It’s where airlines make their highest yield and what every top carrier is vying for— business class passengers. Let’s take a look at what some of the top airline carriers in the world are doing differently to fill those seats—and how that competition started.
Many credit the creation of business class to Pan Am in 1978. But it was Continental’s introduction of business first on route from the U.S. to London and Paris in December of 1992 that was the real game changer for onboard business class service.
When competitors were offering 38 or 40 inches of seat pitch—the distance between any point on one seat to the exact same point on the seat in front of or behind it, a good indication of the legroom you’ll be getting—Continental gave passengers 55 inches and eliminated the middle seat. Combined with first-class meal service and comparable fares, it set new standards.
Since then, airlines have been in constant competition to attract those high yield fares, which can reach ten times the profit of their earnings on economy seats. With profits like that on the table, top airlines invest in making business class seats the most attractive to potential customers.
For Air France business class passengers, in addition to getting their own private pod with lie-flat bed—which has become almost an industry standard for business class—they also get a taste of the French reputation for fine cuisine on the in-air experience. The meal service is created by Michelin-starred chefs, and sommelier-curated wine pairings from every region of France.
For entertainment, Air France is now in the trial phases of a partnership with virtual reality technology company Skylights to offer immersive in-flight entertainment headsets. These personal devices provide passengers 2D and 3D virtual reality experiences. This gives them one of the most innovative business class entertainment systems on the market.
Qatar Airways recently revealed its latest business class seat—the Q Suite.They feel it’s the best on the market. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker gave me a tour of the new seats. The most notable change? The center section is a square design not just geared toward the solo traveler. Those traveling in a pair can turn their seat into a double bed, and if you are in a group of four, you are facing the other members of your group, and can pull down the partitions. Not traveling with the person seated next to you? Not to worry—there are optional dividers there as well.
These new seats didn’t happen overnight. This was three years in the making, and it was no small investment. Airlines spend up to a half-million dollars on each new business class seat, costing airlines up to $20 million to outfit a new wide-body jet. It may be costly to implement, but these seats yield three times the profit of an economy seat—making staying in the race to attract the business class passenger worth the investment.
Etihad Airways has invested beyond its seats. In addition to 18-inch screens, noise canceling headsets, lie-flat beds, and other features that are almost expected from competitive business classes—its Business Studio offers an in-flight experience that’s not just about the seats.
Etihad business class passengers flying on the A380 have access to the lobby—a place on the upper deck where up to six passengers can sit and meet comfortably. For those who want to roam the aisles, it even provides an in-flight nanny.
If you’re looking to actually sleep on your long-haul flight, take a look at Singapore Airlines. On its A380 and 777-300er seats range between 28 and 30 inches in width—putting them in between standard business class seat width and the size of a twin bed when lying flat.
Don’t forget about domestic carriers in the United States. In December 2016, United Airlines launched Polaris, a new international business class focusing on what it feels the long-haul traveler wants most—sleep. Like its competitors, United’s new business class was a large investment. Over 12,000 hours of research went into figuring out how to get passengers the best sleep possible while flying.
Features include custom bedding by Saks Fifth Avenue, lie-flat beds that are up to six feet and six inches in length, optional mattress cushions, and a choice between a quilted duvet or light throw blanket.
Still too warm? You can trade in that Saks Fifth Avenue pillow for one with cooling memory foam gel. With this new Polaris business class, it also means that United will follow suit with many other airlines, phasing out its Polaris first class and moving to two-cabin planes.
These are just a few of the many examples of the lengths airlines are willing to go to win those higher paying travelers. These airlines aren’t giving up that chase any time soon. They are always looking for the next innovation to put them ahead of their competitors—and they are willing to pay high prices to get those high yield fares.
For more information about airlines and air travel, check out:
- The Science Behind Airplane Food
- Increased Security Screening at Airports
- The Truth About the Cost of Airfare
By the Peter Greenberg Worldwide team for PeterGreenberg.com