No matter how we look at it, the aviation business class landscape is changing, and is potentially as fragmented as ever. The race to the bottom is evident, even in currently touted ‘5-star airlines’ who seek profitability. Whether a desire to chase the most effective cabin configuration (LOPA), decision to reduce amenities to the bare essentials or the deconstruction of the all-business class experience to paid-for extras – affluent business class passengers seem to be a commodity who’s preferences are going ignored.
While the masses of flag carriers and legacy carriers try to mirror low-cost carrier models and increase savings, could it be that there is a niche in each global region for one carrier to raise the flag, buck the trend and offer the experience that passengers desire, build brand loyalty and deliver well above expectations? Could it be there is enough demand for passengers willing to pay a little bit extra for a fully-fledged offering?
This isn’t a new concept, with Singapore Airlines being a de facto brand name when it comes to raising the bar and delivering above the industry standard. Even so, the flag carrier doesn’t necessarily tick all the boxes found in an industry leading product. There are no pyjamas for business class passengers or chauffeur-drive ground services offered by the likes of Emirates.
Is there space for the ultimate business class, where passengers would be willing to accept a regional hub-and-spoke product to enjoy all the amenities that business class can offer? Maybe passengers – instead of looking at the cheapest possible price – would be willing to spend slightly above the market average for the likes of chauffeur service, pyjamas, pre-order food service and a-la-carte lounge dining. While some of these perks are available to full-fare paying passengers, the increasing trend of OTA bookings means that passengers still are being offered the cheapest possible flatbed between A and B.
Airlines such as Emirates used to offer chauffeur drive for every business class passenger, the smattering of airlines across the globe are now providing this perk to only the highest fare classes, meaning those looking for a standard business class fare aren’t always given the full ‘advertised’ business class experience.
On certain continents, these basic premium perks have never been offered. United, Delta and American don’t offer chauffeur drive, however the latter has recently announced a relationship with The Private Suite and Blade allowing passengers access to a very premium service including helicopter transfers and a private terminal usually reserved for royalty and rock stars.
But what is the blueprint for the ideal full-service luxury business class product? Sure, fully flat-bed seats, all aisle access and lounge access are standard. But other, lesser seen, but equally important elements include dine-on-demand in the cabin, pyjamas and chauffeur-drive could be deemed as must-haves for the creme de la creme of business class services. Spa treatments, a la carte lounge dining and onboard bars are other additions that can be found in this lucrative space.
Interestingly there are very few carriers that adopt these award-winning ‘flagship’ services. So while the race to producing an average experience is well underway, there are only a handful potentially willing to place their business class heads above the parapet and deliver a product that far exceeds passengers expectations and win over loyal fliers. Instead of First Class cabins, could it be that certain airlines become First-Class carriers, offering all cabin classes a superior product at a premium cost?
But which carriers could grasp the opportunity to take these prestigious, but precarious mantles as region-leaders?
In Asia, the fight as already real, with Singapore Airlines positioning itself above the competitors, however there are a few missed opportunities including chauffeur drive and pyjamas. In Europe, a clear opportunity can be seen with competitors Air France and Turkish Airlines. Air France and Turkish both offer similar luxurious offerings, with Air France offering in majority all-aisle access and excellent dining options, and Turkish offering high-quality amenities, on-board chefs and overnight accommodation for connecting passengers.
Both also offer alliance benefits, Turkish enjoying Star Alliance and Air France offering a strategic alliance in SkyTeam. Alliances also play a big part for business class passengers, who look to benefit from their travels, hoping to reward with their loyalty with potential miles rewards. While Star Alliance benefits from a comprehensive network of carriers, dominated by Lufthansa, the hard and soft products lack the designer benefits of other alliances including Oneworld and SkyTeam.
Actually, of all the carriers, SkyTeam allows for the largest room for growth. Carriers like China Airlines and Air France are nimble enough to allow to improve their product to an international standard with minimal improvements to their current product set. Meanwhile, most of Star Alliance’s carriers – who play on the moniker ‘Business’ – would have to invest heavily to upgrade their hard product to reach the levels of an ‘super business class’ standard touted by the likes of Air France and China Airlines.
However, StarAlliance carriers like Lufthansa and Swiss, make sure there is a clear delineation between First and Business Class, where Sky Team airlines such as China Airlines, Delta, Air France and Garuda have all actively removed their first class cabins or limited them to a single aircraft type.
But who could take the mantle in North America. The airlines are all investing heavily, with Air Canada making huge leaps forward and the US3 all vying for passengers with new products including Delta One, Polaris and the new premium economy cabins coming online. American Airlines however, still has an opportunity to reposition itself – with United and Delta both actively promoting heavily branded product offerings – as being the last to the party means the brand can learn from the competitors and roll out something that makes it stand out.
In the Middle East, there are more opportunities than the standard ME3. While Qatar would be an obvious choice here, the sheer scale would be prohibitive, but a smaller carrier, such as Oman Air, would only need to make a few tweaks to its offering to be a truly niche market leader.
As the industry becomes more and more unbundled, consumers will eventually have so much choice it becomes a confusing market place, pushing cash-rich, time-poor consumers to start looking for simple, bundled products that they can clearly understand.
While this is speculative, it’s suffice to say there is potential for a handful of global carriers to buck the trend, and craft a truly deserving product that would be hard to beat. After all, the race to the bottom is cyclical, with consumer habits eventually dictating that airlines will have to reinvest in their product to win back custom, so the desire to reduce costs, rather than raising ticket prices isn’t always the best business case.