Return to the future for airline passengers?

Roger CollisThe latest return to the future comes in the form of the patented ‘Flex-Seat’ from Boston-based Jacob-Innovations – a ‘two-storey pod-like design for business-class seating which can be converted to an economy-class set-up on demand’ for airlines ‘that might want to alter a plane's configuration depending on how many tickets of each class it has sold; and at the same time, ‘increasing the density of a conventional business class cabin by 50 per cent while providing full reclining’ – whatever that means.

The Flex-Seat was presented at the ‘Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg – ‘launchpad for cabin programmes that showcase tomorrow’s designs. Check it out at Flex-Seat looks to me like Lego re-invented by the Japanese – pods for bods. Think of it as an accountant’s dream for raising the ergonomic stakes of ‘cattle-class’, or maximising the return on investment of ‘premium’ passengers – responsible, according to IATA, for 25-30 percent of passenger revenues but only 7-10 percent of numbers.’

Whatever the merits of Flex-Seat, airlines need a deus ex machina to extricate them from a dire dilemma: how to reconfigure the expensive real estate of aircraft cabins to conform to a new reality: that all-important premium traffic is declining; and that the class system, as it has evolved over the years, needs to be re-invented.

The statistics are appalling: premium ticket sales continue to fall – they were off 21.3 percent off in June 2009 compared with June 2008, according to the International Air Transport Association Premium Travel Monitor, which should have most airlines in a catatonic tailspin. Premium travel numbers have been in decline for 12 consecutive months.

Even the business travelers that are staying in the front of the plane during the down-turn are doing so at cheaper rates; revenues from premium travel fell even more – 41 percent in the second quarter as airlines slash prices in a frantic attempt to maintain demand.

The effect on the bottom line has been catastrophic. Consider this: according to IATA, ‘Premium passengers are responsible for 25-30 percent of passenger revenues but only 7-10 percent of numbers.’ Every percentage loss of travelers in the premium cabins reflects on the yield like a shadow on the wall.

And yet airlines have only themselves to blame. They failed to learn the lessons of the 9/11 crisis, which exquisitely coincided with the cusp of a recession, and sent travel into free fall – precipitating a sea change in the way people view business travel, and view their lives, sharpening their priorities. And they failed to understand that their ‘branding,’ their class system as it had evolved over the past 40 years had got out of sync with the changing needs of the business traveler. What is more, they have ‘debased’ the value of their brands through indiscriminate upgrades and cut prices.

Even I am too young to go back to the 1930's with bunk beds on the flying boats and the trans-continental flights between New York (La Guardia and California (Birkbank L.A.) taking two or three days. The opening chapter in Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel 'The last tycoon’ has an opening chapter on such a flight. My only surrogate recollection is a photo of a woman fastening her stockings on a bunk bed on a United Airlines flight in the 1930’s.

Lillian Hellman wrote about the time on a flight from Los Angeles to New York in the 1950s when Hollywood producer Harry Cohn sent back an invitation for her to join him for lunch, saying that it was much healthier than the "dreck on the plane."

"Two of his younger employees hauled down the largest picnic hamper I have ever seen," Hellman wrote. "It was filled with forty or fifty fine, thin chicken sandwiches, cold white wine, prosciutto wrapped around perfect ripe melon, homemade pickles, large peaches, wonderful walnut cookies."

So what else is new?

When I started traveling on business in the mid-1960s, there were only two classes on the old narrow-body planes and the early jumbos – first and economy. And only three types of fare: first; full (flexible) economy; and ‘excursion.’

First class was a golden ghetto for chief honchos and the seriously rich. Everyone else flew economy – which wasn’t nearly as grand as business class is today: you had to pay for drinks and headsets (with those little plugs that used to bore into your brain) but the food was okay and you had enough space to stretch your legs. Cattle class it was not. And it was democratic. You might find yourself chatting to a lieutenant if not a captain of industry, a diplomat, an aircraft salesman, a honeymoon couple, or perhaps an ambiguous lady of uncertain provenance. There was much scope for social congress.

My fondest memory of those days is of flying back from Chicago to Europe. Staff at the row of airline check-in desks behaved like barkers at a fairground. As most flights left more or less at the same time in the evening, I would walk up and down with my flexible ticket and bestow my custom on the airline that would ‘guarantee’ me four seats across, ideally behind the bulkhead in the non-movie section of the cabin, where I could stretch out and sleep. More creative souls would invoke a last-moment client meeting and upgrade to first class using their Air Travel Cards, swearing blind that there were no seats left in economy.

Life became more complicated when business class emerged as a third cabin in the late 1970s. The idea, you may remember, was to ‘reward’ business travelers paying the full economy (Y) fare on the new wide-bodied planes with their own exclusive cabin, sequestrating them from backpackers and savvy leisure travelers who might have paid two-thirds or less for their tickets. Comfort and service in most long-haul business class cabins is arguably more comfortable than the old first class, with lie-flat all-singing-all-dancing sleeper seats, and a galaxy of perks and gizmos; but a lot less exclusive.

Piling on frills inevitably piled on the price of the ticket. First class can cost twice the price of business class, which in turn costs up to four times more than a fully flexible economy ticket and 20 times more than the cheapest excursion ticket.

Faced with a blizzard of discounted or ‘gray’ fares, upgrades, special promotions, such as two-for-one fares, and a maze of frequent flier awards, it’s easy to pay a lot more for a lot less – or vice versa.

Virgin Atlantic re-invented the two-class (first/economy) system in 1985 with its Upper Class – billed as first class service and comfort at business-class prices. Upper Class became the concept for the early 1990s as several airlines abandoned first class for a more spacious business class (business class had become a tough act to follow; though there are always people prepared to pay serious money for serious in-flight real estate.)

Continental Airlines was the first carrier to create a combined first/business class, followed by Delta Air Lines, Air Canada, KLM, and many others. Even airlines that have kept first class cabins, only offer them on certain routes.

Premium economy is a successful compromise between the ever-increasing cost of business class and the squalor of cattle class. It attracts and business travelers whose budgets, or corporate travel policies, do not permit them to fly business class; and many leisure, especially older people. The idea is to ‘reward’ economy passengers paying the full fare, and passengers who could no longer afford business class, with a separate cabin – echoing the rationale for business class 40 years ago.

Perhaps it is time to re-invent the wheel.

Roger Collis -