Business, first class travel to become more valuable, experts say
- First and business class flight experiences are currently heavily stripped back due to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Equally, lots of airlines are spacing passengers out in economy to comply with social distancing guidelines.
- Travel experts told Insider that although a premium ticket may not be worth it right now if you care about perks, it's likely that overall, it will become more appealing than ever.
- This is largely due to the space and privacy offered, particularly with the trend for business class suites with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
It's safe to say the aviation industry has been hit incredibly hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Global travel restrictions have resulted in a dramatic decrease in flights, airlines are legally required to refund passengers for canceled trips, and the limited planes that are still taking to the sky are often flying at half capacity or less.
While this period of time won't last forever, when more of us can start going on holidays and work trips once again, the whole flying experience is going to look very different for a long time.
In fact, it's possible things may never completely go "back to normal."
Many airlines are currently flying with empty middle seats in economy due to social distancing. Meanwhile, most are operating with a highly stripped-back service in the premium classes, begging the question of whether it's still worth shelling out to fly business or first class when travel restrictions lift but these measures are still in place.
However, travel experts told Insider that although a business or first class ticket may not be worth it right now if you're fussed about all the perks, it's likely that overall, it's about to become more appealing than ever.
Airlines have drastically stripped back the business and first class experience
Although all non-essential travel has been advised against for the past few months as part of various countries' national lockdowns, some people have had to fly.
The flight experience, however, isn't currently what it used to be, both due to airlines attempting to limit human contact and stay afloat economically - Emirates, for example, has cut its inflight WiFi and live TV to cut costs, Simple Flying reports, as has Qantas.
Middle seats have been largely removed in economy to aid social distancing, cabin crew on airlines such as Qatar are wearing full body Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and others have introduced temperature checks prior to take-off.
- It's perhaps in business and first class, however, where the biggest changes have been felt.
When you're flying in an upper class, one of the things you're paying for is extra attention from flight attendants. Now, airlines are trying to minimise interaction, keeping physical contact to what is strictly necessary.
Perks like fine dining, bowls of nibbles, and hot towels are off the menu, too.
On Qatar Airways, for example, business class meals are being served on a tray instead of a table set up, with a cutlery wrap offered to passengers rather than individual cutlery service.
On American Airlines, first and business class meals are also being served on one tray instead of in courses, there's no longer a pre-departure beverage, and alcohol is only available in first class, Business Insider's Graham Rapier reported.
Air Canada has replaced its normal bar service simply with bottles of water, the usual business class cuisine has been replaced with a pre-packaged meal, and special dietary requests can no longer be accommodated.
Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific announced that it would stop offering in-flight hot towels, pillows, blankets, magazines, and duty-free sales.
Virgin Atlantic and Qantas are among others offering similar streamlined services, providing just orange juice and water.
If you care about perks, don't fly business during or after lockdown
If the business class flight experience is as much about the complimentary Champagne as the leg room for you, some experts believe it would be a mistake to pay for a premium ticket any time soon.
"Right now, in-flight service perks for all classes have been removed or changed to reduce the chance of contamination, removing a lot of the draw of these upgraded fares," Jack Sheldon, founder of Jack's Flight Club, told Insider.
"We are also seeing fewer deals on business and premium classes," Sheldon said, adding that business and first class seats won't be as valuable for travelers unless they are after the leg room.
Even if your main motivation for flying business or first class is the greater personal space, there's no shortage of space in economy right now.
"Where airline loads are light, you may get a whole row to yourself, that's better (and more distanced) than flying up front," Gary Leff, founder of View From The Wing, told Insider.
- What's more, you don't get to appreciate the usual joy of being able to whizz through the airport's priority lanes at security and boarding, because either there are no queues, or lanes have been consolidated.
"With airport security in the US currently screening no more than about 200,000 people a day, down over 90%, it doesn't take long to get through the airport," Leff said.
However, Sheldon pointed out that "with the extra temperature checks and customs checking now added, we might actually be seeing longer wait times no matter your class."
Leff believes that, especially for short-haul flights, it's a waste of money to fly business or first class the way things are at the moment.
"Right now there's not much benefit to sitting up front on a short flight," Leff said. "Where the extra space is minimal and the service on short flights is minimal, there isn't much incremental value."
Long-haul flights, however, may be a different story.
The privacy of a premium experience may prove more attractive than ever
When leisure travel begins again, it's likely that the majority of people will return to flying somewhat tentatively, and many experts believe the added privacy of flying business or first class may in fact end up being a reassurance worth paying for.
"Those keen to keep a safe distance will like the security of the roomier classes," Sheldon said.
Gilbert Ott, founder of God Save the Points, agrees.
"I think at the right price, many travelers will look for any opportunity to enjoy more space, and this could tie into a pre-existing trend airlines were exploring with unbundled business class, where all the fixings were no longer included," he told Insider.
- Nicky Kelvin, Director of Content at The Points Guy UK, also predicts that more people will want to pay for extra space once they start flying again.
"Privacy and distance is likely to be in the forefront of many passengers' minds when they start flying again," he told Insider.
"An empty middle seat simply won't cut it for many, especially when there might be a fellow passenger directly in front or behind you."
Suites with sliding doors offer extra protection
Over the past few years, many airlines have been upgrading their business and first class offerings to launch suites, some with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors for ultimate privacy. For those who can afford them, it's likely these will become more popular than ever.
"Even before the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a halt, many airlines were introducing new premium cabins that, often for the first time, included closing doors," Kelvin said.
"When travelers return to the skies they'll be more conscious than ever before about their personal space, and these airlines will be eagerly waiting to greet them with some of the most spacious and comfortable premium cabins imaginable.
"Emirates, Singapore, Etihad, and ANA [below] lead the way for ultimate segregation. All have first class suites with doors on certain aircraft. The Qatar Qsuite business class product is also an enclosed cabin and is set to become even more of a favourite for those wanting to socially distance."
It's possible that people will fly less frequently but fly better, deciding to splash out on the flights they do take.
"For many, 'fewer' trips will be the way forward, in favour of attempting to fly in business or first class to create natural social distancing," Ott suggested.
Frequent business class travelers will still want to fly business
"I'd expect premium classes to remain popular with the travelers who have always found these perks attractive," Sheldon said.
"The extra leg room, lie-flat space, and guarantee of personal distancing will always be worth the extra cost for some."
As Ott explained, business class travel often isn't even about the perks which have now disappeared.
"For business travelers, the experience was always about space to sleep or work while in transit, and rarely about the Champagne or the sodium heavy meals," he told Insider.
- Canceled holidays and trips due to lockdown have led many people to realise how much they appreciate travel, and Kelvin believes that they will simply be so happy to be flying again that they won't care about not having the usual premium perks.
"The desire to travel with increased privacy and distance from others could become the ultimate way to fly, even if the old trappings of first and business class travel do not come with the package," he said.
"After being stuck on the ground for so long, many travelers will be so happy to be flying safely again that Champagne and caviar will not be a priority."
Both on the ground and in the sky, what will happen is up in the air
While the majority of airport lounges are now closed, as Paxex reported, Kelvin believes that if they do reopen, they'll be extra appealing.
"Passengers are likely to want to be away from the crowds, so premium check-in areas and lounges (if they are open) will provide for an easier experience," he said.
Kelvin also believes more people will want to take longer trips when they can fly again, so the additional baggage and carry-on allowances that most airlines grant premium passengers will be "incredibly helpful."
Although no one knows what will happen to airlines as travel restrictions are lifted, Ott says the experience will "no doubt be very different."
He predicts smart cabin crew uniforms will be replaced by PPE gear, and Sheldon thinks face masks on flights may be a permanent change, as well as pillows and blankets replaced by hygiene-related perks like free hand sanitiser or masks.
"When it comes to food and drink, it's hard to imagine when that will return to any level of normalcy," Ott added.
The price needs to be right
As airlines attempt to dig themselves out of a hole, Ott says the price of fares will be important.
"Ideas that prices are going up are foolish, because airlines need cheap fares as much as we do. It's why we saw Qatar Airways recently offer $1,600(R285,000) round trip business class fares from just about anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world," he said.
"Lots of seats to fill, lots of people who want them and now less pressure to deliver on service aspects. It's all about cleanliness, distance, and comfort."
Although there are many seats to fill right now, Sheldon thinks middle seats in economy will be full again "before we know it."
"The travel sector has continued to grow and will continue to again once the worst of this crisis is over," he said.
- Leff believes that as flights begin to fill back up, we will see business class proving more popular than before.
"Having even just a little bit of space will mean more than it used to - even if it's not enough space to be socially distanced, not having someone literally touching you is of benefit," he said.
It's possible that the coronavirus pandemic may make people appreciate business and first class even more.
"I, for one, will value business class more than ever," Ott said.
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