Come fly with me
With enhanced products, new routes and even a few new entrants, airlines are clearly confident of enticing business passengers back to flying, says Gary Noakes
Business travellers stepping onto a flight for the first time since the pandemic – and lucky enough to be sitting in the front cabins of the plane – may be in for a pleasant surprise.
During the two-year hiatus, airlines that were able to invest took the opportunity to refresh their business and premium economy cabins. This was followed by a reinstatement of services and, in some cases, key new route launches.
This new confidence is particularly seen on transatlantic routes, with new services, new entrants and an upgrading of the whole in-flight experience.
British Airways, for example, now operates to 26 US cities with the addition of Portland in June and the revival of Pittsburgh and San José services. Another sign of growing confidence is the placing of Airbus A380s on some Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth flights. Similarly, in June Virgin Atlantic began its first new US route since 2017 with the launch of flights to Austin and will follow this in November with Tampa.
Frequencies to New York from Heathrow are now back to normal and, surprisingly, are already above pre-Covid levels at Gatwick. Here, since 2021, JetBlue has begun flights to JFK and Boston, British Airways has reinstated its daily frequency, Norse Atlantic has arrived and, from April 10 2023, Delta returns for the first time since 2012. Delta will offer JFK daily and will reinstate Heathrow-Los Angeles plus Edinburgh-Atlanta after a 16-year absence.
In 2016, the Delta One Suite was the first business class product to offer a sliding door and that is now becoming the norm for all major carriers, bringing to business class travel what was once only found in first class.
Others were quick to emulate this, with BA adopting the sliding door concept in a major upgrade of its Club World seat. The new Club World Suites are already on Airbus A350s and Boeing 787-10s and should be on all Heathrow-based 777s by the end of this year. Other aircraft types will begin to be refurbished in 2023.
During the two-year hiatus, airlines that were able to invest took the opportunity to refresh their business and premium economy cabins
At the end of October, BA returned its full Club World meal service and reintroduced its express service on evening flights, where passengers can request a one-tray service to allow more time for sleeping. It is also introducing a refreshed Club World check-in zone at Heathrow Terminal 5.
American Airlines switches to sliding doors in 2024 with the launch of the Flagship Suite on new Boeing 787-9 deliveries. Its 787s will offer 51 business class seats instead of the current 30, together with a new premium economy cabin.
The Flagship Suite will also feature on American’s latest single-aisle Airbus A321XLR aircraft destined for less busy transatlantic routes from late 2023. Carriers have looked at JetBlue’s success with its Mint business seat on the A321 and decided it is a concept that works, despite the aircraft’s narrow body.
American’s investment can be seen as a statement of faith in the corporate travel sector, with the number of premium seats on its long-haul aircraft set to increase by more than 45% by 2026. The carrier will also retrofit its Boeing 777-300ER fleet, with work on these 20 aircraft starting in late 2024. Some of American’s Admirals Club lounges will also be “refreshed”, although none yet scheduled are in key locations.
Another US carrier investing in ground product is United Airlines, which opened a new flagship lounge at its Newark hub in May. The one-off United Club is almost 30,000 square feet, seats nearly 500 and boasts its own coffee barista.
Lounges might be an issue for Virgin Atlantic when it joins SkyTeam in January, with the possibility of its palatial Clubhouses being overrun by alliance partner passengers. Virgin’s Chief Executive Shai Weiss said the issue was “something we need to think about in order that the experience does not deteriorate,” adding that he would like to see the Clubhouse at Heathrow expanded “at the right time”.
Back in the skies, United and American plan to revive the ultimate premium travel experience from 2029, having committed to the planned supersonic Overture aircraft. American has a deposit on 20 and United 15, with both carriers having options for more. Overture will connect New York and London in three and a half hours, but with capacity at only 65-80 passengers and four engines to fuel, it really will be an exclusive travel experience.
Carriers like Etihad now showcase the A350 twinjet as their posterchild, particularly the latest version
A €200 million investment by Finnair, unveiled in February, will see it roll out an enhanced Business Class and a brand new Premium Economy cabin on long-haul aircraft by the end of 2023. It is the launch customer for a new business class seat concept, the Collins Aerospace AirLounge, a fixed contoured shell with no recline where passengers can sit at different angles, rest their feet on an ottoman or use infill panels to create a large flat surface.
Finnair’s new cabin concepts are currently being flown on select flights between London and Helsinki and on services from Finland to New York, Singapore, Tokyo, Phuket and Bangkok.
KLM is another carrier late to the premium economy party, launching Premium Comfort on one Boeing 787-10 in August on its JFK route. The cabin of 21-28 seats has a 2-3-2 layout and will be retro-fitted throughout the airline’s fleet.
Emirates currently has a 56-seat premium economy cabin on Airbus A380s on some frequencies from Heathrow to Dubai and from Dubai to points in Australia and New Zealand. But a massive retro-fit programme starts in November and from March 2023 it will feature on Dubai-Singapore flights.
Passengers in Air Canada’s Premium Rouge premium economy cabin will get free WiFi from this month in a move which the carrier says is a first for a Canadian airline. In addition, Signature class customers on eligible services connecting through Vancouver will be transferred between flights by a plug-in hybrid or fully-electric Porsche vehicle. This move follows United Airlines’ new partnership with luxury car brand Jaguar, enabling Mileage Plus Premier members with tight connections to benefit from gate-to-gate transfers.
Back on board, more innovations are set to come as new aircraft types take to the skies. Covid saw the end of the Airbus A380 being the flagship for numerous airlines, with Emirates taking delivery of the last off the production line in 2021. Carriers like Etihad now showcase the A350 twinjet as their posterchild, particularly the latest version – the stretched A350-1000, on which Etihad has its new Business Studio Suites.
Back on board, more innovations are set to come as new aircraft types take to the skies
Boeing was due to bring its newest flagship, the stretched 777X, into service in 2023 but the pandemic and technical delays mean it is more likely to be 2025 before Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and others receive them. The larger version, the 777-9, carrying 426 passengers in a two-class layout, rivals the 747 in capacity but with 30% less fuel burn.
The 777X’s huge wingspan means the tips fold to allow it to taxi easier, but one disadvantage is that unlike the A350 and 787, it is based on conventional metal design, so lacks the increased humidity and oxygen levels that a stronger composite structure permits.
Lufthansa was due to debut new versions of all four cabins on the 777-9 but will now do this next year on other aircraft. Unlike rivals, Lufthansa is saving the privacy screens for premium sleeper seats at the front of the business cabin.
There is an abundance of developments and while we may be flying into an economic storm in the months to come, airlines can be thankful they did the groundwork in the last couple of years.