//Business travel report: Sky’s the limit

Business travel report: Sky’s the limit

Business class offerings continue to evolve as airlines vie to stay competitive in the growing work-travel segment, writes Rose Dykins

From anti-jet lag lounges to dedicated WhatsApp hotlines for premium customers, airlines are constantly announcing modifications to their business class products. But where is left to go for business class travel? And how can airlines innovate to add real value, rather than empty gimmicks?

When it comes to business class seat design, most recent innovations are more evolutionary than revolutionary. “I think it is fair to say this is probably a reflection of how far the business class seat product has come in recent years,” says Sheldon Hee, general manager for UK and Ireland for Singapore Airlines. Besides, small tweaks can really add up – an extra couple of inches of seat width, clever stowage space, larger privacy screens – and make the overall experience feel more intuitive.

Among the most groundbreaking developments of late have been the debut of suites in business class, with
the launch of Delta Air Lines’ Delta One Suites and Qatar Airways’ QSuites, both earlier this year. Available on selected long-haul routes, Delta’s business class suites each have a full-height door, offering complete passenger privacy. Meanwhile, Qatar’s A350-900 aircraft each has six QSuite “quads” – groupings
of four seats – two facing backwards and two directed forwards. Dividers slide open
to connect each quad, so four passengers can dine, relax and even have a business meeting together.

In addition, Singapore Airlines’ couple beds on its A380 aircraft – launched in March – became the first seats that can be converted into double beds outside of first class (also offered by Qatar’s QSuites). “We chose to do this to offer more privacy options, greater comfort and flexible use of space, which we know are what our customers are looking for when they travel with us,” says Hee.

So what’s next? In the very near future, we will see the launch of the smart seat, where passengers can control their onboard experience with their smartphones. The Waterfront business class seat – developed by Teague, Panasonic, B/E Aerospace and Formation Design – was inspired by the rise in personal smart devices, and incorporates them into the seat environment. Not only will passengers be able to control their seat’s recline, lighting and climate, order refreshments, and create entertainment playlists from their phones, but the system will remember their preferences from flight to flight. There are reports that airlines have expressed an interest in the Waterfront seat, and that it will debut next year, although it hasn’t been confirmed which airlines are keen to incorporate
the seats into their fleet.

Business class food and drink has become increasingly refined and creative thanks to airline partnerships with celebrity chefs, flagship restaurants and culinary brands. Pre-booking meals from an increasingly varied menu in business class – guaranteeing that customers get to eat their first choice – has been available for some time with certain airlines, including Qatar Airways, Qantas and Singapore Airlines. Over the next few years, it seems likely that this will be much more widely adopted, enabling other airlines to remain competitive. Furthermore, we’re likely to see more healthy, organic and sustainable meal options emerging in response to consumer trends. For example, from July to October this year, Air New Zealand is serving the Impossible Burger in business class on its Los Angeles-Auckland route. Created by Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods, it’s a burger made from plant-based ingredients that’s designed to taste, smell, look and even bleed like beef.

Other service-orientated innovations in business class travel involve evolving beyond the status quo. For example, British Airways, American Airlines, Finnair and EasyJet now partner with AirPortr – a company that offers door-to-destination luggage transport. AirPortr collects passengers’ luggage from their homes and checks it in, allowing people to travel to the airport baggage-free and eliminating the need to queue at bag drop. The service currently starts from £30, but could become something airlines incorporate into their perks for business class passengers (see page 34).

All in all, the capacity for connectivity, the push for personalisation and the collaborations taking place between the aviation industry and external tech and logistics companies means we will start to see innovations we didn’t know we needed over the coming years. Those that stand the test of time will be the ones that hone in on the core things business travellers value. “Features that provide more choice, control, comfort or space are generally best received by customers and this is true whether they are flying for leisure or business,” says Hee.

Jenny Southan is away