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Rekindling The Golden Age Of Aviation

By Robert Bailey | Gulf Business | January 31, 2015
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Amid announcements of luxury suites and personal butlers, are Gulf Airlines returning us to the golden age of aviation?

It is hard to believe that less than 25 years after the world’s first scheduled passenger flight took place in 1914 that a long forgotten age of air travel had commenced with flying boats such as the Boeing 314 Clipper flying over oceans to exotic destinations. The latter featured a 14 seat dining area and luxurious sleeper compartments for up to 40 passengers.

In today’s much less glamorous age of mass air transportation, airlines often refer to how they are improving the “experience” for their passengers.

Air travel though can be pleasurable, mundane or downright awful and most will have memories of all three sensations at one time or another.

There is little doubt though that airports and flights have for the most part improved considerably over the years and look likely to get better in the future as larger aircraft come into service providing seat designers with considerable scope to enhance passenger comfort.

A few years ago a flat bed experience was only available to those in First Class but is now increasingly the norm in business class. First Class in turn is about to raise its game with more space and enclosed privacy provided by an en-suite “room” rather than just a big seat.

Bigger and Better

Bigger aircraft provide an opportunity to carry more business class seats, which typically provide a yield four times greater than an economy passenger, while the yield from first class clientele is often seven times or more.

For those who can afford top class air travel, the latest cabin designs being marketed by leading long-haul operators promise unprecedented levels of comfort and service as well as privacy hitherto only available to those flying private jets.

The increasing entry into service of a new generation of aircraft is helping efforts to enhance passenger comfort. Singapore International Airlines is spending hundreds of millions of dollars revamping its cabins in all classes.

However, the latest innovations at the front end of today’s craft are the most eye- catching. Air France has launched the La Premiere mini suites on its Boeing 777-300 fleet. The suites come with a reclining ottoman, a wardrobe, a 24-inch HD screen as well as lie-flat seats designed to adapt to each passenger’s body shape.

For most European airlines the premium market lies in trans-Atlantic routes but the Gulf has a much wider range of routes where premium air travel is in demand from corporate decision makers and government officials.

Overall Dubai is home to more long- haul first class routes than Heathrow while Emirates flies more long haul first class seats than British Airways or Lufthansa, according to the Centre for Asia and Pacific Aviation (CAPA).

Between London and Dubai, Emirates accounts for nearly 60 per cent of first class seats augmented by its all A380 service to Heathrow. BA has 22 per cent and Qantas 20 per cent of the first class market.

“The region is enjoying accelerating economic growth and tourism. This shows once again that this area is one of the strongest aviation markets in the world,” says Hussein Dabbas, IATA’s regional vice president for the Africa-Middle East area.

Competition to attract premium airfare paying passengers is intensifying with a particular emphasis on providing a relaxed nights sleep. At the luxury end of premium air travel, airlines are seeking to promote themselves as hotels in the sky.

“Gulf carriers are already making the next leap investing in cabin interiors and seats,” says Raymond Kollau of Netherlands-based airlinetrends.com.

The Big 3

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways has raised the stakes to win the loyalty of luxury travellers with an exclusive suite in the sky complete with its own professionally trained butler.

The premium travel experience, at $20,000 for a single ticket from the Gulf to London, is being offered on its Airbus A380 and will be available later on its Boeing 787 aircraft. “The Residence” will be a forward upper- deck cabin configuration on the A380.

Accommodating single or double occupancy, it includes a living room, separate double bedroom and en suite shower room. The service is offered from December.

Etihad’s A380 upper deck will also feature a number of enclosed “apartment” areas. These will feature a separate reclining lounge area and a full-length bed, in addition to mini-bar, storage and wardrobe units. “I think we have set the new standard in premium travel,” says James Hogan, president and CEO of Etihad Airways.

Saj Ahmad chief analyst at London- based StrategicAero Research says Etihad’s plans focus on exclusivity. “It’s trendsetting and I wonder how long it will take before an airline comes up with a similar product if the carrier’s cabin offerings deliver significant revenues.”

Hogan insists that Etihad can find a market for its new cabin offerings. “We certainly believe there is a strong market for the Residence and the Apartments. We can charter that premium part of the aircraft. Frankly we believe we are better than private jets,” he says. “There is a market for this kind of product. We wouldn’t introduce it unless we felt there was a return. In the Emirates in peak season, you can’t get a seat in business class.”

Etihad’s Residence will be available on the first Airbus A380 the airline is due to take delivery of in December, with a total of 10 A380s on order. Four more of the super jumbos are to be delivered in 2015 to be used on routes to Sydney, Melbourne, New York and Paris, while the remainder will be in service by 2017.

Etihad is also waiting to take delivery of 71 Boeing 787 twin-aisle airliners, which will make it the largest operator of the new generation long-distance aircraft in the world.

Emirates too sees a future for first class air travel and intends to provide its own hotel in the sky bedroom concept. The airline’s president Tim Clark believes that privacy is key. “That’s very much in our current first class private suites product, and our new bedroom concept will take it to the next level,” he says.

“We are talking fully enclosed rooms, with all the touches and amenities that you would expect in a hotel, room service and so on. It will be available on our A380s and on our new Boeing 777s.” The airline is the world’s largest customer for both types of aircraft with 50 A380s and 150 Boeing 777X planes on order.

However, Timothy Miller, senior programme manager at aircraft cabin design consultancy Teague in Seattle believes that the large-scale investment in the upper premium passenger experience is not necessarily the start of a major trend.

Miller sees it as more a case of premium carriers seeking the accolade of the world’s most luxurious airline as part of a long-term strategy to win greater market share all round as much as to establish a brand niche with the wealthiest of travellers.

Even if that experience is in economy class, which in the case of premium airlines is still likely to be better than the average carrier. Premium airlines are extracting additional dollars from the rest of the plane because of that reputation, which then pays for the cost of the luxury up front that few ever get to experience.”

In spite of the eye catching luxury offered by the latest First Class innovations the development trend is more towards affordable business class and premium economy class seating.

Business First

“Premium travel is still an important segment in the Gulf market but business class more so than first class, according to John Strickland, director of London-based JLS Consulting. “First class seating is only supported on certain routes and many airlines have withdrawn it globally, or only offer it selectively.”

Lufthansa is removing first class from many of its long-haul aircraft and while it has done the same previously only to restore first class seating, this time the decision could be permanent. Qatar Airways has already indicated its focus is away from first class and TAM, Brazil’s largest carrier, is also removing first class seating.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al Baker is quoted as saying “executive travel returning to first class will never happen. We decided that as load factors on first class were only 40 per cent that we had better not have first class but give a very good business class product.”

Qatar Airways plans to roll out a revamped business class seating arrangement in 18 months time branded as “a first-class product sold as business class.” The airline already offers an all business class service using a single-aisle Airbus A319 airliner between Doha and London Heathrow.

The gamble for today’s airlines investing heavily in upgrading aircraft interiors is that there will be a clientele in the future willing and able to afford the luxurious products now being launched.