Sleeper seats and premium economy are just two of the trends, as the stakes continue to rise in the battle for high-fare passengers across the North Atlantic

What is next in the fiercely contested race to attract high-yield business passengers on transatlantic flights? On-board showers? A fully equipped health club? Massage and beauty treatments? Access to e-mail and the Internet? Business centres with meeting rooms and video conferencing? Full-service cocktail or coffee bars? All are possibilities in this increasingly high-stakes race. However, amid all these enticements, the seat itself remains a key transatlantic battleground.

And in the battle of the seats, the stakes have been raised significantly by British Airways. In 1995 the UK carrier launched the concept of the "flying bed"- seats that fold down electronically into a 2m (6ft 6in) long flat bed within a stylish and more private "seating compartment" - for first-class cabins on long-haul aircraft. In part a response to the growing popularity of Virgin's business/ first Upper Class product, the BA first-class beds were an innovation that has been copied by many others.

Raising the stakes

Now, BA has upped the stakes again, this time with a £200 million ($290 million) investment to equip its Club World business section with seats that convert to a completely flat bed. It is not so wide, long or as luxurious as the first-class offering, but the seat does allow a business passenger to sleep lying flat. And it has been winning converts to the airline.

"I would not have believed it was possible to feel so much better in the morning after having slept all night," says one professional training consultant who flew from the USA to London in the new Club World. "It makes all the difference in the world. Everyone who has to work the next day ought to spend the night in one of those beds," she says.

To those accustomed to normal business-class seats, the cabin looks strange at first. To get 70 of these convertible seats into a Boeing 747-400 and 50 into the Boeing 777, the seats are designed in forward- and rearward-facing pairs in a two-four-two arrangement. Fellow travellers can either face each other, or sit next to each other in the middle section. A screen can be raised between each pair of seats for more privacy. The ergonomically designed seats are electronically controlled and come with an adjustable footstool, larger video screens and in-seat laptop power ports and telephones.

New Club World sections are already installed on aircraft flying key transatlantic routes to New York, Newark, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington. The aircraft are being introduced gradually onto Chicago, Philadelphia and Toronto routes, with the remaining North American gateways served from London Heathrow due to come on line this year. Routes served from London Gatwick will probably convert early 2002.

The airline has won a lot of publicity for the new beds, but it will not advertise in a market until all aircraft flying the route have been converted. Nevertheless, passengers on occasion may find themselves on a converted aircraft before its official launch.

The new Club World does appear to be attracting new US-based passengers to BA, as it was designed to do. "We don't have the huge frequent flier feed that American and United have," says one BA official. "The only way to get people to use us is through product enhancement; we want to get AAdvantage and Mileage Plus travellers to come once to BA and try us." He thinks the beds provide the necessary draw, particularly on overnight flights. "We've taken the room that is available and have done the best we can to emulate a bedroom," he adds.

The changeover is part of an overall £600 million investment in the interiors of all BA aircraft. For long-haul aircraft, the changes include revamped first-class cabins and the refitting of Concorde with new styling, seats and bathrooms. Plans to upgrade the supersonic aircraft were announced before the Air France crash, but will be carried out during the present grounding. Concorde is tentatively due to re-enter service later this year. BA also plans new seating and seatback videos in the World Traveller economy section and the creation of a new fourth class - World Traveller Plus.

World Traveller Plus is BA's response to the challenge of giving something extra to both cost-conscious business travellers and those economy passengers who are prepared to pay a little more for extra space. It will create a separate new section, making BA the only carrier with four distinct classes of service. Seats in the new section are wider and with considerably more legroom than is offered in economy - 38in seat pitch against 31in. Market response to the section has been growing, but BA admits that it suffered a little from being launched alongside the new Club World.

Such reconfiguration of aircraft results in a substantial decrease in overall capacity - but growth in premium seating - which advances BA's stated determination to concentrate its efforts on the high-yield travel market. For example, the standard Boeing 747-400 has 376 seats (14 First, 64 Club World and 298 World Traveller). The new configuration totals 291 seats (14 First, 70 Club World, 30 World Traveller Plus and 177 World Traveller).

On the heavily-travelled New York-London route, BA has increased the seating in the new Club World to 102 on its two fullest 747-400 flights to accommodate more premium travel, especially former Concorde passengers. When Concorde flights resume, the airline will revert back to the 70-seat Club World sections.

BA believes that it has held onto most of its London-bound Concorde passengers during the grounding. It admits, however, that it has probably lost traffic among first- and business-class passengers who were using Concorde to London to connect to other European capitals. "We think they will come back," says one BAsource.

Virgin initiative

No US carrier, as yet, has said it will match BA's business-class initiative. Virgin Atlantic, however, is in the middle of a $100-million redesign of its Upper Class that includes the installation of sleeper seats which, like BA's, convert into full length beds. Other Virgin product improvements include an expanded bar area, a new meal service offering more freedom of choice and a private in-flight beauty treatment area for manicures as well as Virgin's famed mini-massages. Elsewhere there is a state-of-the-art lighting system that can create eight different moods, and the redesign of 100 different on-board products with a "modern romance of flight" theme. Swizzle sticks, for instance, are shaped like propellers.

Virgin has placed its converted aircraft primarily on routes out of London to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but they are not yet on all flights. The carrier expects to complete the conversions programme by the end of the year.

In 1992, Virgin had led the way with a service for full-fare, economy passengers, slotted between its Upper Class and economy offerings. Initially called Mid Class it was rebranded as Premium Economy in 1994. The separate cabin has seats with a 38in pitch, compared with 31-32in in economy.

BA is not alone in following Virgin's lead in providing such an intermediate class. And while everyone is doing something different to attract business passengers, almost all carriers are reducing the number of seats on their aircraft.

United Airlines has been reconfiguring its fleet of 106 international long-haul aircraft with several enhancements aimed at business people. Their efforts include completing the installation of seats that convert to beds in first-class sections (except in Boeing 767s) and reducing the size of its business section to provide seats with an additional 7in legroom and 150í recline.

It also is adding "economy plus" spacing, already in domestic aircraft, to the front part of long-haul cabins. Economy-plus seating is not in a separate cabin but gives passengers sitting in the same 18in-wide economy seats an extra 4-5in of legroom. The seats are pre-assigned to passengers travelling on a full economy ticket or who have attained a certain status in the airline's Mileage Plus frequent flier programme. But the seating carries no other amenities, as do the equivalent offerings from BA and Virgin. The number of economy plus seats range from 71 to 88, depending on the aircraft.

United's fleet conversion is expected to be completed by the beginning of next year. Changes have come primarily at the expense of economy capacity; almost 2,200 seats are being removed, more than 70% of them from economy and the rest from business.

American Airlines has carried out a full-scale redesign of first class for its transatlantic 777s, using a specially designed swivel seat that allows up to four people sitting in the centre of the cabin to hold face-to-face meetings. The seats also convert to a fully flat bed. Last year, it began removing some seats in its business class to provide more legroom. The business section in its 777s used to have 56 seats with a 50in pitch but will now contain 42 seats at a 60in pitch.

The conversions of existing 767 and 777 types are being done concurrently with American's "more room in coach" programme. That involves removing coach seats to increase seat pitch by 3-4in throughout the entire economy section.

European innovations

Meanwhile United code share partner bmi british midland is for the first time offering scheduled service across the Atlantic. It will use new Airbus A330-200s with three classes, two of them designed for the business traveller. The UK carrier's business class will offer a first-class level of service - the 24 seats will have 60in seat pitch and 160í recline. Among the amenities will be a state-of-the-art entertainment system, and in-flight chefs who prepare meals to individual requests, within bounds. "If you want an omelette for breakfast, the chef will crack eggs and cook it for you," a manager says. The airline will also be offering discounted tickets for business class, similar to executive fares offered on its European network.

Aircraft in the bmi fleet will also be equipped with a separate "new economy" cabin of 48 seats with 38in pitch, compared with a 32in pitch in economy. Like business, the new economy cabin will have laptop power points, telephones and dataports. The new aircraft debut this summer on daily flights from Manchester to Chicago and six-times-a-week service to Washington - Dulles.

Although Scandinavia's SAS is not new to the transatlantic, the Airbus A340s and A330s it has ordered have spurred a total redesign for long-haul services. With the introduction of new aircraft in September, SAS also will go to three classes of service: 54 seats in business, 24 in "economy extra," and 183 in economy.

SAS will offer six sleeper seats at the front of the cabin, as it does today, at a surcharge. As part of its product differentiation, the lavatories in business class will be 50% larger than in today's aircraft, and will have windows. SAS already has windows in business class lavatories on new Boeing 737-600/700/800 aircraft flown on medium-range routes in Europe. There will be a smorgasbord-type buffet for passengers to serve themselves and an exercise bar at the back of the cabin for simple stretching exercises.

Like other carriers with similar sections, the "economy-extra" section - with new seats with 37in pitch, seat-back videos and power ports - is targeted at frequent travellers who currently fly economy class but are willing to pay slightly more for increased comfort and a better in-flight working environment, an SAS official says. SAS also plans to convert six Boeing 767s to the same standard for use on routes that cannot sustain an A340 off-season. SAS's newest transatlantic route, Copenhagen-Washington, appears to be a winner. Before its start on 12 May, the carrier had already booked 80% of the seats for the first 45 days.

Swissair completely renovated its first class last year, adding seats that convert to fully horizontal beds and a fold-away 26 x 20in table that can be used for a business meeting or dining arrangement for two. The airline also provides a faxgram text-messaging service on its A330s. This allows the on-board concierge to transmit text messages to the ground staff to arrange limousines or hotels, or to find out such things as sports scores or stock market quotes. Passengers in the business class can send faxes from their own video screen.

Sabena, which has refurbished its spacious business class with adjustable seats of 62in pitch, last month announced that business and economy passengers on Airbus A330s long-haul flights will now be able to send short (four-line) e-mails and satellite messaging service (SMS) messages while in-flight. The service can be accessed using individual personal screens and handsets to create and send messages to an e-mail address, mobile phone number or fax number, for which there will be a $1.95 charge.

Most non-US transatlantic carriers are planning, or at least studying, the provision of on-board e-mail and Internet, which already has been launched in a limited fashion by Singapore Airlines and Air Canada. SAS, for instance, has begun testing a Tenzing Communications wireless Internet system that would allow passengers to gain access to e-mail and Internet via laptops using an on-board Internet server. Virgin too is planning to use a Tenzing system to provide e-mail and Internet access through passengers' laptops or seat-back television screens, available by the end of the year.

Bad timing?

Ironically, this expensive refitting is coming at a time when the softening economy in the USA and its reverberating effects have begun to reduce corporate travel budgets. Most carriers have reported decreases in the number of high-yield business customers flying this year, and the decline seemed to have accelerated in April.

There is normally less premium travel in the summer months, but it is not very often that carriers have offered large discounts on business fares to travellers who book ahead, as some have this spring. In April, Delta offered summer discounts of up to 70% on its Business Elite fares to Europe if purchased on its web site.

Still, the competition to attract and keep the high-yield passenger continues to gain momentum. The speed at which carriers continue to innovate leads one airline manager to remark: "The joke is that what's next is a four-poster bed."

Source: Airline Business