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From first class to ‘premium economy’

Many companies are requiring employees to fly in economy class to help slash expenses. But not all are having to sit back in coach, and that’s helping some airlines offset a huge falloff in business travel.

Bucking an industry trend, Virgin Atlantic Airways said this week that its profit more than doubled to $109 million in the year ended Feb. 28, mainly because of lower fuel costs, but also because more travelers filled up its “premium economy” section -- a hybrid cabin located between business and coach.

The London-based airline founded by British billionaire Richard Branson said business travelers were downgrading from its “upper class” cabins to premium economy, often for only a part of the trip.

They’ll fly in the business-class seats -- which can fold out into a bed -- from Los Angeles to London, but then fly home in premium economy, which have seats that are about an inch or two wider than in coach and have about six more inches of legroom.

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This way, they can sleep and recharge for their early-morning meetings at the start of the trip and save money on the way back, said Chris Rossi, Virgin Atlantic’s senior vice president of North America. A business-class round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and London in mid-June could set you back about $7,000. But flying there in business class and then coming back in premium economy would be about $2,000 cheaper.

Most international carriers offer some type of premium economy seats, but U.S. airlines have been slow to adopt them, particularly on shorter flights.

One exception has been United, which offers “economy plus” seats on most planes.

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Don’t leave home without plastic

More airlines now have cashless cabins, which means you’ll need a credit card to buy a drink or anything else on the plane.

American Airlines, the busiest carrier at Los Angeles International Airport, won’t take cash on any domestic flight starting Monday.

Flight attendants will be armed with a hand-held device that has a touch screen, a card reader and a printer for receipts.

“We believe that, by moving to a cashless cabin, the transaction process is more convenient for both our customers and flight attendants,” said Lauri Curtis, American’s vice president for onboard service.

Airlines say business travelers like it because using a credit card makes it easier to get a receipt and file expense reports.

Credit cards are also helping airlines generate revenue at a time when fewer travelers have hurt the bottom line.

JetBlue Airways went plastic in late 2007, and onboard purchases doubled in the first week. Other cashless airlines include United, Alaska, Frontier and Virgin America.

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Of course, if you fly business class, you won’t need cash or credit cards.

Drinks and meals are still included in the airfare.

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Best hotels for business trips

TripAdvisor.com, the popular website for hotel reviews, has launched a new tool geared toward business travelers.

The website now offers a popularity index for hotels based on reviews by business travelers.

It also has interactive maps that show where hotels are located relative to a business meeting or an office and a directory of nearby restaurants, attractions, transportation and business services.

On its “Business Travel Center” web page, a hotel search can be narrowed not only by geographic location but also by chain.

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That is helpful for employees who must stay at company-preferred lodging or where they are rewards program members.

“We’re only showing you reviews written by business travelers for business travelers,” said Robin Ingle, TripAdvisor’s senior vice president of advertising.

TripAdvisor, a unit of Expedia Inc., came up with a computer program that filters out advice from business travelers among the more than 23 million hotel reviews. The database includes business traveler reviews of more than 20,000 hotels in 750 cities worldwide.

In a quick check of top-rated hotels in Los Angeles, recently renovated Andaz West Hollywood, formerly a Hyatt, popped up at No. 1. It was rated fourth among all reviewers but was the favorite among those who said they had stayed there on business.

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Carry-ons

Emirates, one of the world’s fastest-growing airlines with nonstop flights from LAX to Dubai, is having a one-day sale in which it will slash $100 off a round-trip ticket when booked online Thursday. . . . Volaris, a start-up airline in Mexico, begins flights between LAX and Toluca, just outside Mexico City, on July 1, with promotional fares starting at $99 one-way. . . . British Airways begins nonstop flights from London to Las Vegas on Oct. 25, heating up the competition with Virgin Atlantic for transatlantic travel to the city. Travelers from Britain are the third-largest group of foreign visitors to Vegas, behind those from Canada and Mexico.

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peter.pae@latimes.com


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