Child-proof travel

A cloud over air­lines’ bat­tle for the pre­mium dol­lar;

The Australian - The Deal - - News -

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

John Borghetti

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.”

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