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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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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JetBlue may add fancy first class on LAX flights

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JetBlue Airways, the airline that sought to bring a new civility to economy class 13 years ago, is expected to soon revolutionize coast to coast premium class travel.

Several blogs and news organizations have reported that JetBlue is planning to install first class suites — possibly with doors — on new Airbus A321 aircraft. The news became public after someone found a regulatory filing submitted by the aircraft manufacturer.  Apparently the seat design favored by JetBlue has never been used.

JetBlue currently has only economy class seating, though some seats have extra leg room.

JetBlue has been coy about its plans for a premium cabin. But airline officials announced in March that they were planning some sort of first or business class cabin.

In addition to LAX, JetBlue serves Long Beach and Burbank in the L.A. Basin. While the airline could use its new planes from Long Beach and Burbank, it’s much more likely it would fly them on flights between LAX and New York. Premium traffic demand at LAX tends to be considerably higher than at other airports. And that means fares can be set relatively high.

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