It was bound to happen. After years of developing, and then improving, business-class, some airlines discovered that their upscale passengers were having difficulty distinguishing between business and first-class.
Business-class seats were getting bigger, more comfortable and reclined at greater angles. Some even had footrests. Business-class meals and wines improved, with more choices. And business-class perks, including upgraded check-in facilities, lounges and limo services began to rival the front cabin.
By comparison, first-class had changed for the worse. And for the first time in recent memory, first-class had begun to attract a sizable number of critics. Complaints were that the food wasn't as good as it used to be and the seats weren't as comfortable.
"After we upgraded business-class," said John Taylorson, British Airways head of catering operations, "we simply had to make the big move forward and improve our first-class service."
"The line between value and perceived value began to move rapidly when it came to first-class," said one airline executive. "And we knew we had to do something, especially when you consider first-class fares and the revenue involved."
Indeed, a passenger traveling economy class from London to Los Angeles can pay from $360 to $625, depending on when the ticket was bought. But a first-class passenger has to pay $2,908. The revenue from 18 first-class passengers on one flight is worth $52,344.
Recently, British Airways decided to make a big move. In a major upgrade worth more than $40 million, the airline completely changed first-class.
Among the changes are new carpets, fabrics and seat covers, new (and practical) swivel tables and meals served whenever passengers want them, not when the airline feels like mass feeding.
Video systems are being installed in the armrests of every British Airways 747, complete with video terminals at each seat. An international calling system is being installed and there are new linen, china and amenity packets.
Statistically, said Richard Mound, group brand manager for British Airways, the airline has no expectations that its improved first-class service will attract new fliers to first-class.
"Actually," he said, "the number of passengers who fly in the front cabin has remained small. But we did this to attract first-class passengers from other airlines where we compete on routes."
Growing Number of Women
One statistic has changed. A growing number of women are flying first-class. A British Airways service manual said: "These women are not secretaries, wives or mistresses. They are successful business people who have noticed that our female staff tend to look down at them and our male staff tend to look at them as either chat-upable or traveling with the chap next to them, but not as individuals. We have to bear this is in mind and understand what their requirements are in flight."
"We're trying to develop a new tradition of service on our flights," said Leslie Lyon, an flight purser with British Airways. "Our research tells us that our typical first-class passenger wants more control of his or her environment. He or she has that control on the ground. Why shouldn't the passenger have it in the air?"
All the new attention to first-class has not gone unnoticed by British Airways' competitors. After an eight-month test, Northwest Airlines has introduced "Worldclass" service in the first and executive cabins. "It involves more than just new menus, linen and china," spokesman Doug Killian said. "It's a pampering package."
Three days before a flight a reservations agent will make a courtesy call to passengers asking if they need further assistance. Special customer service assistants help passengers check in, and on Pacific flights new regional Asian dishes are being served.
Recently, Continental Airlines launched an ad campaign offering a refund to first-class passengers of up to $200 if they were dissatisfied with any aspect of their flight.
And next week TWA is expected to announce a $20-million enhancement to its operations, especially in first-class. "It's a very necessary change," said John M. Krause, vice president of flight services for TWA. "We're going back to the basics, and to the way we used to do things."
Back to Basics
For example, until recently, on flights where TWA served caviar it was served in pre-dispensed portions. Now the airline will go back to bulk caviar service from the meal cart.
"But it's more than just food," Krause said. "It's service and staffing levels. That's what our passengers said they wanted, and they were right."
By this summer, flight attendants on TWA 747 aircraft will increase from 10 to 14; on L-1011 planes, from 9 to 11. And an additional flight attendant will be added on TWA's 767 flights.
Ironically, this is happening at about the same time that SAS is virtually scrapping its first-class service in favor of an expanded business class.