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Taking Care of Business Is Now Carrier Priority : Airlines: Business class began innocently enough as a marketing ploy. It has evolvedinto a much-desired section famous for service, comfort and amenities.

September 02, 1990|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. Businessmen flying full fare in coach would often find themselves seated next to someone who had paid only a third as much for his or her seat. And chances were they were each enjoying equally bad service.

Now all this has changed. Virtually every foreign airline (and a few U.S. airlines) offer business class, a separate cabin and a choice of special amenities.

Without a doubt, business class has become one of the most successful marketing tools in the airline business. The stakes are indeed high in airborne class warfare, and the key to most airlines' profitability can be found in how many passengers fly business class.

Last year, more than 20% of all airline passengers worldwide flew business class, and that number is growing.

Of course, as with any marketing campaign, 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 Le Club on Air France.

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

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

As with any successful idea, there are many who would like to take credit.

Pan Am claims it was first to offer the service, in 1978. Qantas, the Australian airline, says it was the airline that started business class, in July, 1979.

But the original business-class services were hardly worth writing--or flying home--about: The same coach seats, with the only real amenity being free drinks.

The service (and the comfort) has increased dramatically since then. Pan Am reconfigured its 747s to install comfortable first-class seats (in a two-by-two configuration) in business class on all widebody flights, including its Airbus planes.

In 1989, United Airlines spent $45 million to revamp its business class (primarily to maintain its market share on its Pacific and Asia routes). And American Airlines is concentrating on building up its international business with a $3.4-billion investment in service (with the primary focus being on business class).

British Airways, Air Canada and Northwest have all made substantial investments in either upgrading--or creating--a special business-class environment for their passengers.

But even now, wide differences in service and amenities exist in business class between different airlines. On some flights you're wasting your money to fly business class. And on some others, you owe it to yourself to try the service.

On most flights between European countries, business class is still more style than substance, and the perception of service still takes precedence over the reality.

For the extra business-class tariff on an SAS flight between London and Copenhagen, for example, the only thing that distinguishes business class from economy is a slightly better meal. The seat size is exactly the same. In fact, because of this, the number of business-class seats on each flight can be expanded to accommodate heavier loads simply by moving a sliding curtain the required number of rows towards the rear of the aircraft.

Buying business-class seats on these short flights is truly unnecessary, and a waste of money.

However, for longer European flights (especially intercontinental), always ask when booking if the airline has a separate business cabin with separate business-class seats.

For example, a London-Hong Kong flight on Cathay Pacific does offer wide, comfortable business-class seats that make the flight bearable. But a London-Athens flight on a Britannia Airways 767 offers nothing but all-coach seating.

To get the best business-class deals, you need to shop carefully, by airline as well as by route, ticket price and other amenities.

For example, on some United States-to-Latin America runs, there is very little difference between business classes. There are small variances--a few inches of seat pitch (ranging between 37 inches on some Japan Air Lines flights and 41 inches on American) and inside seat width (ranging from 18.5 inches on some Japan Air Lines flights to 20.75 inches on Varig).

But in the more competitive European markets, it's a different story. Flying to Paris from the United States? Air France offers a truly superb business class, with improved food service as well as special new seats that also feature adjustable headrests (an innovative--and essential--addition to any airline seat).

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