Up At the Sharp End Over Africa

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Whether your company is prepared to stump up for a bit of comfort and/or luxury when posting you to the four corners of the earth to do business for them, or if they prefer to keep a tight rein on things, premium air travel and the battle for supremacy in First and Business Class remains topical. So, Richard Holmes grabbed his boarding pass and headed for the smart, fully-reclining seats, to see what exactly is currently going on in this space, when it comes to Africa’s airlines and their ‘international’ competitors.

What is the cost of doing business? I suppose you might as well ask, “how long is a piece of string?”

Because there’s always a cost to doing business, perhaps especially in Africa where bureaucracies and infrastructure – or the lack thereof – often make doing the deal harder than it perhaps needs to be. And whether it’s a lunch meeting in the Johannesburg CBD, or a chartered plane to Goma, eventually it comes down to balancing cost versus value. If there’s value in the expense, the outlay is usually going to be worthwhile.

And happily for frequent corporate travellers, offering value is something airlines are getting increasingly good at. Recognising that bloated travel budgets are a thing of the past, airlines are working harder than ever to entice corporate bums onto premium cabin seats.

On the flipside, off the back of recovering economies, business owners are realising that there’s an acceptable cost in getting well-rested corporate travellers to the meeting on time, and are increasingly happy to fork out for First and Business Class travel. Mix the two elements together, and you get a flush of airlines pulling out all the stops to tap into a strengthening premium travel market in Africa.

“Africa has been identified by Lufthansa as the continent with exponential growth potential,” says Axel Simon, Director Southern Africa for Lufthansa German Airlines and Swiss International Air Lines. “Johannesburg was the third city that Lufthansa deployed their flagship A380 to, increasing capacity by 60%.”

That already says a lot about the Lufthansa take on the business travel potential that that route offers, and where the airline believes there is potential to grab some serious premium travel market share. And, while Johannesburg may welcome the flagship Airbus aircraft to O.R. Tambo International Airport each morning, it’s far from the airline’s only destination on the continent. During the southern hemisphere summer, Lufthansa also flies five times a week from Munich to Cape Town, with sister airline Edelweiss Air flying twice weekly from Zurich to Cape Town direct.

“Together with Lufthansa’s group partners – Brussels Airlines, Swiss International Air Lines and Austrian Airlines – over 200 weekly flights to more than 30 destinations in Africa are served,” says Simon, who adds that while no new destinations are in the pipeline, there is interest “in increasing frequencies to current destinations with increasing demand. Nevertheless, with our partners EgyptAir, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways, we cover the continent nicely.”

The resources sector is responsible for driving a large proportion of economic growth in Africa, with much of the demand coming from China. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that – with excellent connections into the People’s Republic of China through its hub in Hong Kong – Cathay Pacific is reporting strong demand for seats at the front of the plane.

“We are seeing a growing trend in premium travel between South Africa and Asia, as evident by the satisfactory loads in the premium cabins,” says Frosti Lau, Country Manager South Africa and Indian Ocean for Cathay Pacific. “The trend continued even after we started operating an aircraft with increased capacity on certain days through this year.”

Airline travel demand is closely linked to the economic health of a region, and with the demand for resources still strong, the growth in trade is having a knock-on effect for premium travel.

“Since world trade is associated with international trading industries which rely on air travel to facilitate their business development, air travel demand stands to benefit when trade expands,” reports the International Air Traffic Association, which noted that across Africa, international air travel rose by 7.5% in July, compared with the same period in 2012.

Not too much of a surprise, considering the world view on Africa as the last untapped resource and a big focus for international corporates with a view on the next bit of unchartered territory.

“Many regions in the world – particularly Asia, the Middle East and Africa – have weathered the storm and both business and business travel are recovering again,” notes Fouad Caunhye, Emirates Regional Manager for Southern Africa. “The travel trajectory usually follows economic activity. Where growth is modest, it is only natural that travel will lean towards affordability, and where economic activity is strong, then the confidence translates into business travel perks like flying First Class or Business Class. The recovery is also pushing up travel budgets. In sectors where we operate, we see a healthy appetite for premium class travel.”

Good to know, and also good to see carriers from as far afield as the likes of Korea, recognising African potential and signalling a desire to do business with the continent, along with bridging the gap between Asia and Africa, as evidenced by the investment made by Korean Air.

“Africa is a vast continent with a great potential,” agrees Hyun Suk Lee, General Manager Korean Air: Kenya, which opened a direct route from Seoul to Nairobi in June 2012. “The recent increase in the export of natural resources and foreign investment boosts Africa’s economic growth every year. Kenya in particular accommodates prominent international organisations and is the mecca of sub-Saharan Africa’s tourism and economy. Due to these reasons, we were convinced that making Nairobi our hub and gateway to this continent would bring great success in this market.”

“Currently, we are trying our best to promote more premium travel on our Nairobi route,” continues Hyun Suk Lee. “The number of premium travellers is steadily increasing, however the majority of the demand is limited to group travel.”

While long-haul airlines are constantly looking for opportunities in Africa, regional carrier Air Mauritius has also seen healthy demand for premium seats, reporting an increase in demand of nearly 20% between April and August, compared with the same period in 2012. Not bad for a destination written off as purely a leisure one, although Mauritius as an important MICE option mitigates against that theory.

“Service, convenience and schedule all play a role” in enticing business travellers to pay for a premium cabin, says Carla da Silva, Regional Manager Southern Africa and Latin America for Air Mauritius, who adds that as business trips are being shortened to save time and money, premium travel has risen to allow for maximising time on the ground.

Air Mauritius has also introduced innovative incentives for corporate travellers to trade up a cabin. The airline offers corporate customers an ‘Up Fare’ that allows travellers to pay for an Economy Class seat yet fly in Business Class. They also offer last minute upgrades at the airport for a flat rate of ZAR1500 from South Africa to Mauritius. 

“This is very popular as some travellers see value in it, and this allows them access to the Business Class lounge,” explains Da Silva. “Air Mauritius also offers ‘Upgrade Now’, an innovative online bidding product which has become very popular, allowing companies, individuals and travel agents to bid in advance for a better rate, ensuring and securing cost savings on travel budgets – it’s all in line with cost savings, allowing for a combination of business trips, less flying time and better rates.”

While Air Mauritius’ African network currently serves Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Nairobi, it has codeshare agreements with Kenya Airways and South African Airways, to offer an improved footprint on the continent. And at just 5½ hours from India, the airline is also increasingly casting its gaze to the east.

“Emerging, developing markets such as China, India, Asia and Africa have been realigned so that our product, schedule and connectivity offers value,” adds Da Silva. “South Africa has been established as a strategic hub, allowing Africa to connect via Johannesburg, and providing passenger and cargo services to Mauritius and beyond.”

Air Mauritius certainly deserves a round of applause for their admirable approach to drumming up business in an ever more competitive market, but often the appetite for Business Class travel comes down to something as simple as geography.

“Cape Town, for example, is a leisure market and therefore the demand for Economy Class is higher than the premium class, whereas Johannesburg is a business destination with a high demand for the premium classes,” explains Simon from Lufthansa. “Oil and energy destinations like Angola or Nigeria are corporate destinations where premium classes are in high demand.”

The unstoppable boom in Angola’s petrochemical industries recently prompted Air Namibia to add an additional flight between Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako International Airport and Luanda.

Namibia’s national carrier now offers daily flights between the two capitals, with Air Namibia’s Manager for Corporate Communication Paul Nakawa saying, “this move is in line with our network strategy, of offering more frequency on routes, which gives our clients flexibility and best options on choice for dates of travel.”

Although Delta Air Lines cancelled its planned 2011 launch of flights into Luanda, the airline – which flies into Monrovia, Dakar, Accra, Lagos and Johannesburg from its hub in Atlanta – says there is “steady demand for our premium product,” according to Margaret Copeland, Sales Manager South Africa for Delta Air Lines.

“Johannesburg and Lagos consistently register high load factors – Johannesburg, because of the length of flight and because it’s non-stop; Lagos, because of the sizeable oil business and traffic exiting the United States of America, as well as local Nigerian businessmen who like our service and the convenient connections from Atlanta to some 150 destinations across the US,” says Copeland.

European, Asian and United States-based carriers could also be enjoying firmer demand for premium travel thanks – again – to simple geography. Business travellers can be expected to cram into Economy for a four-hour hop to Nairobi, but not an overnight stretch from London.

“Many companies allow premium travel to the continent due to varying degrees of comfort whilst in certain countries in Africa,” comments Copeland from Delta Air Lines. “Because the flights are generally over nine hours, many companies allow Business Class travel for their employees on company business. Also, the extra baggage allowance offered in premium cabins is a big driver.”

With the expectation that the employee will be able to enjoy comfortable lounge access and a good night’s sleep in-flight, “many companies have a travel policy that allows their management staff to fly Business Class if the flight is longer,” adds Simon. “The passenger can start working or attend meetings after arrival, saving time and compensating the cost of the premium ticket.”

That particularly applies to ultra-long-haul flights, and sectors from Africa to the Asia –Pacific region is certainly one where it’s worth considering upgrading to a premium cabin. That’s potentially good news for the likes of Korean Air, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Qantas.

“The duration for business travel tends to be short, so travellers look to maximise their sleep,” adds Lauren Egger, Sales and Marketing Executive for Qantas. “Our premium product allows them to arrive refreshed for meetings.”

However, there’s comfort and then there’s luxury, and corporate travellers have become increasingly wary of living the high life on the company tab. Perhaps with this in mind, Qantas made the bold move last year of removing the First Class cabin from the bulk of its long-haul fleet.

A brave move, perhaps, but “the increased capacity in our Business and Premium Economy Cabins as per market demands has been received positively,” says Egger.

It is also a trend that is gathering pace globally, suggests Dan Mosely, International Communications Africa and Southern Europe for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “We are seeing a reduction in the number of First Class seats in general.  The space is being used to add more seats in Business and Economy, and or to add Premium Economy seats. While First Class suites continue to get more luxurious, Business Class seats are offering more welcome functionality, such as aisle access for each seat.”

“Business travellers today expect plenty of room in which to work, relax and play,” says Hyun Suk Lee from Korean Air, which focuses on the finer pleasures of providing a premium experience in the air. “Passengers enjoy award-winning meals on Korean Air flights, served on tableware designed by Korea’s top pottery master Kwangjuyo, and manufactured by Wedgewood. Both Korean and western cuisines, including superb caviar and wine are available on the menu.”

Aside from enjoying a few luxuries in-flight, time-saving is one of the key benefits of flying Business Class, as premium passengers are “generally last to board and first to disembark, with the added benefit of having a fast-track experience in Lagos through the immigration formalities,” notes Isla Moffett; Manager, Sales and Marketing – South Africa for Arik Air, which serves 19 domestic and 11 international destinations from its Nigeria hubs. “Ex-Lagos we offer a 22h45 departure for Johannesburg, giving the traveller the opportunity to complete a full day of business, with the ability to arrive at the airport in good time to make the flight.”

While Arik Air has an especially wide network in West Africa, Kenya Airways dominates in East Africa, although the airline has reported a softening in demand for Business Class travel, “mainly due to cost cutting of mining houses,” says Sales Manager Helena Maxwell, adding that both Nairobi and Mauritius attract Business Class travellers, thanks to financial institutions and non-governmental organisations operating in the region.

With the airline expecting delivery of a state-of-the-art Boeing 777-300ER in October, and the 787 Dreamliner in the near future, Kenya Airways is also set to revamp its premium cabin offering on many of its 40 African routes.

For Arik Air, the implementation of new aircraft on the popular Lagos-Johannesburg route has already led to a spike in bookings for Business Class seats, says Moffett. “We have a big demand for our premium cabin on both our domestic and regional routes in West and Central Africa. We are seeing positive growth in the South African market and look forward to being able to report high load factors in ‘front of cabin’ on this route, once we have introduced our new product to the corporate traveller.”

The airline has recently introduced Airbus A330 and A340 aircraft on the route, offering a spacious 2-2-2 cabin layout that provides 180° lie-flat seats.

“Our outstanding feature is possibly the Kira Bar, which separates the Premier Class cabin and provides the opportunity for people travelling together to ‘meet’ over a drink,” adds Moffett. “We offer a choice of meals, with Nigerian cuisine being one of the options available, a full ‘turn-down duvet’ service on our night flights, and each seat has a full programme of massage options, a 17-inch TV screen with video on demand, a 76-inch seat pitch, a privacy divider and the usual amenity kits.”

With ever-growing competition, airlines are continually revamping their onboard product offering. It often seems that the moment a cabin is fitted across the fleet, the process to replace it all gets under way, and perhaps few industries feel the need to keep up with the times – and the competition – as much as airlines.

Take Lufthansa, for example. Their new Airbus A380s are barely a few years old and the carrier is already revamping the entire Business Class offering. The new seats will boast an integrated air cushion system for added comfort, extending into a lie-flat bed nearly two metres long.

The airline is also rethinking the layout of the Business Class cabin, with seats now arranged in a ‘V’ formation to allow for greater privacy and for all passengers to face the direction of travel. 

“The new Business Class seat is a major component of Lufthansa’s largest investment to date in its in-flight product. Over the next few years, some €3-billion will be channelled into product improvements for passengers,” adds Simon. “The first A380 for Business Class retrofit is planned for the end of the year, then others will follow. The new Business Class could make its first appearance in Johannesburg in early 2014.”

Air Namibia is also a popular option for corporate and leisure travellers out of Germany, and with the introduction of new Airbus A330-200 aircraft, the carrier is set to revamp its long-haul product offering.

“The fleet upgrade ties in with our network expansion and frequency increase plans, using aircraft which have a combination of low operating costs, high efficiency, flexibility, customer appeal and optimised performance,” says Nakawa.

The airline’s A330s will be configured with 30 seats in the Business Class cabin, offering fully-flat beds and audio-video on demand. Air Namibia recently added Airbus A319 aircraft to its fleet, which are currently used on routes between Windhoek and Johannesburg, Cape Town, Luanda and Accra. The A319’s Business Class cabins offer a spacious 2-2 layout with stylish leather seats and a good recline.

The United States airline industry has been in the doldrums for some time, and the continent’s legacy carriers have often struggled to keep apace with developments in onboard comfort and service. However, that seems to be changing, with the introduction of the new BusinessElite seat by Delta Air Lines.

The seat, arranged in a convenient 1-2-1 configuration, is available on selected routes and offers direct aisle access for all passengers.

“Additionally, all of the seats in the newly-modified cabins are forward facing, which we find premium customers respond favourably to,” says Copeland. “Recently, we have introduced a new range of in-flight amenities for the premium customer, such as Westin Heavenly bedding and a new TUMI amenity kit.”

Asian and Middle Eastern carriers have usually been the trendsetters when it comes to onboard premium products, and Emirates – with the world’s largest fleet of A380 superjumbos – has spared no time or expense in raising the bar in First Class.

The airline’s A380 First Class private suites offer some of the most luxurious seats in the sky, not least for the onboard shower spas available exclusively for customers flying in First Class.

“On Emirates’ A380, First and Business Class passengers have the exclusive use of a lounge situated at the rear of the Business Class cabin on the upper deck,” adds Caunhye. “In addition to a fully-stocked bar containing premium branded liqueurs and spirits, and a selection of hot and cold canapés and snacks, there are two sofas, and a 42-inch LCD screen showing the aircraft’s position and views from its external cameras.”

While Emirates is yet to bring its flagship aircraft to any of the 20-plus destinations it serves on the continent, from 16 December the airline will offer daily A380 services between Dubai and Mauritius, to cater for both leisure and corporate travellers.

Emirates also restarted passenger flights to Tripoli on 1 September, offering three flights per week on a Boeing 777-200ER in a three-class configuration. The flight – which stops briefly in Malta en route – operates on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The airline also launched daily flights to Algiers in March this year – a sure sign that there is renewed interest in North Africa.

Never mind what the likes of fellow Middle Eastern players Qatar and Etihad have to offer, Emirates also has plenty of competition from award-winning Asian carriers too.

Cathay Pacific is currently retro-fitting its fleet with its new Business Class cabins, which offer direct aisle access in a 1-2-1 configuration. The new design also does away with the ‘herring-bone’ layout, and the new-generation bed is equipped with an extension that provides additional space for a good night’s sleep on the 12-hour flight to Chek Lap Kok airport.

The new seats also offer additional storage space and a revamped in-flight entertainment system that has been overhauled to offer an intuitive touch-screen experience that is among the best in the skies.

Korean Air, which offers both First and Prestige (Business) Class cabins on its route out of Nairobi, is justifiably proud of the ‘Kosmos Suites’ on offer in First Class.

The suite “brings passengers an ultra-luxurious travel experience – a living room, office, bedroom and cinema in one!” says Hyun Suk Lee of Korean Air. “The seat brings privacy to passengers whether they are working or resting, with an electronic privacy cocoon and complimentary Gianfranco Ferre pyjamas for a sound sleep.”

Korean Air and Cathay Pacific’s main Asian competitor into Africa is Singapore Airlines, which offers direct flights to Johannesburg.

Singapore Airlines set the benchmark for First Class cabins, with the introduction of private suites onboard its Airbus A380, and although there are currently no plans to introduce the A380 on its South African route – the next destination for the airline’s ‘superjumbo’ is Shanghai, on 27 October – the Business Class product has been upgraded to offer fully-flat beds.

“Providing direct access to the aisle is a hallmark of our unique 1-2-1 forward-facing cabin layout,” says Sally George, Market Development Manager for Singapore Airlines in Johannesburg. “The seat measures at least 30-inches wide, and combines enhanced personal space with comfort and leading-edge innovations.”

Singapore Airlines’ Business Class seats also offer a centralised ‘business panel’, that includes in-seat power supply and USB connectivity.

Obviously believing that corporates – like Napoleon’s army – travel on their stomachs, the airline has joined the battle to offer fine-dining at 35,000 feet.

While onboard sommeliers and chefs are becoming increasingly popular, Singapore Airlines offers its unique ‘Book the Cook’ service, with a wide-ranging menu of over 60 gourmet dishes that can be ordered before departure and enjoyed onboard. No more chicken or beef.

Cathay Pacific has similarly upped the ante on in-flight dining, and the airline recently launched “a special Michelin-starred ‘Chinese Cuisine in the Air’ menu developed by chefs from Langham Hotel Hong Kong, which is also available on the flight from Hong Kong to Johannesburg,” says Lau.

Whatever your appetite for blowing your travel budget may be, it’s often worthwhile remembering that flying like the ‘other half’ doesn’t always need to cost the earth.

“There is a perception that the premium class product is out of reach if you are a budget traveller. However, this is dispelled by loyalty programmes such as Emirates’ Skywards that bring premium class perks to other travel tiers,” reminds Fouad Caunhye from Emirates. “Frequent flyers who attain platinum status on Emirates’ Skywards loyalty programme can gain access to exclusive benefits usually reserved for First Class passengers, including First Class check-in, baggage delivery and access to the First Class lounges in Dubai and all Emirates Lounges around the world, with a guest.”

“They also receive 20 kilograms of additional baggage, regardless of their class of travel, and are guaranteed an Economy Class or Business Class commercial seat at Flex fares, and access to an Economy Class or Business Class ‘Last Seat’ Flex reward.”

It’s useful advice, and a corporate traveller that isn’t signed up to selected loyalty programmes is a foolish traveller indeed.

Make no mistake though, flying up at the sharp end is rarely a cheap experience. Then again, you get what you pay for, and when you get bumped off your flight because you’re on a cut-price Economy Class ticket, you’ll have to ask yourself if it was worth the money saved.

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get,” said the inimitable investment guru Warren Buffett.

Whether the price of a premium ticket – from the streamlined airport experience to the restful flight and easy arrival – is worth the extra dollars in your travel budget? Well, that’s for you to decide.

Premium… with privacy

So you’ve just received the quote for your First Class ticket on a scheduled airline. Because there are no direct flights, it requires connections. Perhaps the layovers are long and there’s a night in a hotel en route. That’s more expense on top of a hefty airline ticket, along with more valuable time spent travelling and less spent in the boardroom. Perhaps there’s another solution?

Private air charter is becoming increasingly sought-after in Africa, as corporate travellers recognise the cost and time efficiencies realised when you call the shots. And while you won’t always find in-flight showers or the latest Hollywood blockbuster on board, depending on the length of your trip and the size of your budget, private charters can still provide a supremely comfortable flight with plenty of perks to boot.

“The customer experience will be on par – but mostly exceed – that of the in-flight Business or First Class experience, with specific reference to long-haul aircraft such as the Global Express or Gulfstream aircraft,” says Philip du Preez, Fixed Wing Charter Manager for National Airways Corporation in South Africa. “Clients enjoy a tailor-made catering and bar service, with every other specific request catered for, whether it be a specific selection of reading material or even maintaining a specific cabin temperature.”

Those individual preferences can include the wines you’d like to enjoy onboard, what you’d prefer to eat, style of in-flight service and even how the plane is laid out.

“Most long-haul aircraft, although they can seat 14 passengers, can comfortably convert seats into lie-flat beds for passengers. Should the client require an aircraft with sleeping facilities, the number of passengers needs to be lowered in order to accommodate passengers that need lie-flat beds,” notes Du Preez. “With a modern charter aircraft fleet, the in-flight entertainment will again be customised as per the client request.”

The premium experience begins down on terra firma with private airport terminals. Charter companies usually provide comfortable lounge facilities, but “most travellers using charter just want to get going,” says Chris Frost, Business Development Manager – Flight Operations South Africa for ExecuJet Aviation Group.

ExecuJet operates a fleet of 60 aircraft out of hubs in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Lagos.

“Private lounges are offered at the reputable private terminals and offer all the amenities you would need prior to leaving on your flight or on return,” says Frost. “Demand varies dependant on the nature of the flight – a group of business folk may be arriving from different locations or at differing times, and require a central meeting point. In general, the lounges are not expected to host travellers for hours at a time.”

While the ability to hold confidential meetings and get down to work in-flight is a major benefit of chartering, executives hoping to access the Internet during the journey will find themselves either disappointed… or slapped with a hefty bill.

“The high cost of satellite communication and relatively slow speed of data transfer has limited wider use of this feature,” says Frost. “This is an area in which business aircraft manufacturers are investing significant effort. Several of ExecuJet’s fleet are fitted for Internet access, but there is a high cost of between $7 and $10 per minute of satellite time, which is usually not included in your air charter price.”

“From a research survey conducted amongst our clients, the access to a satellite phone was prioritised over in-flight Internet access,” says Du Preez, although he adds: “This will certainly change in the years to come.”

What private charter really buys you, that even a full-fare First Class ticket on a scheduled carrier never will, is flexibility. By and large the flight revolves entirely around you and your business requirements.

“The main point of private business travel is the time flexibility and related advantages,” adds Frost. “Travelling First Class on an airline doesn’t offer any more flexibility than Economy Class – if you’re late for your flight you will be left behind. A chartered aircraft is unlikely to leave you behind whatever ground delays you experience.”

Flexibility “is the one major differentiating factor to airline travel,” agrees Du Preez. “Once you charter, we operate according to the client’s schedule. As long as we adhere to flight and duty rest time for the crew, we can fly whenever a meeting has been concluded. Charter affords the flexibility that an airline schedule cannot compete with.”

Of course a tailored travel experience won’t come cheap, but packages “can be designed to suit the client, and are very flexible in that differently priced aircraft options are offered to suit a budget,” says Frost, who adds that while the actual cost of charter may be higher than scheduled services, there are a host of intangible benefits.

“Saving time at all stages of travel, creating an image, safety and security, protection of company intelligence and no lost luggage all play a role in making corporate travel efficient and effective. This is an area we see as becoming more important than the amenities on board.”

Premium Economy… The ‘Goldilocks’ Option Grows

Corporate travel is often about finding a balance. Respecting the Chinese tradition of toasting around the dinner table, but still being able to string a sentence together at the end of the meal. Spending as much time in the Lagos office as you can, but not leaving so late you miss your flight. Balance those numbers to ensure the trip pays off in the long run. Spend a little more on your ticket so you can work en route, arrive refreshed and make the most out of your trip.

And that last option is just one of the reasons behind the growth in Premium Economy cabins on many of the world’s leading airlines. Occupying a space – both physically and cost-wise – between Economy Class and Business Class, Premium Economy cabins offer an attractive mix of more personal space than Economy, but without all the frills of Business. Perhaps the most important sacrifice you’ll make is the lie-flat bed, but if the flight is short or you’re adept at sleeping upright, it’s often a sacrifice worth making.

“Premium Economy is an enhanced end-to-end passenger experience from Economy Class, and has been well received by various long-haul markets,” says Frosti Lau, Country Manager South Africa and Indian Ocean for Cathay Pacific Airways.

The airline introduced Premium Economy in 2012, offering a larger baggage allowance, dedicated check-in counter and priority boarding, a separate cabin of 26 to 34 seats, bespoke amenity kit and noise-cancelling headset, in addition to an upgraded meal service.

“Since the launch of the product on the Johannesburg-Hong Kong route, we have seen satisfactory loads in the cabin,” says Lau. “We witnessed that frequent travellers, particularly small and medium-enterprise corporate customers, who used to travel in Economy Class, are willing to pay extra to make their business trip a more comfortable one.”

“Premium Economy has proved to be very popular for companies looking to work within smaller budgets,” agrees Lauren Egger, Sales and Marketing Executive for Qantas, which has done away with First Class on many long-haul routes to increase its Premium Economy and Business offering.

Oneworld alliance partner British Airways was one of the early-adopters of Premium Economy, offering its World Traveller Plus cabins on selected long-haul routes, while Star Alliance stalwart Lufthansa is planning to introduce a Premium Economy cabin from the middle of 2014.

Virgin Atlantic recently upgraded its Premium Economy cabins to offer stylish leather seats with a 38-inch pitch, and offers dedicated check-in lanes on the ground.

Air France introduced its ‘Premium Voyageur’ cabin back in 2009, which is available on nearly all of the airline’s long-haul services. It was the first European airline to offer hard-shell seats outside of the Business and First Class cabins, with spacious seats, a 123° recline and wide leather armrests. Premium Voyageur passengers also enjoy Business Class (known as Affaires) amenities that include a travel kit, noise-reducing headphones, a feather pillow and a pure new wool blanket.

Aside from these additional cabin comforts, passengers accrue 25% more Flying Blue loyalty miles than on an Economy ticket, and are allowed two items of baggage up to 23 kilograms each.

For flying ‘across the pond’, Delta Air Lines has recently introduced a Premium Economy offering on certain routes into Africa.

“Customers flying in Economy Comfort benefit from up to four additional inches of legroom, 35 inches of seat pitch, and 50% more recline than Delta’s standard Economy Class seat,” says Margaret Copeland, Sales Manager South Africa for Delta Air Lines.

Premium Economy is increasingly making perfect sense for both airlines and travellers. Executives with sufficient travel budgets will still fork out for the lie-flat luxuries of Business Class, but travellers with an eye on the bottom line can now buy slightly more comfort without breaking the bank.

And according to CNN’s airline and aviation correspondent Richard Quest, Premium Economy poses no threat to the high-yielding Business Class cabins: “Premium Economy doesn’t cannibalise your Business Class passenger – actually, people trade up from Economy to Premium economy.”

An Expert View From Airbus

While airlines tweak their product offering according to the whims of their individual markets, globally a number of trends continue to define how the aircraft of the future are being designed and built to ensure a top-class experience at 35,000 feet.

Business Traveller Africa asked Suzana Hrnkova, the Head of Aircraft Interiors Marketing for Airbus at their headquarters in Toulouse, France, for a global view on the air up there…

“Premium passengers expect privacy, but they also want the ability to hold discreet discussions with fellow passengers… the A380, with its additional cabin surface area provided the unique opportunity to introduce mini-suites, which are the best products for passenger privacy and can be regarded as ‘a cabin within a cabin’. The suites products are designed in different ways: more, or less, open to reflect the cultural preferences of the carrier and the markets it serves.”

“Enclosed suites can present a design challenge as they disrupt the overall air flow in the cabin.  Numerous surveys have found that passengers feel more comfortable if they have control over their environment, which is why Airbus has individual overhead air outlets in all cabin classes.” 

“Airbus aircraft have long been recognised as having the quietest cabins in the sky, and with each new aircraft product, Airbus has made further improvements. These have been achieved by taking advantage of the latest technologies, materials and cabin designs.”

“In 2001, airlines were first given the possibility to move from traditional white lighting to colour hues. The advent of LED technology has given rise to mood lighting, which lets airlines brand their cabins in their corporate or product colours. Airlines can also define dynamic lighting scenarios – night, sunset, dusk, dawn, sunrise etc – by adjusting both colour and intensity. This ambiance is pleasing to passengers, helping them adjust to the different phases of the flight, but also helping passengers recover quickly from jetlag.”

“Regarding in-flight entertainment (IFE), we’re seeing that increasingly, the differentiation between airlines is shifting away from a pure hardware comparison towards software differentiation. The result is that airlines can customise their in-flight entertainment graphical user interface to match their brand, their specific onboard services and cope with the increasing number of IFE applications becoming available.”

Drop Me a Mail, I’m Flying

As the Internet continues to invade every corner of our lives, perhaps it’s no surprise that even aircraft zipping along at 1000km/h are increasingly offering web access for hyper-connected travellers who simply can’t bear to log out.

Of course, in-flight web access is a boon for the corporate traveller looking to make full use of the time onboard. With in-seat power and a comfortable workspace, the addition of in-flight Internet access turns your seat into a mobile office.

Lufthansa is one of the most advanced airlines on this front, with over 90% of its fleet equipped with FlyNet® technology. The remaining long-haul jets in the fleet – including the 747-8 and A380 frequently used on African routes – are currently being retro-fitted. 

“In order to use the Internet, passengers need only a WLAN-enabled notebook, a smartphone or a tablet,” says Axel Simon, Director Southern Africa for Lufthansa German Airline and Swiss International Air Lines. “The FlyNet rate per hour is €10.95 or €19.95 for 24 hours. The Internet access code can be also used in transit at Frankfurt or Munich Airport.”

A similar service is also available on southern African low-cost airline Mango, while US-based Delta Air Lines plans to roll out Internet connectivity on its trans-Atlantic routes in the course of 2014. When Kenya Airways takes delivery of its Boeing 777-300ER this month, it will also be able to offer in-flight Internet access.

However, before you whip out your credit card to start some mile-high web-surfing, consider this: a recent study by American Express found that nearly three-quarters of business travellers relished the lack of Internet access during the flight, as it gave them a much-needed excuse to kick back and relax.

Although Qantas was one of the first to trial and implement onboard Internet access – known as Q-Streaming, it is available on selected aircraft – a nine-month trial on flights to London and Los Angeles delivered a take-up rate of less than five percent.

That trend will no doubt change over time and, for better or worse our planes will – sooner, rather than later – become as connected as your boardroom, office or local coffee spot. The Internet future is here, and it’s coming soon to an aisle near you.

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