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Airlines make first class ultra-luxurious; any hope for coach?

American Airlines touts improvements to first class. A frequent traveler wonders about coach.

Question: Frequent traveler Daniel Fink of Beverly Hills recently received an email from American Airlines that said, "We're creating a consistent experience when traveling in first class on American and US Airways. Effective Sept. 1, 2014, we will be making changes to our first-class meal service on mainline flights within the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. ... Later this year, we'll introduce new meals and amenity kits on international flights to offer a seamless travel experience across our combined network." Fink asks, "Why don't they focus on creating a better coach-class experience? That's what the vast majority of travelers need."

Answer: Welcome to the world of super-premium class.

American's upgraded service is interesting, but it pales compared with what some airlines are doing: Etihad, Emirates and Air France plan to offer elaborate suites in their first-class service. In addition to a suite, Virgin Atlantic has for some time had an "upper class" service that includes a limo to the airport and fast check-in, among other perks for the elite traveler.

"There are a lot of routes [on which airline] companies have offered first class in the past and, in some cases, three classes of service, and they haven't seen the best of results," said Jono Anderson, a principal with Strategy& (formerly Booz & Co.) whose expertise includes aerospace and aviation. "In recent months and years, airlines have started to change that and re-look at what 'premium' and 'super premium' means. We think it's more than just the [lie-flat] bed; it's more than just fancy tea. It's a holistic approach."

That above-and-beyond service is about the total experience from the time you leave your house to the time you reach your destination. It won't be on all routes, and it won't be for all passengers. (Attention, frequent fliers: Your loyalty may not buy you the better experience.) Super-premium service costs, and that's passed to the passenger. A round-trip ticket on Virgin Atlantic from LAX to London on the randomly selected dates of Oct. 8 to 15 will run $6,912, which includes a chauffeur on the departing leg. A round-trip ticket from LAX to Abu Dhabi in one of Etihad's suites on the randomly selected dates of Jan. 15 to 22 will cost $23,185. (Fares will vary.)

But, Anderson noted, premium service done correctly can mean significant financial returns for the airline.

Is there a hope that this extra revenue will be used to improve the coach experience?

"It's not that automatically because they have more money to work with that [airlines] are going to use it to make passengers happy," said Seth Kaplan, managing partner and an analyst with Airline Weekly, an industry publication.

But he has seen some recent improvements (or returns) in coach — things that disappeared when many U.S. airlines were staggering through bankruptcy.

He cites Delta in particular as reintroducing amenity kits and free alcoholic beverages on some long-haul flights. "Not coincidentally, Delta is making money," he noted, adding that for too long many airlines were essentially nonprofits.

Airlines, he added, have invested in technology, for instance, that benefits all passengers by improving on-time performance and by making sure you and your bag arrive at the same time. (The logical question is this: Aren't these things supposed to happen anyway? They are, but they weren't. You can see the improvement from 2007 to 2013: In 2007, 73% of flights arrived on time; in 2013, it was 78%. In 2007, airlines reported 7.05 mishandled bags for every thousand passengers; in 2013, that dropped to 3.22.)

The premium economy experience has improved too, Kaplan said, although not on U.S. airlines, which still consider a little extra legroom a premium experience.

Maybe we won't be getting a mani-pedi or a haircut in the onboard salon, and we aren't in a lie-flat bed that allows us to snooze on a transatlantic flight. But there is the whisper of promise. "Hope, like the gleaming taper's light, adorns and cheers our way," 18th century playwright Oliver Goldsmith wrote in "The Captivity." (It's said that his original line was the less optimistic, "Hope, like the taper's gleamy light, adorns the wretch's way," and in this case, we're pretty sure that wretch equals coach.) Whichever way the line goes, here's hoping airlines see the light.

 

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