Premium travellers are a vital part of the revenue mix for full-service airlines and an increasing number of low-cost carriers (LCCs). But what are these lucrative passengers looking for in their business- and first-class experiences? International journalist, travel writer and “man about the world” John Walton offers up his top ten list of what premium passengers really want.
• A seating product that enables both day-flight working or relaxing, and overnight sleep
The seat is the most important part of the premium experience. If it’s not spacious and comfortable, premium passengers are disappointed. Angled lie-flat seats on an overnight flight are below par, while the “Eurobusiness” middle-seat-free-economy style offered by most EU carriers is an unpleasant surprise for international travellers, and a poor value proposition compared with LCCs.
• Fresh, interesting food with cultural references to the airline’s country
Premium passengers want premium food. It doesn’t have to be hot – the cold Lufthansa gourmet “Special Moments” bento-style boxes are fascinating and delicious – but it does have to be premium and relevant. Legacy US airlines do medium-haul premium dining surprisingly well, with Tex-Mex options a great balance of widely appealing and suitable for inflight reheating.
• Premium beverages appropriate to the market
“Red or white” isn’t good enough for a premium class: business and first class passengers know their drinks and are disappointed by bucket plonk and clueless presentation.
But it doesn’t have to be bank-breaking. Pick a great Prosecco or Cava, not middling Champagne, as Cathay Pacific does in its London Heathrow lounge. Showcase national producers, like Air New Zealand.
Specialty signature crew-mixed cocktails are a space and weight efficient way to get the wow factor going even when galley insert space is limited.
No matter what plug types they’re sporting, premium passengers expect at-seat power to keep their electronics charged. If it doesn’t take the UK/Hong Kong/Singapore three-pin square plug, think again. Ensure that the supply is up to the task of charging larger laptops: the bigger power draws of some 17-inch laptops are infamous for tripping fuses on inflight power.
• Storage commensurate to the flight’s length and the airline’s bag policy
If you can’t get your rollaboard bag put away somewhere near your seat, you’re an unhappy premium customer. Virgin Atlantic pulled out the centre bins from its new higher density Upper Class Dream Suite cabin, but the side bins are too small to hold even a small-wheeled cabin bag.
“Welcome aboard, Ms Lastname” is a great way for airlines to make a positive impression at the start of a flight. Remembering names, responding with a “my pleasure” or “I’d be glad to” and proactively offering services makes passengers perceive value for their money.
Crew also have an opportunity to inform their most loyal and lucrative customers about new airline benefits and offers. “Mr Lastname, I saw from our records that you’ve been to Beijing recently. Did you know that our new Shanghai flight offers double miles until June?”
• Up-to-date inflight entertainment systems with appealing content
Premium passengers’ entertainment tastes don’t overlap exactly with budget-minded travellers. TV show box sets are a good bet, but a good documentary selection is also vital for the premium end of the market. Consider half-hour business language courses or genuinely interesting travel shows, not yet another sitcom.
• Quiet, relaxing ambience and cabin atmosphere
Quieter cabins in modern aircraft mean that in-cabin sound is relatively louder. It’s a nice-to-have problem, but airlines need to choose cabin materials accordingly. Shiny leather may look good and be hard-wearing, but a fabric seat provides noise-deadening benefits.
Seat design is important here too: does the shell cocoon the premium passenger in their own quiet world, or amplify every snore from fellow passengers or clank from the galley?
Speaking of the galley, advances have also been made in curtains that segregate noise and light between cabins. Lufthansa’s new First Class replaces the curtains with an extendable screen that cuts light to practically zero and significantly reduces external noise.
• Pleasant and efficient “premium-feeling” terminal experiences at both ends of the flight
Premium check-in should be matched with premium security queues and fast-track immigration, while lounges need to be up to international standard or risk disappointing passengers.
Segregating business class passengers and frequent flyers with business lounge access sends the wrong message, no matter whether you take the Lufthansa road (business class passengers use a less pleasant lounge than Star Alliance Gold cardholders) or the Singapore Airlines route (frequent flyer cardholders get a lounge that doesn’t even contain toilet facilities).
Luggage, too, is vital. Priority baggage delivery has to work, because it’s obvious when bags without fluorescent priority stickers arrive before the rest. A stunning number of airlines manage to fail at this last hurdle of the passenger experience, even at their own hubs.
Exceeding passenger expectations or just having a “cool factor” is a valuable word-of-mouth marketing tool. “The flight was fine” doesn’t win new customers, retain current passengers or regain former travellers.
Stand-up bars, new widescreen entertainment systems, careful wine selections, gourmet food choices and empowered customer-focused staff can go viral quickly in our interconnected world.