High-fliers are picky. Bone china in business class travel is so last decade. And large carriers are working very hard to woo the first and business class traveller into ever newer, even more exclusive experiences. Millions of dollars are being spent in the effort to lure the big spenders away from the siren songs of corporate jets.
This does not require a doctorate in travel to understand: Quite simply, profits from the premium cabins are often four to five times those earned from the economy class.
Unsurprisingly, new cabins being rolled out around the world have much more than seats that turn into comfortable beds.
British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Virgin Atlantic, Delta, Qantas and Qatar Airlines lead the pack, combining great service with technology to craft truly luxurious experiences that take the stress out of travel.
In conversations with Forbes India, the airlines, their CEOs and senior managers spoke of personalising service, right from the time a guest arrives at the airport. Here's a flavour of what you can expect this year.
While you wait
Complimentary food and showers are now standard at many premium lounges. From waiting areas, they have evolved into stress-easing sanctuaries where travellers can relax and connect. Some airlines stand out for the oases they have laid out.
- Virgin Atlantic's chic and swanky Clubhouse lounges aim to live up to the branding: They feel like a private club. The ones at Heathrow and Gatwick have their own spa. Others have massage, brasserie dining areas and pool tables. If you are on a transatlantic flight and want to hit the ground running on arrival, you can dine and, when boarding's called, shuffle to bed in your pajamas (the airline helpfully provides sleepwear and suit-carriers).
- British Airways takes this a step further with its Sleeper service flights connecting London to the US. Frequent fliers prefer to have a full dinner at the lounges, so they can catch up on sleep on board. On landing, they can shower, have their clothes ironed, have breakfast and head out. BA's lounge complex at Heathrow caters to different passenger categories. Fliers from India say it makes sense to spend an hour at the Arrivals lounge to avoid getting into London hotels before the check-in time.
- The Emirates first class lounge at Dubai's new Terminal 3 is spacious and luxurious, with à la carte menus, not buffets. It has three themed seating areas-Arabian, Mughul and Asian-and a wine cellar.
Emirates first and business class passengers have always had it good. The airline gets its premium passengers around the world picked up by a limousine service. The service will now be emulated by its new partner, Aussie carrier Qantas. All Qantas flights into Europe will re-route via Dubai, when the code-share comes into effect this April.
While Emirates uses Mercedes and Volvos for the pick-up and drops, in the US, Delta uses Porsche cars to transfer top frequent fliers to connecting flights at its main hub in Atlanta.
In the air
Airlines are constantly trying to make things more comfortable. The cabin experience is about food, drink, connectivity, entertainment-but above all about being able to relax.
- Singapore Airlines's first class ambience is heading for a huge upgrade this year. DesignworksUSA, part of BMW group, is making seats with more privacy, comfort. When SA's partnership with OnAir is rolled out over the next two years, fliers can surf the web, check emails on smartphones, send and receive SMS on GSM-compatible mobile phones. A $400 million upgrade of its in-flight entertainment is on the cards. Also in the pipeline is an e-library.
- Malaysian Airlines and AirAsia X have a 'no kids' section in their premium-seating on some routes. Not everyone likes it.
- Onboard entertainment is improving by leaps. Emirates is often seen as the most over-the-top, with bars, onboard showers and Bvlgari amenity kits on the A380. One feature that delights fliers are external cameras on the aircraft's belly and nose. They offer great views, especially during take off and landing.
Emirates' in-flight entertainment has 1,300 channels. Soon, fliers can navigate by swiping and scrolling like on a tablet.
- Virgin Atlantic's A330 passengers have two screens, one of them a touchscreen. You can watch a movie on one, and track the flight's progress on the second.
Getting airline food right is a tough task, because food and drink don't taste the same at cruising altitude. Airlines are constantly trying to overcome this.
- Virgin Atlantic is all for bringing the glamour back to flying. And it isn't just with basic meals. Their Upper Class tea service is decidedly posh: Scones, finger sandwiches and cakes served on your own little cake-stand. Standard fare includes an after-dinner cheese board, port (the drinkable one), even ice-cream. And perhaps hot chocolate with a dash of Baileys at bed time.
- Pre-packed trays? The horror! For quite a few airlines, even the trolley is old school for the pricey seats; instead, each course is brought out individually for every passenger.
- Qatar Airways' menu is made by four chefs with nine Michelin stars between them. Order from a standard menu or a dish made by Nobu Matsuhisa, Lebanese TV star Ramzi Choueri, Britain's Tom Aikens and India's Vineet Bhatia.
- Singapore Airlines allows you to 'Book the Cook' up to 24 hours before your flight. You can order from the creations of a selection of celebrity chefs.
- When cruising, the aircraft's pressure is not quite sea-level pressure. So, water boils below 100°C. A cup of tea isn't possible if you're a purist, since it needs water at just below 100°C to release flavours. British Airway has made a special tea-bag-a blend of three teas-designed for the flavour to seep out at 89°C. Just so.
The smile high club
When it comes to service, each is constantly one-upping the other.
- Last year, BA led the way: Crew members had iPads with information about passengers in their section-where each customer is seated, who they are travelling with, how much they fly with the airline and if they have special meal requests. Other premium carriers are following suit: Emirates and Qantas staff now have tablets. (Incidentally, TCS worked on the app for British Airways.)
- Fizz, Virgin Atlantic's futuristic onboard bar, the longest in the sky at 2.7 meters, has great new spaces to sit and socialise, and has been very popular in the day-time flights.
- Emirates' onboard lounges allow travellers to socialise or just stretch their legs.
- Eighty percent of business class passengers travel alone. Giving them aisle access is very important. Most want to use their own devices. Airlines know it's in their interest to facilitate this, so charging points and docks and the like are de rigueur.
- For those travelling with a companion, Singapore Airlines offers couple beds.
- BA has a turndown service: Cabin crew lay out an Egyptian cotton mattress, duvet and pillow.
- Delta has tied up with Westin to offer the hotel's famed 'Heavenly bed' pillows and comforters. This is in response to surveys that showed that sleep is the top priority for passengers, irrespective of the class of service.
All in all, for the long haul flights, with only 14 first class seats on a B777 or a B747, flights are a better option than the average corporate aircraft.
- Virgin launched Little Red, a domestic service to Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, with schedules to suit fliers from Delhi and Mumbai to London.
- Delta Airlines is picking up a stake in Virgin Atlantic-the alliance will create a much expanded network.
- Qatar's entry to Oneworld, Emirates' tie-up with Qantas are likely to vastly up the network spread of both middle-eastern carriers.