NEW YORK – Fragrant amenity kits brimming with luxury toiletries; an ergonomically designed workspace; silk pillows on flat-reclining seats; and a courteous sommelier waiting at your beck and call.
No, these aren't the makings of a lavishly appointed suite at a four-star hotel. Rather, they are the elements of the newly refurbished and reconfigured first and business class cabins of increasingly competitive international and domestic airlines.
Undeterred by the ominous, post-Sept. 11 business forecasts, carriers from the obscure (Dragonair in China) to the ubiquitous (American Airlines) are investing millions of dollars on their cabins to win the loyalty of their most important, bottom-line customer: frequent flyers and elite passengers.
To do it, they're rolling out complex design schemes that put the emphasis on personal space, privacy and exclusivity.
Craig Jenks, President of Airline/Aircraft Projects Inc., a New York-based consulting firm, said, "The fact that there are less business travelers now doesn't reduce the competition between airlines to obtain those travelers that there are, even though there are less of them." So, airlines are becoming more innovative.
British Airways for example, the first airline to introduce a flat bed in first class and the only airline with a flat bed in business class, is close to completing a fleet-wide retrofitting program of their revolutionary four-class cabin -- the only one in the sky.
According to John Lampl, vice president of communications, this has allowed BA to go a step further, making luxury more accessible to every class of passenger. "With our four-class system, an economy class passenger can upgrade to our World Traveller Plus cabin for $200 more on some routes," he said.
Many airline analysts see the innovation as a highflying bargain. The private cabin gives passengers wider seats with a 30-inch pitch, seven inches of extra legroom, a footrest and lumbar support -- perks usually reserved for premium fare customers.
The bottom line for the flying public is more options in comfort and amenities at more price points. "It's called segmentation for people who can afford them," said Jenks. "In that sense, it's like any other industry, but the problem with the airplane is that it's only so long."
Confronted with that problem and stoked by feedback from frequent flyers, United Airlines removed a row of seats and created a new section within the main cabin called Economy Plus. It's United’s way of giving their regular and premium customers an additional five inches of legroom.
United Spokesman Joe Hopkins says the section is for devoted flyers who might not be able to land that coveted first class upgrade. "We have a lot of good customers who fly in economy and buy unrestricted tickets and in some cases are premier members in our frequent flier program and we wanted to recognize them and distinguish them from other people in economy who might be less loyal customers," Hopkins said.
Long-haul carriers -- always on the cutting edge of innovation -- now have to do more to stay competitive. Cathay Pacific, which flies to cities in Southeast Asia from several gateways in the U.S., is redesigning its business class and adding some unconventional firsts, like a private dressing room with a full-length mirror. Aesthetics are important too: They’ve remodeled restrooms with colorful tiled floors.
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic, whose free-spirit culture and ultra-sleek cabins have won a cult following, isn’t sitting by idly. Virgin’s Wendy Buck says they’ve completed the rollout of the enhanced Upper Class cabin and are now phasing in new premium economy and economy seats as well as a state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment system in the new Airbus A340-600 jet, which was unveiled in late July. And not to be outdone in the visual area, Virgin has also developed a revolutionary mood lighting system.
Jenks says these trends are ushering in a new era for the airline industry where the trend is the absence of any regularity.
"Instead of the cabin being predictable, nowadays you don’t know what it will look like. Permanent change is now the norm instead of stability," he said. "In that sense, it’s like any other liberalized industry where rebranding and relaunching are commonplace."