At A Premium
Global carriers are making major investments at the front of the plane to bring in more of those precious highend passengers
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.”
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.
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