The Travel Detective

The Battle for Business Class Passengers

Locations in this article:  London, England Paris, France

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.

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By the Peter Greenberg Worldwide team for