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Airlines Take Step Up in First-Class

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

It was bound to happen. After years of developing, and then improving, business-class, some airlines discovered that their upscale passengers were having difficulty distinguishing between business and first-class.

Business-class seats were getting bigger, more comfortable and reclined at greater angles. Some even had footrests. Business-class meals and wines improved, with more choices. And business-class perks, including upgraded check-in facilities, lounges and limo services began to rival the front cabin.

By comparison, first-class had changed for the worse. And for the first time in recent memory, first-class had begun to attract a sizable number of critics. Complaints were that the food wasn’t as good as it used to be and the seats weren’t as comfortable.

“After we upgraded business-class,” said John Taylorson, British Airways head of catering operations, “we simply had to make the big move forward and improve our first-class service.”

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Considered Revenue

“The line between value and perceived value began to move rapidly when it came to first-class,” said one airline executive. “And we knew we had to do something, especially when you consider first-class fares and the revenue involved.”

Indeed, a passenger traveling economy class from London to Los Angeles can pay from $360 to $625, depending on when the ticket was bought. But a first-class passenger has to pay $2,908. The revenue from 18 first-class passengers on one flight is worth $52,344.

Recently, British Airways decided to make a big move. In a major upgrade worth more than $40 million, the airline completely changed first-class.

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Among the changes are new carpets, fabrics and seat covers, new (and practical) swivel tables and meals served whenever passengers want them, not when the airline feels like mass feeding.

Video systems are being installed in the armrests of every British Airways 747, complete with video terminals at each seat. An international calling system is being installed and there are new linen, china and amenity packets.

Statistically, said Richard Mound, group brand manager for British Airways, the airline has no expectations that its improved first-class service will attract new fliers to first-class.

“Actually,” he said, “the number of passengers who fly in the front cabin has remained small. But we did this to attract first-class passengers from other airlines where we compete on routes.”

Growing Number of Women

One statistic has changed. A growing number of women are flying first-class. A British Airways service manual said: “These women are not secretaries, wives or mistresses. They are successful business people who have noticed that our female staff tend to look down at them and our male staff tend to look at them as either chat-upable or traveling with the chap next to them, but not as individuals. We have to bear this is in mind and understand what their requirements are in flight.”

“We’re trying to develop a new tradition of service on our flights,” said Leslie Lyon, an flight purser with British Airways. “Our research tells us that our typical first-class passenger wants more control of his or her environment. He or she has that control on the ground. Why shouldn’t the passenger have it in the air?”

All the new attention to first-class has not gone unnoticed by British Airways’ competitors. After an eight-month test, Northwest Airlines has introduced “Worldclass” service in the first and executive cabins. “It involves more than just new menus, linen and china,” spokesman Doug Killian said. “It’s a pampering package.”

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Three days before a flight a reservations agent will make a courtesy call to passengers asking if they need further assistance. Special customer service assistants help passengers check in, and on Pacific flights new regional Asian dishes are being served.

Recently, Continental Airlines launched an ad campaign offering a refund to first-class passengers of up to $200 if they were dissatisfied with any aspect of their flight.

And next week TWA is expected to announce a $20-million enhancement to its operations, especially in first-class. “It’s a very necessary change,” said John M. Krause, vice president of flight services for TWA. “We’re going back to the basics, and to the way we used to do things.”

Back to Basics

For example, until recently, on flights where TWA served caviar it was served in pre-dispensed portions. Now the airline will go back to bulk caviar service from the meal cart.

“But it’s more than just food,” Krause said. “It’s service and staffing levels. That’s what our passengers said they wanted, and they were right.”

By this summer, flight attendants on TWA 747 aircraft will increase from 10 to 14; on L-1011 planes, from 9 to 11. And an additional flight attendant will be added on TWA’s 767 flights.

Ironically, this is happening at about the same time that SAS is virtually scrapping its first-class service in favor of an expanded business class.

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One airline is bringing back its first-class service. “We won’t have dancing bears or anything like that,” said Randall Malin, executive vice president of marketing for USAir. “We’re just trying to be competitive.”

It hasn’t been the first time that USAir has tried first-class. In 1983 the airline installed first-class seats on 14 planes that were used primarily to fly between Pittsburgh and California.

“But we soon found out,” said Malin, “that your entire fleet has to offer first-class or you shouldn’t offer the service. On a typical flight from Pittsburgh to the West Coast, three of every four of our passengers did not start their journey in Pittsburgh.

“If someone lived in Albany or Washington, D.C., and they wanted to fly first-class, they would have done it all the way with United or American or someone else.”

First-class was soon removed, and USAir’s fleet reverted to an all-coach format. Now, six years later, USAir has merged with Piedmont, an airline that offers excellent first-class service.

Firm Decision

“Once again we have the problem of being one way or the other,” Malin said. But a firm decision has been made: First-class will be in place on each of the airline’s 427 aircraft by this summer.

“You may be assigned a first-class seat on one of our planes before June 1,” Malin said. “But after that date you’ll have to pay for the privilege.”

Then there’s the food issue. Part of British Airways’ investment in upgrading first-class concentrated on achieving the previously impossible--making airline food first-class.

“And to do that,” said British Airway’s Taylorson, “we had to listen to what our passengers were telling us, especially about our food service. When you’re a passenger paying premium prices, the dishes served should be a pleasure, not an ordeal.”

Taylorson approached the Savoy Hotel and its Maitre Chef des Cuisines, Anton Edelmann, to create special menus. Edelmann worked on perfecting a lobster and tiger prawn salad, a chilled chocolate mousse in a hazelnut sauce and other dishes featured on the Savoy menu.

Special vegetarian dishes also have been prepared, including one featuring a timbale of aubergines, pearl barley and hazelnuts with fresh tomato and basil.

Nut not everything worked. “On some of our flights,” said Taylorson, “we really wanted to do something special, so we created a cheese souffle. But at altitude it rose so high we could never get it out of the ovens.” Scratch the souffle.

But Edelmann isn’t worried about the quality of the rest of the food. “British Airways will be doing the same standard and presentation as we do at the hotel. I am a little apprehensive because we won’t be supervising each of the dishes, but our prestige won’t suffer, unless the plane is delayed!”


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