At A Pre­mium

Global car­ri­ers are mak­ing ma­jor in­vest­ments at the front of the plane to bring in more of those pre­cious high­end pas­sen­gers

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Paul Sillers

Global car­ri­ers are mak­ing ma­jor in­vest­ments to bring in more frontof-the-plane fliers

Ad­vances in pre­mium cabin prod­uct tend to fol­low a pre­dictable tra­jec­tory; more real es­tate, im­proved seclu­sion from other pas­sen­gers, larger IFE screens, new gas­tro­nomic con­coc­tions, all taste­fully ac­ces­sorized with a sprin­kling of de­signer-name amenity kits and lu­bri­cated with tip top bub­bly.

The cur­rent and im­mi­nent pick of pre­mium in­flight of­fer­ings and prod­uct en­hance­ments doesn’t dis­ap­point, and it’s not sur­pris­ing. The quest for con­sol­i­dat­ing pas­sen­ger loy­alty and up­ping the com­pe­ti­tion is unceas­ing. Now, there’s an ad­di­tional fac­tor in the mix — Pre­mium Econ­omy. This ubiq­ui­tous oxy­moron pro­lif­er­at­ing at the rear of the fuse­lage has been snap­ping at the heels of busi­ness class, pro­pel­ling the qual­ity and spec­i­fi­ca­tion of front-of-house of­fer­ings to even loftier al­ti­tudes.

But be­fore we hit those enor­mous re­clin­ing seats, let’s kick off with some food for thought.

A Taste for Travel

Food and travel have al­ways been delectably sym­bi­otic: Food­ies love to travel, and pas­sen­gers love their food; hence the rise of culi­nary tourism to the far flung corners of the world. When it comes to on­board cater­ing, so­cial media is a decisive cat­a­lyst driv­ing com­pe­ti­tion and in­ge­nu­ity. The trend­ing habits of pas­sen­gers In­sta­gram­ing, Snapchat­ting, Tweet­ing and Face­book­ing photos of the food they en­counter at 30,000 feet has brought about an in­creased con­scious­ness of the di­ver­sity, qual­ity and pre­sen­ta­tion of what air­lines are serv­ing. A great piece of culi­nary cre­ativ­ity can go vi­ral. But by the same to­ken, if your on­board som­me­lier’s rec­om­men­da­tion doesn’t quite hit the spot,

that cabin WiFi could be re­lay­ing an online rant to that pas­sen­ger’s net­work be­fore touch-down.

So­cial media and culi­nary tourism are push­ing air­lines to be cre­ative, re­spon­sive and to de­vise palet­table points of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and brand en­gage­ment. One ex­am­ple: All Nip­pon Air­ways. First class pas­sen­gers on flights from North Amer­ica have re­cently been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing or­ange-fla­vored dress­ing us­ing toma­toes from Fukushima.

“So what?”you might ask. But here’s the thing: It’s all part of the air­line’s ‘Tastes of Ja­pan by ANA’cam­paign which fo­cuses the light of the ris­ing sun on many of Ja­pan’s more es­o­teric lo­cales, from Fukuoka to Toyama. A pre-flight visit to their web­site at ana.co.jp/taste­sof­japan/en/ out­lines the ex­otic dishes on of­fer, the pre­fec­ture from where they orig­i­nate, and the air­craft cabin/lounge/route com­bi­na­tion on which they’re avail­able.

Air­line brand­ing pi­o­neer Sin­ga­pore Air­lines also en­lists re­gional fla­vors with “Sin­ga­pore Her­itage Cui­sine”this sum­mer as the car­rier cel­e­brates the na­tion’s 50th birth­day.“Per­anakan food”– on which the pro­mo­tion is based –“is a unique blend of South­east Asian and Euro­pean cul­tures that have evolved over cen­turies into a cui­sine that is sub­tle, so­phis­ti­cated and com­plex. It truly re­flects our her­itage,” ex­plains SIA’s celebrity food con­sul­tant Sher­may Lee, owner of the epony­mous Sher­may’s Sin­ga­pore Fine Food.

Dur­ing Septem­ber, pre­mium pas­sen­gers can‘Book the Cook’to or­der Ayam Buah Keluak, Itek Siow or Nonya Pork Sa­tay. Book the cook is SIA’s spe­cially cu­rated menu con­cept en­abling pre­mium pas­sen­gers to en­sure their fa­vorite meal will be on their flight. (Re­mem­ber to pre­order at least 24 hours be­fore de­par­ture.)

One of the key chal­lenges in repli­cat­ing on­board the gas­tro de­lights that are avail­able in ter­res­trial-based eater­ies is hav­ing the right equip­ment in the kitchen. But as Julie Jar­ratt, Cathay Pa­cific’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion man­ager Amer­i­cas ex­plains, the air­line came to grips with gal­ley tech­nol­ogy be­fore many of its com­peti­tors:

“In first class, Cathay was one of the first air­lines to have rice cook­ers, toast­ers and skil­lets on board our air­craft, en­abling our flight at­ten­dants to pre­pare freshly steamed rice, toasted bread and eggs cooked to pas­sen­gers’lik­ing. Also in first class, our pas­sen­gers can dine à la carte by choos­ing when they pre­fer to eat.”

Cathay’s latest part­ner­ship with Ital­ian cof­fee-roast­ing mae­stros illy, de­vel­op­ers of the mod­ern-day espresso ma­chine, fa­cil­i­tates faith­ful ren­di­tions of espresso, café latte and cap­puc­cino, us­ing cof­fee fil­ter “pil­lows”and care­fully con­trolled brew­ing times and wa­ter tem­per­a­ture – spe­cially cre­ated for Cathay’s pre­mium pas­sen­gers.

For those with an ap­petite for the in­side story on pre­mium air­line food, Le Fi­garo’s food colum­nist Véronique An­dré has just pub­lished a book: Haute Cui­sine, High Fly­ing Chefs and Air France, pub­lished by Gal­li­mard. It high­lights the dishes avail­able in AF’s La Pre­mière and Busi­ness cab­ins. Marvel at col­lab­o­ra­tions with great French Miche­lin-starred chefs in­clud­ing Alain Du­casse, Joël Robu­chon and Guy Martin.

Com­fort, Not Di­men­sions

In the past, pre­mium class re­views have of­ten con­sisted of spread­sheets of sta­tis­tics – seat width, seat pitch, etc. But quan­ti­ta­tive cal­cu­la­tions are mean­ing­less when to­day’s first class seats and beds can easily ac­com­mo­date the most portly pas­sen­gers. Com­fort is no longer about an ex­tra inch here or there – it’s about a more com­plex ma­trix of fac­tors: er­gonomic, phys­i­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal.

Bot­tom line: It’s all about the feel-good fac­tor, as Bri­tish Air­ways’Robert An­to­niuk, VP cus­tomer ser­vice and oper­a­tions North Amer­ica West ex­plains.“We were the first com­mer­cial car­rier to in­tro­duce a ful­lyflat bed in first class in 1996 and have just an­nounced our new 787-900, ar­riv­ing in Septem­ber, [which] will have a re­designed first cabin, giv­ing even more ex­clu­siv­ity and pri­vacy to cus­tomers.” It’s all part of BA’s £5 bil­lion in­vest­ment in new air­craft, cab­ins, lounges and tech­nolo­gies“to make life more com­fort­able in the air.”

But if beds are less of a dif­fer­en­tia­tor, how are air­lines dis­tin­guish­ing them­selves in the pre­mium mar­ket? Cathay’s Jar­ratt says,“Now that most car­ri­ers fea­ture lieflat beds, it’s re­ally the stan­dard of ser­vice that sets us apart – from the glass of Krug cham­pagne served to first class cus­tomers upon board­ing, to the un­der­stated and an­tic­i­pa­tory ser­vice from our award­win­ning cabin crew.”

In Ger­many, Lufthansa’s points of dif­fer­ence are more about ap­ply­ing tech­nol­ogy to pro­mote com­fort. “Lufthansa’s first class is the qui­etest cabin in com­mer­cial avi­a­tion, of­fer­ing sound-ab­sorb­ing cur­tains which par­ti­tion off the cabin, sound-in­su­lat­ing ma­te­rial in the air­craft’s outer skin that blocks ex­te­rior noise and sound-ab­sorb­ing car­pet­ing block­ing foot­step noise,”ex­plains

Christina Sem­mel, Lufthansa’s cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager, North Amer­ica. “The first class cabin on Lufthansa’s A380 also has an air hu­mid­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem – the first of its kind to be in­stalled on a com­mer­cial air­craft – that im­proves air hu­mid­ity to help fight off jet lag.”

Air France is tak­ing a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach in La Pre­mière Cabin. When pas­sen­gers are sleepy,“crew mem­bers in­stall a mat­tress on the seat, for im­pec­ca­ble com­fort”re­lates Ulli Gen­drot. Then they’re“given a fluffy pil­low and a ‘Sof­i­tel MyBed’du­vet,”part of a strat­egy to align sleep­ing com­fort with the stan­dards avail­able in ho­tels. A sim­i­lar align­ment with ho­tel prod­uct is also im­ple­mented by Delta Air­lines with its Westin Heav­enly In­Flight Bed­ding, avail­able in its Delta One cabin on long-haul in­ter­na­tional flights and cross-coun­try flights be­tween JFK and LA or San Fran­cisco.

Not to be left out, putting pas­sen­gers in their com­fort zone is a goal shared by United, whose Kath­leen Wat­son ex­plains, “United Air­lines is cre­at­ing the most flier­friendly travel ex­pe­ri­ence for its pre­mium cus­tomers by en­abling them to se­lect the prod­ucts and ser­vices they most value.” On United Global First“a flat-bed seat with turn-down ser­vice, a higher level of pri­vacy and com­fort and more-per­sonal at­ten­tion” come stan­dard.

While fully-flat beds are a given in first class, sur­pris­ingly, on­board showers have been slow to catch on. Emi­rates pi­o­neered the on­board“Shower Spa”on its A380 back in 2008, but out­side of cor­po­rate avi­a­tion, Eti­had (see be­low) is the only other air­line to em­brace that ini­tia­tive. Of in­ter­est, though not ex­actly qual­i­fy­ing as a shower, is the in­stal­la­tion on Ja­pan Air­lines of its unique warm-wa­ter Toto Wash­let de­vice in the elec­tronic toi­lets of its new 787-9 – per­fect for that pre­mium wa­ter-jet fi­nale when at­tend­ing to one’s“ablu­tions.”

In fact, JAL’s Dream­liner flies the latest it­er­a­tion of the car­rier’s pop­u­lar Sky Suite con­cept, which fea­tures a busi­ness class with fully-flat seats in an all-aisle-ac­cess 2-2-2 con­fig­u­ra­tion and enor­mous 23inch screens. Be­yond the busi­ness cabin, in what could best be de­scribed as a case of in­no­va­tion trickle-down, the air­line’s 787-9s and 777s also fea­ture Sky Pre­mium, a more spa­cious pre­mium econ­omy prod­uct with fixed-back cra­dle seats (so the pas­sen­ger in front of you doesn’t re­cline his head into your lap) and 12.1 inch mon­i­tors. Even the back of the plane of­fers Sky Wider II seats in a gen­er­ous 2-4-2 lay­out.

“On most ma­jor long-haul trans-Pa­cific routes, Ja­pan Air­lines of­fers a unique Pre­mium Econ­omy ex­pe­ri­ence in­clud­ing slide-down shell seat­ing in its own ded­i­cated cabin with a 42-inch pitch,” notes Hideki Takarada, vice pres­i­dent mar­ket­ing for Ja­pan Air­lines.“Ad­di­tion­ally, pre­mium econ­omy cus­tomers can en­joy com­pli­men­tary lounge ac­cess and a host of in­flight ameni­ties in­clud­ing 12.1-inch touch-panel mon­i­tors, power out­lets and USB ports.”

State­side, Bar­bara DeLol­lis, Amer­i­can Air­lines mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager re­lates that“Amer­i­can Air­lines is im­prov­ing the pre­mium cabin ex­pe­ri­ence for to­day’s cus­tomers, whose lifestyles and ex­pec­ta­tions have changed over the years” – a ger­mane note, as AA tran­si­tions into its post-US-Air­ways-merger era.

“We’re re­fresh­ing our pre­mium cab­ins by adding new fully lie-flat seats, up­grad­ing menus and wine and equip­ping air­craft with in­ter­na­tional ser­vice for WiFi,” DeLol­lis ex­plains. “This new ap­proach can be seen in our award-win­ning A321T, the only true first class ser­vice be­tween the West Coast and NewYork.”It’s all part of Amer­i­can’s‘Go­ing for Great’ini­tia­tive, an

“ex­treme makeover”to po­si­tion the car­rier as“the great­est air­line in the world.”

Col­lec­tor’s Item

The snug feel of the comfy pre­mium seat and the lemony vi­brancy of Krug may only linger in the pas­sen­ger’s con­scious­ness for as long as it takes to re­trieve their lug­gage off the carousel. Hav­ing a“take-away” pro­longs brand en­gage­ment be­yond the ar­rivals gate, which is why air­lines in­vest strate­gi­cally in col­lectible take-aways in the form of amenity kits.

We’ve come to ex­pect de­signer-la­beled amenity kits in the pre­mium cabin – Givenchy bags on Air France are de rigueur – but what’s not quite so ex­pected is the align­ment of fash­ion la­bels that carry a cache of na­tional her­itage with air­line brands that have a unique, and quite dif­fer­ent, ge­o­graphic an­chor.

For ex­am­ple, you might not have an­tic­i­pated the quintessen­tially Bri­tish brand Aquas­cu­tum be­ing the de­sign la­bel of Aeromex­ico’s new amenity kit. Nor might you have ex­pected to see the Mi­lanesque Ar­mani la­bel on the amenity kits of Qatar Air­ways, though then again you might, as you don the air­line’s Mis­soni-de­signed pa­ja­mas.Yet these sur­pris­ing brand jux­ta­po­si­tions are a breath of fresh air, in­ject­ing a sense of in­ter­na­tional play­ful­ness that ac­knowl­edges that air­lines are as much about des­ti­na­tion as they are about ori­gin.

Another con­tin­u­ing trend in amenity kits are minia­tur­ized Ri­mowa cases. ANA, Lufthansa, EVA and Thai have of­fered these (though ANA’s new amenity kit is now a minia­ture Samsonite Cos­mo­lite case). Such is the col­lectible fac­tor that some pre­mium amenity kits can easily reach over $100 on eBay for those who are will­ing to re­lin­quish these cov­etable ar­ti­facts.

Fu­ture Pre­mium

Re­mem­ber a decade ago when, in first class, you were do­ing pretty well if you had a 10-inch screen? To­day’s screens to­tally trump that: Asiana and Eti­had’s pre­mium cab­ins al­ready sport 32-inch screens, as will Swiss’new 777-300ERs start­ing next Jan­uary. The ob­jec­tive: To cre­ate a com­pletely im­mer­sive en­ter­tain­ment ex­pe­ri­ence.

But where next? Qan­tas re­cently tested 3D Vir­tual Re­al­ity head­sets us­ing Sam­sung Gear in its A380 FC cab­ins. Fa­vor­able pas­sen­ger feed­back ini­ti­ated a new 360 de­gree VR ex­pe­ri­ence of the Great Bar­rier Reef, trans­port­ing view­ers into a vir­tual world at the click of a but­ton, now avail­able on se­lect A380 flights be­tween Aus­tralia and Los An­ge­les.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to travel in a style that was a par­a­digm shift above first class, you’d have to hire a pri­vate jet. But if you want to“take things fur­ther ... tear up the plans and start again,” as Ni­cole Kid­man se­duc­tively puts it as she wafts through the sump­tu­ous sur­round­ings of Eti­had’s“Fly­ing Reimagined”TV com­mer­cial, you’ll have to book a ticket for The Res­i­dence. This jewel in the crown of Eti­had’s A380 in­cor­po­rates a liv­ing room, sep­a­rate bed­room and en suite bath­room at­tended by a but­ler and chef.

For those who as­pire to the brand cache of The Res­i­dence but are lim­ited to a first class bud­get, Eti­had’s First Apart­ment is a more mod­estly priced yet still lux­u­ri­ous al­ter­na­tive. Both classes make their de­but on the JFK to Abu Dhabi route on Dec. 1.

Paul Sillers is a de­sign con­sul­tant and writer spe­cial­iz­ing in avi­a­tion brand­ing and tech­nol­ogy, and is the au­thor of In­ter­na­tional Busi­ness Eti­quette 2020. BT

Clock­wise: Sin­ga­pore Air­lines Suite, Lufthansa Air­lines First Class, A380 First Class, Pre­mium

meal Air France, United Air­lines Busi­ness First, Eti­had Air­lines-The Res­i­dence But­ler, Delta Air Lines Flatbed seat, Amer­i­can Air­lines

Transcon­ti­nen­tal First Class, Qan­tas Air­lines

From top: Amer­i­can Air­lines First Class, Bri­tish Air­ways First lass

Clock­wise: Sin­ga­pore Air­lines First Class Suite, Pre­mium meal-Air France, Cathay

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