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November 2013

New York Times

“Across the board it feels like everyone is upping the game,” said Vicki Loomes, a trend analyst at trendwatching.com.

First-class care for passengers flying coach

by Christine Negroni

PARIS — To get to the Air France first-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle International Airport, travelers are whisked from their cars by a uniformed escort, taken to a private check-in station and ushered through sliding glass doors that separate the ordinary airport mayhem from the relaxing retreat within.

In providing this kind of lavish welcome, Air France is not alone. From the billiards table in the expansive lounge in Istanbul, to the private music listening stations at Delta’s 12,000-square-foot Sky Club in Atlanta, airlines are offering over-the-top amenities to business and first-class flyers — with considerable success.

In October, the International Air Transport Association reported a 5 percent increase from 2012 in business and first-class seat sales.

Still, airlines cannot escape the fact that most tickets are sold in economy. Challenged by Asian and Middle Eastern airlines that include food, drink and other services in the price of a coach-class ticket, a number of Western carriers are refocusing their attention on the cheap seats.

“Across the board it feels like everyone is upping the game,” said Vicki Loomes, a trend analyst at trendwatching.com, commenting on a decision by Etihad, the national United Arab Emirates airline, to offer in-flight nannies, even in coach. “That sort of influences further down the pricing ladder.”

Over a lunch conceived by Alain Ducasse in the elegant restaurant of Air France’s first-class lounge, Bruno Matheu, the airline’s recently appointed chief officer for long-haul passenger activity, said the company was making improvements that all travelers would see.

“It is a program for everybody,” Mr. Matheu said, speaking about the campaign the airline calls Best & Beyond. “Every customer has a huge value to us. Every customer is making us survive. It is not all about dealing with the first-class or the business-class customer.”

On the airline’s long-haul wide-body Boeing 777s, new seats in coach with a thinner profile will give passengers more leg room. Whimsical graphic prints on the pillows and service items add a cheery atmosphere. Touch screen in-flight entertainment systems provide 1,000 hours of programming.

Air France is not alone in upping its economy-class experience.

Lufthansa and Austrian are also taking advantage of newly designed seats that are more comfortable even though they are just as closely spaced. Delta Air Lines and Finnair are using advanced software technology to expand the menu of in-flight entertainment, while Iberia and KLM let passengers use social media to choose a seat next to someone with shared interests.

In what could be a first, passengers on California-based Virgin America can use qwerty keyboards in their armrests to send text messages to other passengers or to order food from cabin attendants.

“This is a valuable service on transcontinental flights because everyone has a different time they want to eat,” said Jennifer S. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the airline. The on-demand meal service morphed into passengers ordering food for others on the same flight. “We found that people traveling with friends, sitting in different parts of the cabin, were requesting this functionality,” she said: “We have a tech savvy and tech-forward guest base; they’ve grown up texting.”

These improvements respond to increased passenger expectations, Ms. Loomis said. “Low prices are not, and do not have to be, synonymous with sub-standard experiences,” she added. “Consumers are increasingly looking to brands and services that offer ‘chic’ at no extra cost.”

Still, the combination of raised expectations and technology can be a two-edged sword. When passengers can surf the web at 36,000 feet they can also quickly spread the word when they are disgruntled. Ryanair, British Airways, Air Berlin, United and others have felt the sting when passengers have taken their complaints to the world.

The lesson is not lost on Rouge, Air Canada’s new start-up airline. “There’s never been a more important time to be attuned to the customer,” said Renee Smith-Valade, Rouge’s vice president for customer service. With a blank slate and strong competition in Canada’s leisure travel market, the airline was seeking ways to distinguish itself. “We can really differentiate if the crew creates an atmosphere that is exceptional and makes people feel they are special,” she said.

With that in mind, the airline decided every flight attendant would be trained in customer service at the Disney Institute in Florida.

Turning economy passengers into happy passengers with help from the people who created an international kingdom of theme parks meant that on Halloween, flight attendants in costumes painted the faces of children on board the plane. That may seem a road too far but there is a business return when companies invest in customer service, said Rick Garlick, an analyst with J.D. Power & Associates.

“People establish emotional connections to a brand,” Mr. Garlick noted. “If you have a choice of carriers, you are going to go with the one where you have had the most positive experience.”

Rouge’s economy-class passengers may have to pay for food or for movies on the flight, but the airline says their flight attendants — and special activities like face painting — make the trip “fun and memorable and enjoyable.”

That in turn translates into more spending onboard, which is good news as airlines grow increasingly reliant on that revenue.

“When people are in good moods, when they like an airline, when they like a brand, they are more likely to buy ancillary services,” Mr. Garlick said.

As dessert was served in the Air France lounge, Mr. Matheu acknowledged that first-class customers already know they are appreciated. “We’ll score the first gains, the day the people really consider that Air France is a first-class company, in economy,” he said.