Premium Travel

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Flying in Style

It’s still a competitive space, despite the tougher times and smaller budgets, with corporates watching their pennies even closer than ever. So, we sent Richard Holmes along to see where the activity is and he ‘turned left’, to catch up on what’s happening in First, Business and Premium Economy Class.

Smooth conditions and a gentle ascent, with just a touch of turbulence. That would be a fair description of African skies in the first half of 2012, as global economies halted their freefall, and continental ones consolidated growth off the back of demand for resources. With strong economies comes strong demand for premium seats, and corporate travel continues to drive airline numbers in Africa, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reporting 10% growth during the first six months of 2012. And, while much of this can be attributed to the rebound from the Arab Spring, the strong growth also ‘reflects the relative success of many African economies at present’, says IATA.

It’s a trend airlines have picked up on, with a number of global carriers increasing their footprint on the continent, to take advantage of a boom in business travellers that can fill up high-yield premium cabins at the sharp end of the plane. For example, June saw Qatar Airways announce plans to launch scheduled flights to Maputo at the end of October. That becomes the 20th African destination and fourth new African route of the year for Qatar.

“Africa is key to our plans,” says Stephen Forbes, spokesperson for British Airways, which currently flies to 14 African countries from its hub at London Heathrow. “Economic growth in most traditional northern hemisphere markets is slow or non-existent, whereas many African markets are growing and represent an area of opportunity.”

“We’ve already increased frequencies to Marrakech and we’re taking over the bmi route to Agadir. We will also take over the Sierra Leone route on 28 October,” says Forbes. “In South Africa, we’re operating more frequencies to Johannesburg and will be flying double-daily to Cape Town this South African summer using our largest aircraft.”

Dubai-based carrier, Emirates is equally optimistic, says Jean Luc Grillet, the airline’s Vice-President for Commercial Operations Africa.

“There is no way air transport will slow down any time in Africa in the next 10 years,” he says. “With projected economic growth of between seven and eight percent for sub-Saharan countries, and numerous oil and gas discoveries over the past two years on the continent, we are sure to see continuing high volumes of traffic in the region.”

Indeed, much of the traffic growth – particularly in premium cabins – has been on the lucrative routes to destinations dominated by petrochemical industries.

“Besides South Africa – Johannesburg and Cape Town during the high season – the African cities served are mostly oil and energy countries,” says Axel Simon, Director Southern Africa for Lufthansa, which operates 92 weekly frequencies into Africa, serving 17 destinations in 15 countries. “These are largely driven by corporate travel.”

Similarly, Air France-KLM puts particular focus on serving oil and gas destinations, with its services to Luanda, Freetown, Monrovia and Bata catering largely for business travellers. Across the pond, Atlanta-based carrier Delta Air Lines follows a similar strategy. As the leading airline between Africa and the United States, it offers routes to either Atlanta or New York from Johannesburg, Accra, Lagos, Monrovia and Dakar.

“Our Africa services continue to perform well in terms of business traffic, with good load factors,” says Jimmy Eichelgruen, Delta’s Director of Sales for Africa, Middle East and India. “Africa is a region of great potential and there is a lot of competition from airlines serving the market, as corporate travel budgets are tightened.”

On long-haul routes, where competition from so-called ‘legacy carriers’ is stiff, Nigerian airline, Arik Air has recorded slow growth in its premium cabins, says Isla Moffett, Manager of Sales and Marketing in South Africa.  “But, domestically and regionally we experience fully subscribed Business Class cabins on several of the routes that we serve.”

The African airlines have had to play catch-up, as the influx of the well-backed Middle Eastern airlines – Etihad, Emirates and Qatar – has put them under pressure to match the high-end First and Business Class products trotted out by the new players in Africa.

For example, March saw Qatar Airways unveil its new Business and Economy Class seats for its Boeing 787, which features a two-class configuration of 22 Business and 232 Economy Class seats. Among the features, interactive touch-screen Android technology and Wi-Fi and GSM access, allowing passengers to send both text and MMS messages. With a 1–2–1 configuration in Business Class, each passenger is assured of direct aisle access. The seat is a 22-inch wide armchair that converts into an 80-inch long, 30-inch wide flat-bed, with great legroom. There’s also an elegant wood-trimmed large sliding table, ample storage space, personal power ports, and 17-inch personal touch-screen TV monitor.

So, are the African airlines indeed lagging behind?

“For a long time there was a stereotype around ‘African’ carriers, but this has since changed with airlines like Ethiopian joining the Star Alliance and ordering ten 787-Dreamliner aircraft from Boeing,” says Riana Coetzee, Sales Manager at Holiday Aviation, the GSA that handles, among others, Ethiopian, Korongo and Zambezi Airlines in South Africa.

“Ethiopian’s Dreamliner offers flat-bed Business Class seats, a spacious cabin with increased legroom, individual screens, larger overhead storage, significantly reduced noise, a unique lighting system, and the biggest windows in the sky,” says Coetzee. She does concede, though, that African airlines are under pressure to produce the goods.

“Traditional African carriers have realised that in order to survive and remain profitable, they have to up their game due to the existing cut-throat environment. If you take your eye off the ball for a second, you might not be as competitive, so it’s imperative to continue improving.”

It seems that while the heydays of every other corporate traveller swanning about in First Class may be gone, the austere times of 2009 have also passed.

“The pendulum has swung back somewhat from the big cuts experienced, with many companies now recognising that premium travel does deliver some real business benefits,” says Forbes. “Travel budgets remain under scrutiny, but most corporates now realise that excessive cuts can be a false economy. Executives who’ve had to transfer to countless flights, aren’t able to sleep or work in an Economy Class cabin, or try to catch up with the office from a busy airport terminal, know that it just isn’t effective.”

“Direct flights, ease of check-in, lounge facilities and the ability to work, relax or rest on-board, all help to ensure that travelling time doesn’t have to be downtime, and the business traveller actually arrives at the destination able to do business,” says Forbes.

“The guarantee of being on time for an important meeting is invaluable and the ability to arrive at such meetings well rested is just as essential,” says Grillet.

That being said, whilst those references appear to be to Business Class, it’s significant that Qantas has just announced the removal of its First Class cabin on its Johannesburg-Sydney route. The Australian airline is instead focusing its efforts on three-class (Business, Premium Economy and Economy) B747 services on all flights to and from Johannesburg. Qantas is not closing the cabin door on premium travel – the airline is just shifting focus.

“Demand for premium travel is still encouraging and we continue to see growth in this sector,” says Qantas Regional Manager Africa, Michi Messner. “We continue to see a good mix of corporate, leisure and VFR travel.”  

But value remains a key driver for corporate travel, and while the appetite for premium cabins may be returning, business flyers want to pay less and receive more. Happily, demanding clients make for proactive airlines, and the major carriers have poured millions of dollars into improving cabins, tweaking on-board service and providing a seamless experience from the moment you arrive at the airport.

While Premium Economy and First Class both have their place, it’s the marriage of cost and comfort in Business Class that makes it an area of stiff competition. The dogfight over Business Class passengers also comes down to simple numbers, as Business Class offers more premium seats than any other cabin. On Lufthansa, for instance, the First Class cabin on an A380 has just eight seats. The Business cabin? 98.

“For this reason, the competition will remain in the Business Class segment,” says Simon.

 Coetzee has a different take on things, providing an African airline perspective.

“There is steep competition in both Business and Economy Class,” she says. “However, the most competition is in Economy Class. Nowadays, corporates are just looking for the best price and a carrier that will get them to their destination on the quickest route. Luxury is not a prerequisite anymore as it was in the past.”

Interestingly, with its ‘angled-flat’ product in Business Class, Lufthansa has, until recently, lagged behind competitors offering fully-flat seats. That’s all about to change.

“Lufthansa’s new Business Class seats are being successively installed in the intercontinental fleet,” says Simon. “The delayed delivery of the Airbus A380 has also delayed the installation of the new Business Class seat. Currently, both the Boeing B747-8 and the Airbus A330 are equipped with this new seat.”

For Lufthansa, the lie-flat Business Class beds are the tip of the iceberg – over the next few years, the airline plans to spend €3-billion on revamping its in-flight product. In the near future, premium passengers can expect everything from dedicated check-in counters and additional free baggage allowances, to fast-track security lanes, access to Lufthansa lounges worldwide and preferential boarding.

But the premium experience usually begins long before take-off, and airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Etihad offer complimentary airport chauffeur services for premium passengers.

At the airport, Delta is also ensuring a stress-free experience, with the newly launched ‘Protocol’ service for customers flying out of the notoriously chaotic airports in Lagos and Accra.

“This offers a personalised escort through every step of the airport experience, from checking in, security clearance and lounge pick-up, to arrival and baggage collection,” says Eichelgruen, who adds that the ‘Protocol’ service is offered in addition to SkyPriority, the airport services offered to premium passengers by all SkyTeam alliance airlines.

It’s an innovative addition to the airport experience, because the battle for premium bookings is often won or lost inside the terminal. Whether it’s the opportunity to dine before boarding and maximise rest on the plane, or catch up on work at a well-equipped business centre with fast Internet access, premium lounges are increasingly where airlines are setting themselves apart.

And if lounge access is important, it’s often worthwhile choosing an airline that’s a member of a global airline alliance, offering access to a host of facilities otherwise off-limits.

For instance, Qantas travellers flying to Sydney can make use of oneworld partner British Airways’ lounges at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport, and throughout Africa Lufthansa’s premium passengers may use the facilities of Star Alliance partner South African Airlines.

In a nutshell, though, you expect to get what you pay for, and ‘passengers have the right to have high expectations when purchasing a premium class ticket’, says Simon.

But when it comes to the latest in on-board innovation, you’d do well to look up at the rarefied air of First Class.

While Business Class may be where airline profits are made and lost, it’s in the luxurious confines of First where airlines are able to set themselves apart. Virgin Atlantic was perhaps first out the gate with its Upper Class (a hybrid between First and Business) in-flight bar, but today it’s Emirates that is leading the pack with hyper-luxury at altitude.

Its First Class seats on the Airbus A380 ‘superjumbo’ are private suites offering a sliding door for privacy, and are the first in the world to offer on-board shower facilities, ensuring guests can truly arrive feeling relaxed and refreshed. 

Lufthansa, which offers a daily A380 service from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, has toned it down a little, but it says the subdued yet spacious feel of its First Class cabin – which boasts fully-flat beds nearly a metre wide and over two metres long – is in response to customer demands.

“A concept with separate cabins was deliberately rejected because at numerous customer events, and during in-flight tests and surveys, Lufthansa passengers expressed a clear preference for an open-plan design,” explains Simon. “However, thanks to a flexible privacy screen, First Class guests can determine the degree of individual privacy they desire.”

Their cabin also boasts sound-absorbing curtains and carpeting, and insulating material in the aircraft’s outer skin to create what is claimed to be the world’s quietest First Class cabin. And whilst it might not have a shower, the First Class bathrooms on the Lufthansa A380 are certainly impressive, offering a spacious washroom with separate changing and lavatory areas. There’s a similarly world class product on British Airways, the only airline offering a First Class cabin on direct flights between South Africa and the United Kingdom. Recently revamped to the tune of £100 million, the intimate mood-lit cabins offer spacious six-foot-plus beds, with a luxurious turndown service that’s especially popular on the overnight flights.

On the ground, the airline’s First passengers have access to the luxurious Galleries First Lounge, with its elegant Gold Bar and Wine Gallery in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, along with the stylish Concorde Room that offers the full-service Concorde Bar and restaurant, a concierge desk and boardroom. It’s an impressive package of products. As any businessman or woman will tell you, competition is always a good thing. It lowers prices and improves services. And as airlines flying into Africa see a continent full of opportunity, it seems corporate travellers have smooth and luxurious journeys to look forward to. 

AWARDS FOR DELTA & QATAR

Atlanta-based carrier Delta Air Lines was voted ‘Best Flight Experience to Africa’ by readers of Executive Travel Magazine in August, edging out SAA and BA in the magazine’s Leading Edge Awards 2012. It also plans to introduce more flat-bed seats and Wi-Fi on African routes, over the coming months.

Qatar Airways was awarded the ‘Best Business Class in the World’ award by readers of the Middle East edition of Business Traveller.Voting was based on the strength of the airline’s inflight service, cabin comfort, ground hospitality and product offerings for travellers in Business Class. A seat pitch of up to 78 inches and fully-flat beds are features of the airline’s Business Class cabin onboard its flagship long-haul aircraft, the Boeing 777. In addition, voters applauded the airline’s Oryx Multiplex in the Sky interactive inflight entertainment system.

THE GOLDILOCKS CABIN

Not all corporate travellers are willing – or able – to splash out on a Business Class ticket, but equally can’t afford a sleepless night in Economy. Say ‘hello’ then to the world of Premium Economy. Here are a few cabins worth considering:

Delta (Economy Comfort) – available on all its flights to Africa, offering four additional inches of legroom (for a full 35-inch of seat pitch) and 50% more recline than Delta’s standard Economy Class seat.

British Airways (World Traveller Plus) – is being upgraded to offer larger screens, additional recline, a new entertainment system and in-seat power access.

Qantas (Premium Economy) – voted best in the world in 2010. Passengers to Sydney enjoy the privacy of a 32-seat cabin, with comfortable seats (pitch up to a metre) and dedicated laptop power points.

Air France (Premium Voyageur) – offered on most long-haul services, with fixed shell seats offering plenty of privacy. Seats here are 20% wider than in Economy, and offer 20% more legroom.

WORLD AIRLINE AWARDS

Winners of the 2012 World Airline Awards were announced at the Farnborough Air Show in July. Here are carriers worth considering:

Best Airline Africa – South African Airways

Once again, SAA picked up the trophy for the continent’s best carrier.

World’s Best First Class – Etihad Airways

This was thanks, no doubt, to its spacious suites and innovative use of on-board chefs to prepare restaurant-quality meals in-flight.

World’s Best Business Class – Cathay Pacific

Never one to rest on its laurels, Cathay Pacific’s Business Class product is currently in the process of being revamped. Cathay flies daily from Hong Kong to Johannesburg.