Archive for Sunday, November 20, 2011

No pillows in coach, but it’s sundae time up front

November 20, 2011


— Flying has never been so good — for those able to splurge.

While most Thanksgiving travelers will fight for overhead bins and go hours without a snack or room to stretch their legs, life in first class is stress-free. It’s always been a special place on the other side of the curtain. Now, it’s getting even cushier.

U.S. airlines, profitable again after a disastrous decade, are spending almost $2 billion to upgrade amenities for their highest-paying customers. On the most profitable international routes, high fliers are being treated with preflight champagne, flat-screen TVs and seats that turn into beds. Flight attendants greet them by name, hang up jackets and serve meals on china.

The lavish treatment is meant to keep people like Tim Carlson happy. Carlson, the chief financial officer of a semiconductor materials company, has taken 189 flights in the past two years, traveling 353,176 miles on United and its partners.

After the pilots, Carlson might just be the most important person on the plane. United will do anything to make sure another airline doesn’t steal his business. Agents call him about delays and reroute him so he doesn’t miss meetings.

“I go to the top of the list for the next flight,” Carlson says.

On a recent trip from Newark, N.J., to Brussels, he was met at the curb with a boarding pass and escorted to the front of the security line. Four minutes after being dropped off, he was past the checkpoint.

Most of the 3.4 million Americans expected to fly this holiday week won’t get anything close to that treatment. They’ve paid a little under $400 for their round-trip tickets. And it’s a cutthroat business. To save $5, passengers are likely to choose another airline.

So, it’s no surprise that the most loyal customers, and those willing to pay more for better services, are the ones airlines want to reward.

First-class and business-class passengers make up only 8 percent of international travelers but account for 27 percent of revenue, according to the International Air Transport Association. While a round-trip coach ticket between Chicago and Beijing might run $1,000, business class costs $4,000 and first class $12,000.

“There is a war going on for the profitable passenger,” says Henry H. Harteveldt, co-founder of the travel firm Atmosphere Research Group.

Airlines are focusing on three areas:

• Giving passengers a full night’s sleep. Delta, United and US Airways are installing seats in premium international cabins that recline into flat beds. American isn’t making that investment but is adding turndown service on some routes; at bedtime, passengers are given pajamas and slippers while flight attendants lay down a quilted seat cover, duvet and pillow.

• Stimulating taste buds. Come mealtime, passengers can forget TV dinners. US Airways serves citrus mahi-mahi with lemon herb sauce, jasmine rice, baby carrots and grilled asparagus in international business class. American serves Ben & Jerry’s ice cream sundaes. Hot fudge, butterscotch, berries, pecans and whipped cream are added at each seat.

• Providing escapes from the chaos of airport terminals. Delta’s new Seattle lounge features floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Mount Rainier. American’s new San Francisco club lets members cozy up next to a fireplace.

“They’re now realizing that they need to offer a competitive product to attract the highest-dollar passengers,” says Gary Leff, co-founder of frequent flier site MilePoint.

On foreign airlines, the good life is even better.

Emirates Airlines first-class passengers can shower on its Airbus A380s, and walled-off suites come with minibars. Lufthansa has a separate terminal in Frankfurt for its first-class passengers, but it’s hardly an inconvenience: Passengers get dedicated immigration officers and are driven to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Porsche Cayenne.

Singapore Airlines trains flight attendants how to walk without waking passengers. And at Virgin Atlantic’s London lounge, passengers can play pool, get a massage or relax in the sauna.


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