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The battle for business class

The battle for business class is joined, with U.S. carriers scrambling to catch up with leading international airlines in the care and feeding of the most lucrative customers in the sky: long-haul business travelers.
Image: American Airlines' 767 next-generation business-class seat
Mary McKee, American Airlines' managing director of Inflight Products, demonstrates the airline's 767 next-generation business-class seat as she reclines to a lie-flat position at the American Airlines training center, in Fort Worth, Texas. Rex. C. Curry / AP file
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The battle for business class is joined, with U.S. carriers scrambling to catch up with leading international airlines in the care and feeding of the most lucrative customers in the sky: long-haul business travelers.

American carriers, riding a fragile recovery from a post-Sept. 11 slump and recession, are belatedly introducing flat-bed seats, larger personal video monitors, chef-designed food and wine offerings and souped-up electronic entertainment and information systems in their premium cabins on transoceanic and transcontinental flights. The Americans are following premium Asian and European carriers, some of which have had such features for years.

The 10 percent or so of passengers who fly in international business class on U.S. carriers generate about 35 percent of airline revenue, according to Graham Atkinson, senior vice president for worldwide sales at United Airlines. First-class passengers pay higher fares but there are only a few of them. Coach passengers are many but most economy customers fly on deeply discounted tickets.

"We are spending $100 million to upgrade our international business class, starting with our trans-Atlantic service," United CEO Glenn Tilton said last month. In line with this, on Nov. 19 United launched what it says is the first 180-degree flat-bed seat offered by a U.S. carrier, on its service between Washington Dulles airport and Frankfurt. The bed measures 76 inches long.

United also plans to install 15.4-inch video monitors in international business class on its Boeing 777 aircraft, triple the size of its early monitors.

American Airlines is also initiating an upgrade in business class. In July, American said it will install new seats on its fleet of 47 Boeing 777 aircraft. In 2006, American introduced 76-inch-long, steeply reclining seat beds on its Boeing 767-300ERs, as well as touch-screen 10.6-inch tilting monitors. American also hands out plushly padded Bose noise-canceling headsets.

Long installation periods
Rolling out new features on fleets consisting of hundreds of aircraft takes a long time — and that’s a problem for American carriers trying to challenge business-class leaders such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways and British Airways, said Chris McGinnis, editor of travel newsletter "The Ticket".

"You hear about it in press releases, and it takes something like three years to actually see the changes," he said. “For a while, the new products are on maybe one plane or one route."

British Airways introduced the first lie-flat seat-bed in 2000 in its Club World business class, and has long since rolled it out across its long-haul fleet. And BA, like other market leaders, is not standing still. Early last year, the London carrier began widening its business-class seats and enlarging video monitors.

For several years, BA’s much smaller but nimble competitor Virgin Atlantic Airways has used a seat that turns over and transforms into a bed in Upper Class, its combined first/business class. Virgin also offers complimentary limousine transfers to and from its hub at London Heathrow Airport, and a dedicated security lane at Heathrow for Upper Class customers.

Additionally, Virgin is spending $22 million to expand its premium economy class — a niche market between business and economy — by doubling the number of premium economy seats. Premium economy sales have surged 20 percent in the last 10 months, according to spokeswoman Brooke Lawer.

Blue-chip service on Asian carriers
Blue-chip Asian carriers match and may surpass the Europeans when it comes to pampering the premium cabin passenger, not only with hardware but with hard-to-quantify hospitality and service.

In 2006, Singapore Airlines (SIA) installed what it said was the widest seat in business class —30 inches — on its Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. The posh leather seats onboard its Airbus A380 superjumbo, which flies between Singapore and Sydney, are even wider: up to 36 inches, roomy enough for two adults to sit comfortably side by side. SIA, too, has had flat-bed seats for several years.

For its part, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways employs a 78-inch-long business-class seat that reclines into a fully flat bed nestled within a hard plastic shell. The console by the seat includes a 110-volt AC power socket for laptops and PDAs and a noise-canceling headset. In-flight options include Chinese and Western food and dozens of movies on demand that can be paused, fast-forwarded and rewound.

Luxury necessary on longest hauls
McGinnis attributes the Asian carriers’ gift for invention to sheer necessity. “If you are flying six hours between New York and London, you want to be comfortable," he said. “If you are flying 14, 16, 18 hours between New York and Singapore, you need to be really comfortable."

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd, principal of the Boyd Group, said carriers from micro-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong specialize in long-haul flights because their domestic markets are so small. This prompts them to stock up on spacious aircraft configured for profitable international routes.

American airlines, by contrast, “are both hamstrung and blessed by having a strong domestic market," Boyd said. “Domestic markets don’t support low-density business-class seating."

Good news for road warriors
Nevertheless, change is coming to American carriers, if belatedly, Chris McGinnis observes —and that is good news for road warriors.

“U.S. carriers will still have to discount their business fares in order to sell products inferior to those of foreign carriers," McGinnis said. “It used to run $5,000 to $8,000 for an international round-trip. Today, if you play it right, you can get one for $2,000 to $4,000."