New York Times checks in on premium airline travel

British Airways is one of many airlines investing in its premium cabins. Photo: British Airways.

British Airways is one of many airlines investing in premium cabins. Photo: British Airways.

My editor has banned me from writing any more stories about the bells and whistles that airlines are using to attract first and business class customers. He says most of our newspaper’s readers fly in coach and don’t care all that much about what happens in front of the curtain. The man does have a point.

But luckily, the New York Times has no such limits.

Hence, this week, we get to digest yet another story on the arms race of premium class travel — “Piling On the Luxury” by Jad Mouawad. “Flat beds and fluffy pillows, fancy wines and four-course meals, designer-brand pajamas and luxurious vanity kits — these options have become the staple of business-class travel these days,” he writes.

Air France has been one of the last airlines to adopt flat bed seats in business class and super luxurious seats in first class. But Alexandre de Juniac, Air France’s chairman and chief executive, told the Times he felt like he had no choice. Air France, he said, had to compete with Asian and Middle Eastern carriers.

“Our only weapons, since we can’t lower our costs to the same level as theirs, is to fight back with our own quality services,” he told the Times.

This is probably not new news for readers here, but the Times article has a pretty good roundup on the latest premium class travel trends on a bunch of major airlines, from British Airways, to Delta, to Emirates to Lufthansa.

But just remember, whatever seat is the best of the pack now probably will be obsolete pretty soon.

“It’s a catch-up game,” TAM’s CEO told the Times. “You can have the best seat ever for two years. But guess what? Someone else will come up with a better seat.”

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Airlines offered a business class sale to Europe last month. Why wasn’t it advertised?

Last month, several airlines, including United and Delta, offered deeply discounted business class tickets from many U.S. cities to Europe. In a lot of cases, the business class fares — flat seats and all — were cheaper than coach. I know this in part because I grabbed one for my honeymoon this summer.

But the airlines didn’t advertise these discount fares. You either had to get lucky — maybe you were just searching that day — or had to learn about it from a friend. From what I could tell, these fare sales were available twice, for about one day each. If you thought too much about buying, the tickets disappeared.

Why weren’t these flights advertised? Joe Brancatelli, the respected business travel columnist, has the answer. He wrote a fascinating story on these flash sales. Here’s what one airline executive told him:

“Our legal team claims you must have at least 10 percent [of seats] available at the advertised price and you can’t change fares or terms after the promotion starts,” is how one airline marketing executive explained it to me. “Now we dump what we deem appropriate into the system and don’t talk about it. Then we can pull inventory or change restrictions without repercussions. It makes the lawyers happy.”

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American Airlines compares an airline seat to a hotel room. But are the two similar?

Is it just a seat? Or is it part of a luxury brand. Photo: American.

Is this American Airlines seat just a seat? Or is it part of a luxury brand. Photo: American.

Is a premium cabin airline seat a commodity? Or is it a luxury item similar to a five-star hotel or fancy car.

US Airways A330 business class seat.

US Airways A330 business class seat.

This is a question U.S. airlines have been confronting. On one side is US Airways. I’m told US Airways has a comfortable business class seat on its A330 airplanes. They’re flat, private and have plenty of room. But you never hear US Airways bragging about its seat. The airline doesn’t blog about its in-flight menus. And you don’t see the product advertised in high-end magazines or on the internet.

American is introducing walk-up bars to its 777 fleet.

American is introducing walk-up bars to its 777 fleet.

Contrast that with merger partner American Airlines, which makes luxury branding a priority. American is in the process of adding industry-leading seats to many of its airplanes, but it has actually just started the project. Many of its planes have an out-dated business class product. No matter. The carrier has been advertising its new seats — and its onboard bar — just about everywhere. And American is not just selling a seat. It is selling an experience.

It appears the new, combined American Airlines will being going with the American approach of luxury branding. But is this a good idea? Skift has an interesting story this week called “American Airlines Has Designs on Becoming Your Hotel in Sky,” detailing American’s approach.

American believes its airplanes can be a like a luxury hotel,  Steven Moo-Young, American’s director of onboard product planning and design, told Skift.

“We’re in the hospitality industry and these are our guests. We want to make them feel as though they’re at home,” Moo-Young said. “Our DNA is hospitality.”

Skift’s Marisa Garcia noted that American’s executives used hotel-like words to describe their product. The seats, for example, were not seats. They were “suites” that could turn into “beds.” Those seats — err, beds — even have  “do not disturb” buttons.

Garcia writes of American’s approach.

They’ve carefully studied the preferences of their guest, their life-style choices, their technology needs, their food preferences, even what they like best about their cars. Then they’ve blended all of it into a unique brand experience.

I’m intrigued by American’s approach. But I think it’s possible that American will over-promise and under deliver. I also think the airline might be overestimating what the customer wants. Are we sure the business class customer wants a hotel-like experience? Or does the premium customer simply want the US Airways experience — a comfortable seat that goes flat, in a clean quiet cabin. Maybe with some decent food thrown in. It’s just a plane ride, after all.

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American Airlines unveils another business class seat, this one for the 777-200

This seat is coming on American's 777-200 fleet.

This seat is coming on American’s 777-200 fleet. Rendering: American Airlines.

How can an airline cram as many flat-bed seats as possible into business class and still make the cabin feel spacious and luxurious?

This is something carriers have been wrestling with for a decade. It’s why just about every major international airline has flatbed seats in business class. And it’s why almost every airline has a different style of business class seating. Some airlines even use two or more seating styles, which allows them to cram the most seats into each type of plane. (The blog, “One Mile at a Time,” breaks down the the five basic types of seats that airlines use.)

I bring this up because today American Airlines unveiled yet another new business class seating configuration, which will be used on its fleet of Boeing 777-200 airplanes, which the carrier flies from L.A. to Shanghai, Tokyo and Sao Paulo. This is not to be confused with other different seats American has recently announced. American is using another new seating style on its 767s. American also has a different seating style on its 777-300 fleet, and yet another new one on its A321s.

So what’s different about the 777-200 seats? Well, the biggest change is that some of them will face backwards, which is new for American. The backwards thing is already used by United and British Airways, and it’s one of the many approaches airlines use to add as many seats as they can to the cabin. Here’s what American says in a release:

“These include a two-class cabin configuration with American’s new Business Class seats, complete with fully lie-flat and all-aisle access giving you a spacious, personal and private inflight experience. These ultramodern seats are fully adjustable and convert to 6-foot-4.5-inch fully lie-flat beds to ensure a rested journey from beginning to end.”

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American also released photo of the 777-200 economy class cabin. Here is is:

4-main-cabin

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Joining other airlines, Aer Lingus will now let you bid for upgrades

Aer Lingus will let passengers bid on upgrades. Photo: Aer Lingus

Aer Lingus will let passengers bid on upgrades. Photo: Aer Lingus

Irish airline Aer Lingus is the latest carrier to offer an auction system for business class seats.

It’s pretty simple. You buy an economy class ticket. Then you go the airline’s website and make them an offer for how much you would pay for an upgrade. You enter your payment information right there. Then you submit your bid and wait.

There are some caveats. You have to be invited to make a bid. And if you don’t book directly through the airline, you won’t be eligible to participate. The window for eligible passengers closes five days prior to departure. Also, if you have multiple passengers on the same itinerary, you must try to upgrade all of them.

The trick here is to try to guess the least amount of money Aer Lingus will accept. As the airline puts it, “Each flight has minimum and maximum assigned offer value and your offer must lie between these two values.” So you don’t want to bid too high. Of course, you only get one shot at this, so you don’t want to bid too low.

I love this idea, which is used by several airlines. A CNN story in September focused on a company called Plusgrade, which has developed the software used by many carriers.

“Everyone knows that if no one is sitting in seat 2A when the plane takes off from London to New York, it’s a loss for the airline. But everyone in economy wants that seat,”  Ken Harris, the founder and CEO of Plusgrade told CNN. “The idea was to help correct that, and do it intelligently.”

CNN asked an executive with Austrian whether her airline’s bidding system hurt its ability to sell full priced business class tickets. She said it does not.

“This product is for a completely different type of group,”  Stephanie Kunath, Austrian’s director of revenue management and business development, told CNN. “It’s not for the business traveler who really wants to fly Business Class and needs a 100% guarantee that he can. It’s for the passenger that just wants to treat himself for a little extra, and can live with the uncertainty.”

Want more info? CNBC also did an interesting story on bidding for upgrades recently.

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