more for better services, are the ones airlines want to reward.

First-class and business-class passengers make up only eight per cent of international travelers but account for 27 per cent of revenue, said the International Air Transport Association.

While a round-trip coach ticket between Chicago and Beijing might cost $1000, business class costs $4000 and first class $12,000.

“There is a war going on for the profitable passenger,” said Henry H Harteveldt, co-founder of the travel firm Atmosphere Research Group.

Airlines focus on three areas:

* Giving passengers a full night’s sleep. Delta, United and US Airways are installing seats in premium international cabins that recline into flat beds. American is not making that investment but is adding turn-down service on some routes; at bedtime, offering pajamas, slippers a quilted seat cover, duvet and pillow.

* Stimulating taste buds. Come mealtime, US Airways serves citrus mahi-mahi with lemon herb sauce, jasmine rice, baby carrots and grilled asparagus in international business class. American serves Ben & Jerry’s ice cream sundaes.

* Providing escapes from the chaos of airport terminals. Delta’s new Seattle lounge features floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Mt Rainier. American’s new San Francisco club cosy up next to a fireplace.

“They’re now realizing that they need to offer a competitive product to attract the highest-dollar passengers,” said Gary Leff, co-founder of frequent flier site MilePoint.

On foreign airlines, the good life is even better.

Emirates Airlines’ first-class passengers can shower on its Airbus A380s, walled-off suites come with mini bars and premium-class passengers have access to a lounge bar.

Lufthansa has a separate terminal in Frankfurt for its first-class passengers. Passengers get dedicated immigration officers and are driven to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Porsche Cayenne.

Singapore Airlines trains flight attendants how to walk without waking passengers. And at Virgin Atlantic’s London lounge, passengers can play pool, get a massage or relax in the sauna.

To be sure, coach passengers are seeing some improvements these days, such as live television and wifi service. And they can enjoy other small luxuries for a fee. Seats with added leg room start at US$9.

But for the vast majority of passengers, the gap is growing between the front of the plane and the back. That is because the airlines know what matters to the average traveler. And it is not caviar.

“They want their luggage. They want to arrive on time. They want the aeroplane to be clean,” says Andrew Nocella, US Airways senior vice-president of marketing.

“Most importantly, they want a low fare.”

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