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Airlines' Business Class Flies Off to Great Success

January 11, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

A few years ago, passengers had two choices of airline service. There was first class, with a stiff fare premium, and there was coach, where fares varied wildly.

And that's where the problems started. Business travelers flying full fare in coach would often find themselves seated next to passengers who had paid only a third as much for their seats. Chances were, they were all enjoying equally bad service.

Now, all this has changed. Let us now praise business class. It took just a few short years for virtually every major airline to offer business class.

It has become one of the most successful marketing tools in the airline business. Each airline has a special name for its business class: Ambassador on TWA, Marco Polo on Cathay Pacific, Medallion on Delta, King Solomon Class on El Al and Galaxy Class on UTA French Airlines.

More Comfortable Seats

With few exceptions, each airline offers wider, more comfortable seats, streamlined check-in procedures and improved meal and liquor services.

In fact, service, comforts and amenities--and ticket price--in business class have improved to the point where many corporations will allow their once-coach passengers to fly in business class; or insist that their once-first-class passengers step down to business class.

As with any success, there are many claiming to be the father of business class.

Pan Am claims it was first to offer business class, in 1978. "Our initial effort with Clipper Class," Pan Am's Jim Arey says, "was to provide special meals and a greater choice of free drinks and entertainment."

Pan Am later introduced separate Clipper Class cabins. Better (and fewer) seats came much later. Pan Am recently completed a fleet overhaul, and has introduced six-abreast seating in Clipper Class, with newer seats that compete well with first-class seats. On its 747s, Pan Am offers its upstairs cabin as a quiet zone for Clipper Class passengers--no smoking, no movie and no children allowed.

Qantas, the Australian airline, claims it was the airline that started business class, in July, 1979.

Many Claim to Be First

Last, but not least, British Caledonian claims first place honors with business class. "Depending upon who you talk to," says Andy Bridgeman, the airline's head of research and product development, "each will say they were the first."

Technically, British Caledonian might be the first. In 1978, flying an aging 707, the airline initiated three class services from London to Houston. "In those days," Bridgeman says, "we had heard nothing but complaints from full-fare economy passengers who felt that they were getting a rough deal."

Over the years, British Caledonian service has evolved nicely. It now flies widebody DC-10s and offers wider business-class seats and services. "When you have more than 45 airlines now offering business class," Bridgeman says, "the competitive element cannot be underestimated. The product has improved to the extent that the business-class passengers of today are the first-class passengers of yesterday."

Bridgeman is right. Airlines no longer compete only in the air for the business-class passenger. Market research told the airlines that the real problems were on the ground. Airlines like Pan Am and British Caledonian soon introduced complimentary helicopter or door-to-door limousine service to get their passengers to the planes.

"We now look on it as an integral part of our total product," Pan Am's Arey says. "We extend Pan Am service directly to your office or home."

The competition has forced a number of airlines to install business-class sections and inaugurate business-class service. Some of the late business-class arrivals have included Air Canada, UTA French Airlines, Swissair and Northwest airlines.

When Air Canada started its "executive class" service in November, it marked its second attempt at offering business class.

A few years ago, the airline offered something called "Connoisseur" service. But the service was uneven, and was limited to certain routes and aircraft types. In some cases, passengers who bought business-class tickets found themselves in coach seats because the plane they were on didn't have the proper seats.

Air Canada has changed all this and business-class service will be uniform throughout its system. The airline has eliminated first-class service on its smaller 727 jets and the same first-class seats are now sold as executive-class seats.

Of course, business-class passengers pay for the privileges. Fares are usually near the cost of full-fare economy tickets, in some cases slightly higher.

Domestically, a new airline is trying to lure the business-class passenger paying full-fare coach prices with an even better deal. McClain Airlines now flies 727 jets between Los Angeles and Chicago. The planes are reconfigured to all first-class seating for full-fare coach (or business-class) prices. Most 727s hold 120 passengers; McClain accommodates only 74 in leather or velvet seats.

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