Up at the sharp end

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Flying around the storm clouds of recession, natural disasters and oil price hikes, airlines have had a turbulent time over the past few years, with the insidious post-recession slump in lucrative corporate travel hitting the airline industry hardest.

But, according to industry experts, seats are once again filling up at the sharp end of the plane. According to the latest (April 2011) figures from the International Air Traffic Association – which monitors traffic across its 200-odd member airlines – premium travel within Africa saw an 8% in increase over the previous year. Air travel to Asia grew by 13% and the important commercial routes between Europe and Africa rose by 6% over the same period.

“On our key routes, such as Nigeria and South Africa, our premium cabins are operating at very good load factors,” said Stephen Forbes, spokesperson for British Airways in South Africa. “North African routes, such as Egypt and Tunisia have obviously been affected by the political situation in those countries and all travel has declined.”

“Even during the economic crisis, corporate travel within Africa remained strong, and we found that the business owner continued to fly,” said Jean-Luc Grillet, Emirates’ Senior Vice-President of Commercial Operations for Africa. “You can’t stop your business simply because the oil price goes up!”

But while the market may be growing, passenger numbers are still some way off pre-recession highs. So with supply of First and Business Class seats often exceeding demand, airlines have to fight ever harder to entice corporate travellers to stump up for a seat at the front of the plane. “The aftermath of the recession means that value-for-money is still a key factor,” suggests Forbes. “To some extent, on-board products that provide the ability to work, relax or sleep comfortably are a given, so corporate travellers and travel buyers want the whole package. That means a good network with all the benefits, such as regular convenient connections to key destinations and easy transfers.”

Connectivity is certainly an important factor for corporate travellers and the emerging Ethiopian Airlines surprisingly offers one of the most extensive route networks in Africa. “Ethiopian Airlines serves 63 international and 17 domestic destinations,” says Melisia LaCock, Sales Manager for South Africa: “We have just received new Boeing 777-Long Range aircraft with state-of-the-art business class facilities. These are currently on our Beijing and Washington routes. Our Cloud Nine product out of South Africa is also doing well and is mainly booked by the corporate traveller.”

“Airlines are also working harder at offering more value-for-money through frequent flyer benefits, as well as concentrating on customer service,” says Rosemary Adogo, Area Manager Southern Africa for Kenya Airways, who are set to open a new Premium Class lounge at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. It’s definitely about the whole package, agrees Grillet. “It’s about more than the journey, but also the value-adds that an airline offers. On Emirates, we have dedicated lounges at our airports, streamlined airport security, limousine transfer service on arrival, as well as Internet access on board. All of these save the corporate traveller time, and allow you to continue working while you travel.”

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways offers a similar suite of value-adds, explains Chief Commercial Officer Peter Baumgartner: “In South Africa specifically, Etihad offers free visa and hotel services for all premium guests travelling through Abu Dhabi with a transit stay of more than eight hours. In the air, our guests can experience our award-winning flatbed seats in Pearl Business Class. Our new Diamond First class suite features a luxurious Poltrona Frau Leather seat that converts to a fully flatbed.”

Perhaps Axel Simon, Director Southern Africa for Lufthansa and Swiss International Air Lines, sums it up most succinctly: “Passengers pay more for premium class, and expect more.” With this in mind, airlines are using new aircraft and enhanced cabin features to entice travellers into the pricier premium cabins. British Airways is just one airline that has used the dip in demand as an opportunity to revamp its premium product.

“We’ve invested £100-million in our new First cabin and it has now been fitted to well over half of our selected fleet of Boeing 747 and 777s,” explained Forbes, adding that British Airways is also the only airline to offer a First Class product on direct flights between Cape Town and London.

It seems that First Class is to be the new battleground for premium travellers, with Lufthansa and Emirates also using their new A380 ‘superjumbo’ cabins to push the boundaries of premium luxury. In addition to individual suites with a sliding door for privacy and ‘dine-on-demand’ bells and whistles, Emirates’ fleet of double-decker A380s are the first in the world to offer on-board showers. Sadly, while the First Class Private Suites are currently available on a range of aircraft servicing African routes, Emirates has yet to bring the superjumbo to the continent.

“If we bring the A380 to African routes the priority will obviously be Johannesburg,” says Grillet. “There is also potential in Egypt and Nigeria, but those destinations are not possible at the moment due to inadequate airport infrastructure.”

Lufthansa, who operate 107 weekly flights to 15 countries in Africa, are one of the few European carriers to bring their superjumbo south of the equator. The A380 flies daily to Johannesburg, and the airline recently named its latest double-decker in honour of the ‘City of Gold’. Although the Lufthansa A380 doesn’t yet offer lie-flat seats in Business Class, the spacious First Class seats convert into fully flatbeds nearly a metre wide and over two metres long. Added to that, the First Class bathrooms are spacious and modern, with separate washing and changing areas.

While there might not be showers on board Lufthansa just yet, when 10 747-400s are overhauled later this year they will be the first airline to offer a dedicated bed in First Class. By halving the number of seats in the First Class cabin to just eight, each passenger will enjoy a private seat, as well as a full-length bed. With no joints, seat buckles or remotes to contend with, business travellers flying to Europe might just enjoy a full night’s sleep at last.

Air France is the only other European airline to offer a daily A380 service into Johannesburg, and in its La Première cabin offers one of the world’s leading First Class products. La Première will also soon be available on thrice-weekly flights between Cape Town and Paris-Charles De Gaulle, which are due to launch on 3 November. This is in addition to the daily Cape Town-Amsterdam and Johannesburg-Amsterdam services offered by partner airline KLM. “The launch of non-stop flights to Cape Town illustrates Air France-KLM’s desire to continue its expansion policy in South Africa by offering customers 24 weekly services from its two hubs at Paris Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam Schiphol to South Africa as from winter 2011,” noted Pierre Descazeaux, Senior Vice-President Air France-KLM Africa & Middle East.

Cape Town is the fourth new African destination added by Air France-KLM this year, with services to Freetown, Monrovia and Bata aimed squarely at corporate travellers. While the French may claim to be the guardians of fine food, Etihad Airways is apparently staking its claim on the finest dining in the skies, adding international-quality cuisine to a compelling First Class offering. From October 2011, meals in First Class will be made to order in-flight by qualified chefs.

“This development will enable us to offer a five-star restaurant style of service in the sky,” explains Baumgartner. “Premium passengers can also experience our signature ‘Inspired Service’ at any time during the flight, with choices ranging from an à la carte fine dining menu to kitchen-style snacks.”

In South Africa, Etihad flies daily from Cape Town and Johannesburg to its Abu Dhabi hub, with additional routes from Cairo, Alexandria, Casablanca, and Khartoum.  Etihad also recently announced that it will commence flights to Mahé in the Republic of the Seychelles. However, while some airlines battle it out at the sharp end, others see a future without First Class. With hubs in both Abuja and Lagos, Arik Air is Africa’s fastest-growing airline in terms of capacity, yet only offers a two-class configuration of Premier (Business) and Economy on its long-haul routes that extend from London to New York and Johannesburg.

“Many airlines have moved away from offering a First Class,” suggests Rodger Whittle, Arik Air’s Vice-President for Southern and Central Africa. “Across airlines, First Class has shrunk as Business Class has grown. What are the real differences between the two these days? What bridges the gap to give the customer real value?”

While Arik Air’s Premier Class offers fully flat seats and direct aisle access on its wide-bodied aircraft, there are some variations in service on different routes. “All of our South Africa flights are operated with a narrow-body 737-800, where it’s not possible to have a lie-flat bed, so we’ve instead introduced special fares for our business passengers,” explains Whittle.

Following the trend Down Under, Qantas is also downsizing its First Class offering. “The Qantas 747 fleet is undergoing a reconfiguration programme, a total investment of approximately A$270-million,” says Michi Messner, Regional Manager Africa for Qantas Airways Limited. “We will be reconfiguring nine of our B747s to three-class cabins – Business, Premium Economy and Economy – and upgrading the cabins and in-flight entertainment systems.”

And while corporate travellers will be happy enough in Business Class, small business owners will likely opt for the revamped Premium Economy seats; a class that is rapidly gaining favour among cash-savvy travellers. “Extensive research showed that the South African market has a demand for Premium Economy class,” says Meissner, and since launching the cabin on the Johannesburg to Sydney route in 2008, “demand for this product has grown year on year. 

Premium Economy passengers flying from Johannesburg to Sydney enjoy the privacy of a 32-seat cabin and comfortable seats with a pitch up to a metre and dedicated laptop power point. Air France is due to launch a Premium Economy product on African routes later this year, and British Airways also sees a strong future for this class, with their World Traveller Plus product. Perhaps that’s where premium travel is heading. Regardless, though, it all boils down to value for money and that, of course, is always in the eye of the beholder. So, whether you see value in splashing out on a shower at 35 000 feet, or simply spending a little more for legroom in Premium Economy, if the current competitive environment is anything to go on, then you’re bound to find an airline with a product to fit.

2011 World Airline Awards

The winners were announced at the Paris Air Show in June, after 18 million votes were tallied. Here are a few of the winners across Africa and the premium travel market:

Best Airline Africa: South African Airways
Together with its feeder carriers, SAA offers the largest route network in Africa, serving 24 destinations across the continent.

World’s Best First Class Airline: Etihad Airways
One of the world’s fastest-growing airlines, Etihad serves six cities in Africa – including Johannesburg and Cape Town – via its hub in Abu Dhabi. The innovative Diamond First Class is available on all flights (five per week) to Morocco and on selected flights from South Africa, Egypt and Sudan.

World’s Best First Class Airline Lounge: Qatar Airways
With fine dining, a concierge-style check-in and dedicated spa, it’s perhaps no surprise that Qatar Airways’ First Class Premium Terminal at Doha International Airport scooped the award.

World’s Best Business Class: Singapore Airlines
Long hailed for its outstanding cabin service, Singapore Airlines flies daily from Johannesburg to Singapore, and three times per week from Cape Town (via Johannesburg), connecting to dozens of destinations across Asia.

Best Business Class Lounge: British Airways Galleries at T5, London Heathrow
With design inspired by boutique hotels, the luxurious BA lounges at Terminal 5 pipped Virgin Atlantic to the award for the first time in two years.

Richard Holmes