Battle for the first-class passenger

 


The world’s best airlines are engaged in a war of luxury that is turning long haul travel into a pleasant experience, at least for those who can afford it.

Airlines are so desperate to lure big-spending business and first-class travellers on board that they have become embroiled in a relentless competition to out do each other with the biggest seats, flattest beds and most ingratiating service. Fantastic, I say. Let battle commence.

Of course, the poor travellers who have to pay for their own tickets and fly in economy rarely see the new world of luxury at the front of the plane but there is a good reason why airlines concentrate on premium seats: that is where the profits come from.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic barely break even on the ultra competitive transatlantic route and I doubt that London to Dubai is any more profitable for the big carriers. Economy passengers are simply ballast on these trunk routes, providing a guaranteed income that justifies the flight while the late-booking, unpredictable business class passengers give the airlines their margins.

I was fortunate enough to experience the latest salvo in the luxury war last week when I joined Singapore Airlines on the maiden voyage of the A380 superjumbo into London’s Heathrow.

The double-decker A380 is a vast machine and a true engineering marvel. It weighs more than 500 tonnes at take-off but is as limber and quiet as a ballerina. The A380 is a very impressive plane and that is good news for everybody living in the Middle East as it is an aircraft you will become extremely familiar with.

Emirates has ordered 58 of the $300 million aircraft and anybody flying from Dubai to London, New York or Mumbai can expect to get on one in the near future. Emirates begins A380 flights to New York on October 1 and to London on the December 1 and what everyone wants to know is, how will the airline take the luxury battle forward?

Singapore has laid down a very aggressive marker by using the A380’s vast size to offer only 25 per cent more seats than on its Boeing 747s despite having 50 per cent more space. Its 471 passengers are split into 12 in first class, 60 in business and 399 in economy.

First class get their own suites and there are even two double beds, which is such an obvious invitation for comment that I am wondering whether the partnership between Singapore and Virgin has been
entirely healthy.

Economy is what you would expect from cattle class but at least the seats are two inches wider than current planes. But it is Singapore’s business class that really catches the eye with seats so wide passengers no longer have to limbo out from under their tray tables to go to the toilet.

I hear that on one of the very first Singapore A380 flights into Australia, a senior Qantas executive was on board spying on the new layout and was heard to say into his mobile: “I don’t believe it, it’s only four across in business.” Qantas typically has seven business-class seats in each row and British Airways has eight.

So Emirates has a lot to live up to and there have been rumours it would seek to take the upper hand in the luxury wars by putting showers onboard. To my mind, carrying all that extra water seems wasteful in an age of $110 oil.

We can get some idea of what Emirates will offer from its proposed A380 seat configurations and, unfortunately, these suggest Dubai’s carrier may struggle to beat Singapore’s offering. To New York, Emirates will go with 489 seats. That means a similar design to Singapore’s aircraft but with perhaps an extra seat in each row in business.

On medium haul routes to Europe the A380s will seat 517 – 46 more people than in Singapore’s aircraft and I can only see this coming from a business class that is barely more spacious than on current aircraft.

Emirates will also have a 644-seat A380, which it will run on Indian and Asian routes, but these flights are simply about moving large numbers of people and are not really about premium passengers.

These Emirates A380 configurations suggest that we should not expect too much from the airline in the next round of the luxury war. But then again, Emirates does love to win and I will be disappointed if it does not come up with something spectacular for its new giant of the skies.

- David Robertson is business correspondent for The Times of London
 
 
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