Are Airlines Beginning to Get It Right?

Not all the news emerging these days is bad. In fact, reports David Kaufman, from business-class-only carriers to futuristic security scanning, things are looking up.

At least twice a week for the past year, Prince Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia has flown round-trip between Geneva and Paris, wasting almost no time in check-in and security lines. Arriving mere minutes before departure and quickly boarding a sleek 14-seat Dornier 328Jet, the prince goes from takeoff to touchdown in less time than it takes many passengers to clear Customs. Yet the prince doesn't owe this convenience to some private royal fleet or a share in a fractional jet scheme. "Unfortunately, I don't have enough money to buy my own jet," laments the heir to the Italian throne. Rather, di Savoia flies on 18-month-old Club Airways, Europe's first scheduled business-class-only airline. "No one else," he asserts, "can even compare."

From boutique business carriers to new ultra-long-haul flights, fully enclosed first-class "suites" to much improved security scanning, the news on air travel is hardly all bad. Indeed, for a certain segment of the population, the airlines care more than ever about how long fliers have to stand in lines, how comfortably they sleep in first class, how much they have to worry about, and how much they can enjoy not worrying. For frequent fliers like di Savoia, this latest self-improvement plan could not be more appreciated. As the front-line casualties of airline malfeasance, these fliers have paid the price for an industry battered by bankruptcy, shackled by security restraints, and guilty as charged, at times, of sheer consumer indifference. Airlines themselves will be the first to confirm that in many markets, premium service has deteriorated. In fact, says Tyler Brûlé, chairman and creative director of Winkreative, whose agency revamped Swiss International Air Lines, "It's like the American airlines have just given up altogether."

Clearly, new in-flight products and services will go a long way toward redressing such negligence. But since these solutions are more cosmetic than fundamental, the major carriers must still devise even more farsighted tactics to fulfill the potential of their cabins' front ends. What the airlines need is a full-scale corporate cultural shift, a change in mind-set that will bring back the "thrilling left turn"—that heart-skipping moment upon boarding when turning left into first class and business class offered one of the few guaranteed luxuries in life.

Admittedly, with the crowded terminals and endless safety searches, luxuries of any type have become scarce. But some next-generation thrills are already starting to emerge. "Especially on international long-haul carriers, there is a tremendous amount of change and innovation going on in premium classes," says Craig B. Jenks, president of Airline/Aircraft Projects Inc., a New York-based airline-industry consultancy. Now debuting on airlines worldwide, these in-flight innovations will test the limits of industry technology, ingenuity, and investment while paving the way for even more ambitious upgrades.

Nowhere are these breakthroughs more compelling than on the airlines flying the most up-to-date equipment, notably the new long-range Airbus A340 series (the A340-500 and the A340-600). For even the most seasoned flier, the A340's dimensions are awfully appealing. On Emirates Airline, doors that reach practically from floor to ceiling open and close at the touch of a button to form private first-class cabins, complete with "room service." On Virgin Atlantic's new Upper Class Suite, seats can remain reclined at takeoff and landing and can be flipped over to become fully flat beds. And on 181Ž2-hour nonstop flights on Singapore Airlines to Los Angeles and New York, there are two classes, with just 181 seats, on planes originally built to carry 313—each seat affords nearly five inches of legroom more than a comparable 747 business-class seat. "Our goal was to exceed the comfort and convenience of a private jet using the increased volume of the A340," says Jacques Pierrejean, the Paris-based interior designer of the Emirates first- and business-class cabins.

With the price tag exceeding $300 million per fleet, these revamped premium classes are costly—though necessary—industry evolutions. Indeed, for Singapore and Emirates (the latter launched its first nonstop Dubai-to-New York flight in June), they're a key strategy for luring top-paying U.S leisure and business travelers onto their improved planes. Think about it: With both Dubai and Singapore now being just one flight away and directly linked to sophisticated feeder networks, each city becomes an attractive hub for connecting traffic from the world's largest aviation market. Add in those plusher, kinder cabins, and these ultra-long-haul routes "raise the bar for everyone in the industry," says Brûlé. "Americans now have much easier access to India, the Maldives, even Australia."

For the European carriers, both Air France and Lufthansa have followed Virgin's lead and are currently deploying their tweaked front cabins on routes worldwide. Air France just rolled out L'Espace Première (a.k.a. first class), which features fully flat beds that are six feet five inches long, and onboard cuisine planned by Guy Martin, chef of Le Grand Véfour, a Paris restaurant with three Michelin stars. Lufthansa, meanwhile, is launching a beefed-up business class with six-foot-six-inch beds, in-flight broadband Internet/e-mail services, and even an Atkins-friendly low-carbohydrate menu on select flights. Keep in mind, though, that the airlines can take up to a year and a half to retrofit their entire fleets, says Matthew J. Bennett, publisher of the insider site "Pay attention to their rollout schedule," he advises, "to avoid disappointment."

Europe's second- and third-largest carriers, however, are not simply relying on snazzier versions of existing amenities to woo fickle fliers—they're developing entirely new service categories. In a sign of what might be the business class of the future, two years ago Lufthansa launched an all-business flight between Newark and Düsseldorf. Since then, the service has expanded to Chicago-Düsseldorf and Newark-Munich routes on either Boeing Business Jet 737s or enhanced Airbus A319s. Taking a cue from across the border, Air France recently introduced Dedicate, premium flights traveling between its Charles de Gaulle hub and remote African, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern destinations on 82-seat Airbus 319s. Arriving in the early morning and departing at night, Dedicate flights are aimed at business travelers looking to pack maximum meeting time into minimal ground time.

Although an all-business-class flight is still a novelty to all but the most seasoned travelers, business-jet veterans are bullish on their potential to alter the in-flight playing field. "It's taken the airlines years to get it right, but these flights are exactly on target," says Paul M. McManus, president and CEO of the Leading Hotels of the World and a Lufthansa Business Jet flier.

For true first-class fans, things get trickier in the United States and south of the border. Three-class cabins exist on most major North and South American routes—except Mexico's. But even in the best-case scenarios, Brûlé likens the flights to "supermarket experiences." Starved of cash and knocking heads with discounters like JetBlue and Southwest, the major American carriers have forfeited perfecting their premium classes to focus on mere survival, suggests Phil Roberts, vice president at Unisys R2A Transportation Management Consultants in Oakland. As a result, many top-tier passengers are now taking a do-it-yourself approach to ensuring the best possible in-flight comfort and value.

Gordon Campbell Gray, owner of London's One Aldwych hotel and the new Carlisle Bay resort in Antigua, for instance, has no qualms at all about flying British Airways first class from London to New York and then taking JetBlue to California. "With everyone glued to a TV on most flights, I love the silent cabin," says the former Concorde devotee. His colleague Jeff Klein, who owns the City Club Hotel in New York and the Argyle Hotel in Los Angeles, is obsessed with Boeing 777s, insisting on them when flying American Airlines's first class cross-country. "The only thing I'm interested in is American's fully flat bed," says Klein, who commutes twice monthly from New York to Los Angeles. "So I bring my own food, my own movies, even my own blankets." Meanwhile, Klein might spot Los Angeles-based Bisou Bisou fashion designer Michele Bohbot on those same 777s, holed up in row one sketching next season's collection. "I always take the twelve-fifteen flight to JFK," says Bohbot, "so it really becomes office time."

Much as the new A340s are revitalizing Asian and Middle Eastern carriers, it is the 777 that is defining top-end service in the Western Hemisphere. The key to the top of the top end, however, is knowing which 777s offer exactly which version of first and business class. One of the easiest tricks, at least in the States, is to fly planes that service both international and domestic routes, says FirstClassFlyer's Bennett. For travel agents and fliers using an airline's Web site, their routes are easy to spot, Bennett notes: They'll usually feature the more elaborate first- and business-class cabins employed on long-haul routes. "A Dallas-to-Los Angeles flight that continues straight on to Tokyo—this is the kind of flight to look for," he says.

Without a doubt, clear knowledge of route networks, plane types, class configurations, and flight times can be a bit much to master, even for the most frequent of frequent fliers. This is where experienced travel agents or tour operators come into the picture. At the very least, they'll ensure that passengers receive the best seats on the best flights in the best class. At the very most, they'll provide staffers to look after clients at every stage of their journey. Eastern Europe and Russia specialist Exeter International, for instance, literally meets clients at touchdown in such cities as Prague, Budapest, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. Passengers go directly from their seats to a dedicated VIP lounge while their passports are stamped, their baggage collected, and ground transportation is readied. Similar fast-track procedures occur in reverse when it's time to return to the United States. And while Exeter clients can't entirely avoid security lines, "we remove as much of the stress and hassle as possible," says president Greg Tepper.

Exeter is not alone in offering these services. India experts Cox & Kings provides personal escorts through security and immigration at most of its destinations; Abercrombie & Kent meets clients on the tarmac in hot spots like Cairo and East Africa; and in much of Latin America, "diplomatic" escorts can usually be arranged by experienced agents with good airport contacts or directly through the airline.

Still, if airlines are to return to an era of the thrilling left turn, they won't just have to meet passenger needs; they'll have to anticipate and exceed them as well. Back in Geneva, Club Airways convert Aimery Langlois-Meurinne, director general of Pargesa, a Geneva-based holding company, proposes that this is the direction Club is taking. He reports that the airline has actually chartered private jets on the rare occasions its fleet encountered technical difficulties."Of the hundred times I've flown Club, something has gone wrong only once or twice, and they were immediately ready with a solution," says Langlois-Meurinne. "Of course no airline can guarantee perfection," he concedes. But a carrier that not only admits to but also remedies its own flaws—now, that's a thrill any traveler would welcome.

Designer Discounters

As no-frills airlines like Southwest and JetBlue win fliers from United and American, a clutch of lower-profile discounters are taking a cue from the big guys and upgrading their cabins. Setting their sights on business travelers, Airtran, ATA, and Spirit have all either introduced low-fare business classes or intend to do so this year. Airtran's service includes free drinks and several extra inches of legroom, while ATA will offer leather seats and priority boarding. Best of all, upgrades are available at departures to most destinations for under $50 per segment.

Lounge Acts

With its $3.4 million price tag, Eero Saarinen furniture, and a pair of full-size showers, Virgin Atlantic's new Clubhouse at JFK is the latest showcase of luxury lounge design. It's also one of the most health-focused, serving snacks and meals that are both organic and "conscious of calories, salt, and carbs," says Cameron Woodward, Virgin's in-flight catering development manager. Although leading the trend, the Clubhouse will face competition for top-lounge status with the debut of Emirates Airline's JFK lounge later this year. It's a prelude to the carrier's state-of-the-art underground lounge opening at its Dubai hub in 2006, which will connect directly to special first- and business-class entrances on Emirates' new double-decker Airbus A380 jets. Other key lounges to consider are Northwest's new space in Detroit and the forthcoming dedicated first-class Lufthansa terminals at the busy Munich and Frankfurt airports.


At Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International, 120,000 frequent fliers are avoiding lengthy immigration lines at perhaps the world's most security-conscious airport. How are they doing it? Through biometrics, computerized technologies that verify identities based on specific physical characteristics. In Israel's case, hand geometry is used to recognize preregistered passenger profiles. Last year the International Civil Aviation Organization identified such additional markers as fingerprints, facial features, and eye patterns as suitable for biometrics at worldwide border controls. Currently, biometrics are being used in the United States to identify foreign travelers entering the country, as well as in various capacities at Canadian, Brazilian, and Western European airports. Also in the works: advanced airport kiosks that will speed travelers through terminals by solving problems before they affect passengers. "Look for more robust software that lets passengers know their flight has changed and automatically prints out new boarding cards," says Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition.

David Kaufman wrote about Brazilian designers for the Black Book section of the March/April issue.