A cloud over airlines’ battle for the premium dollar;
It’s not just about the seat, it’s the soft product, the people – the attitude of the people and the way they look after you
The future of kids in business class is up for grabs, as major airlines vie for market share in the premium end of air travel. Singapore Airlines is considering introducing kids’ sections in business, while Malaysia Airlines banned children under the age of two years from first class cabins three years ago. But not everyone agrees: China Eastern says children are human beings and should not be banned.
“If you feel you can’t stand the screaming go by private jet,” says China Eastern general manager, Kathy Zhang.
But that's not the only issue for the airlines. They are fighting over the executive dollar because premium cabins are one of the aviation industry’s few growth areas. Global air traffic doubles every 15 years and while more than 90 per cent of passengers fly economy class the remainder of the world’s three billion annual passengers fly premium.
It is difficult to work out the value of business class to airlines, says aviation expert Peter Harbison. But Emirates, the airline with the most business class seats, is attracting business away from others. Says Harbison: “It’s because of the product, frequency, and convenience as well as the high quality inflight product. If you live in Manchester you can fly to Dubai and then Sydney on Emirates, but if you choose British Airways you would have to fly from Manchester to London, Singapore and then Sydney.”
Apart from convenience, cashed-up leisure and corporate travellers demand more: from upper deck cocktail bars and lounges to free live satellite TV. Wider and longer seats are de rigueur as are more entertainment options including latest movies and amenities kits supplied by luxury European brands such as Bulgari and Salvatore Ferragamo. Some executives are demanding on-board showering facilities but not all carriers are convinced.
At almost $86,575 from Sydney to London return, passage on Etihad’s three-room suite, The Residence, includes a personal en-suite shower room and a double bedroom. A suite will be added to the airline’s Melbourne to Abu Dhabi flights on its Airbus A380 from June. First-class passengers on Etihad can also shower on flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Abu Dhabi. However, rival carrier Emirates led the way with on-board showers, introducing two on the upper deck of its A380s for first-class passengers.
While Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific and Emirates are among the world’s best business class airlines according to airport reviewer Skytrax, Virgin Australia chief executive John Borghetti is muscling in with a vamped up domestic and international business class service on some routes. A 43-year veteran of Australia’s aviation industry, Borghetti is introducing the world’s widest and longest business class seat, with a 96-centimetre pitch.
“We are reconfiguring the aircraft with a leading edge business class seat, we put it on the A330s to Perth and customer reaction has been extraordinarily positive,” Borghetti says. “It’s because it offers privacy and space.”
But Virgin Australia is not just focusing on seats. For Borghetti, luxury cabins are also about service. “It’s not just about the seat or the colour of the carpet, it’s just as important to focus on the soft product, the people, the attitude of the people, the way they look after you, the meal, and that is where our team is doing an exceptional job,” he says.
Singapore Airlines senior vice president Tan Pee Teck is also actively chasing the business dollar. Tan says his business customers want live satellite television and Wi-Fi at affordable prices. “Everyone wants more variety in the entertainment offerings.”
On the question of children, Tan says he might look at creating a special cabin within business class for kids. “Maybe we could introduce a child free zone in business class. We are always looking at everything. I think you cannot ban children, you can train your crew, but you can’t really kick them out.”
But he’s adamant on the question of showers, saying there will definitely be no showers on Singapore Airlines even though Emirates and Etihad sport inflight bathroom suites.
“Showers are not a compelling proposition in terms of the decision to choose an airline,” Tan says. “It’s a frill that we probably don’t need. But I think service and reliability are very important.”
For Nelson Chin, Cathay Pacific general manager (south west Pacific), connectivity and convenience is the key requirement. Cathay offers four daily flights from Sydney and three daily flights from Melbourne to Hong Kong, plus a further five daily flights to New York and London. Like Singapore Airlines, Cathay has no plans for on-board showers but offers six lounges in Hong Kong where passengers can have a shower and a massage or take a nap in a private cabana. He is one of very few airline executives to admit that children in business class are an ongoing issue.
“It is very difficult to put them in another compartment,” he says. “If our members of Cathay Pacific’s Marco Polo Club (exclusive loyalty program) have children it is very difficult for us to segregate them. Our members have rights. If there are screaming babies of course our cabin crew will try their best to look after them, whether it’s taking them to the galley or keeping them entertained.”
Former Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon says kids should not be banned, but he concedes that if a particular carrier chose to stop children from travelling in business class it might suit some passengers. “It may appeal to people, but I can’t see it being that much really. They might get more business, who knows?” When he was at the helm of Qantas Dixon says he did get a couple of complaints about noise in business class caused by children. But should children be banned? “Definitely not.”
Etihad says it has no plans to exclude children and it has a flying nanny service on long-haul flights plus dedicated kids’ rooms in its lounges in Sydney and Abu Dhabi – staffed by trained carers.
Perhaps Australian Federation of Travel Agents CEO Jayson Westbury puts it best. He reckons any airline that bans children from premium cabins is likely to lose custom, unless they contemplate having some sort of defined segregation within the cabin. “With these new big super planes maybe they can design cabins within cabins which is a good idea. But once a kid is screaming, a kid is screaming. I have sat next to a baby crying the entire way home to Sydney from Hong Kong.”