On this segment of The Future of Travel series (Part 1: End-toEnd Wi-Fi and Part 2: Flying Thinner, Longer Routes), I thought it would be interesting to look at another potential innovation that is starting to crop up on high-demand routes and airports — the existence of all business class flights and premium passenger terminals.
A Brief History Lesson
The first all-business class planes were, of course, the Concorde. Built as a partnership between the UK and French governments with British Airways and Air France as anchor airlines, the Concorde could fly New York and Washington DC to Paris and London in 3 and a half hours – cruising at roughly Mach 2.0. Many other routes were chartered and explored, though most didn’t stick due to noise complaints and operating costs. Service was similar to business class at the time, but with first class ticket prices. Sadly, due to the 1973 oil crisis, where the price of oil increased by nearly 4x, most subsequent orders were cancelled in the next few months and supersonic travel never took off.
Fast forward to the early 2000’s, Singapore Airlines had two non-stop flights from their hub in Singapore to both Los Angeles and Newark. At the time they were the longest flights in the world and were operated by an a340-500, due to the added safety over open water with four engines and the aircraft’s impressive range. To make the weight calculations work, Singapore configured the aircraft to have just 100 business class seats, rather than the typical 300-330 you see on most a340-500s. Business travelers loved it, since it skipped a connection in Hong Kong or Seoul, but as fuel prices rose, Singapore cancelled the flights and sold the planes.
A Differentiated Future?
Now, with oil at fairly low prices, we’re starting to see all-business class flights pop up on routes like London – New York (British Airways, La Compagnie), New York-Paris (La Compagnie) and London – Doha (Qatar Airways) and companies like Boom at cutting contracts with the Virgin Group to offer supersonic business class flights that halve the travel time of transoceanic travel. They’re betting that people will be willing to pay $5000 to fly from New York to London in 3 hours and 15 minutes, similar to the Concorde.
Furthermore, as airlines try to differentiate themselves with additional services like chauffeur transfers and tarmac rides in sedans, the incentive to simply create their own premium building on airport property will give them much more control over aspects like staffing ratios, security, duty free sales and boarding. By controlling the experience, like Lufthansa does with the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt and Emirates does with separate floors for business and first class passengers in the a380 terminal in Dubai, airlines can better manage expectations and lines — though it begs the question whether sequestering luxury travelers from coach flyers would be good optics or PR.
A study conducted by the University of Toronto concluded that air rage incidents were 4 times as likely on planes with a first class cabin (especially if economy passengers had to walk through it to board the plane) than on planes with an all-economy configuration. Many low cost carriers forego a forward cabin entirely, so if coach is a race to the bottom, maybe this opens up a market for an all-business class airline to cherry-pick routes between wealthy cities with healthy business demand.
How do you see this bifurcation play out? Will passengers demand more and more variations in experience at different price points?
Are we seeing air travel turn a corner, much like how automobiles went from Model T’s (you can have it in any color, as long as it’s black) to sportscars, minivans and sedans?
Will sequestering luxury travels drive governmental policy responses in the form of higher taxes (like the UK’s Air Passenger Duty, which is tiered by distance and cabin of service)?
Start the discussion below!