First-class passengers make a comeback


AIR TRAVEL:FIRST- AND business-class travel, once the cash cows of airlines around the world, are making a modest comeback as passenger numbers show their first improvement in almost two years.

Latest figures from the International Air Transport Association (Iata) show a 1.7 per cent rise in business- and first-class passengers in the year to December, while economy passenger numbers grew 5 per cent.

The news coincides with the launch by British Airways of its new First service for “premium” passengers, which the airline is marketing to Irish travellers seeking to go to global destinations in the highest comfort. For return fares ranging between €4,290 and €6,402, passengers flying from Dublin can “eat, sleep and work whenever they want to” while on board, the airline says.

Iata also reports that top-end fares are on the increase, with a 10 per cent rise in average business and first-class fare on international routes since April 2009. This is still 20 per cent down on the second quarter of 2008. Overall, airlines are earning 35 per cent less from premium passengers compared to early 2008.

BA says it has invested €110 million in its brand to create “an exclusive experience based on classic design and understated opulence”.

Understated opulence aboard its flights includes a personal wardrobe for first-class flyers, a leather-topped writing table, “fully integrated ambient and mood lighting” and a washbag from designer Anya Hindmarch.

The design is contemporary and the aim is to mimic a private jet, according to the airline’s “head of customer experience”, the inappropriately-named Mark Hassell: “We have resisted gadgets and gimmicks and focused instead on simplicity and quality. Every feature has been carefully considered and researched to ensure we are giving our customers what they want.”

BA, the first airline to introduce a fully flat bed in first class in 1996, says its new first-class beds are 60 per cent wider at the shoulders and a seat-control unit has been installed to allow customers decide their own bed position, with pneumatic panels to support the head and lumbar regions.

A first-class fare from Dublin to Barbados costs €4,017 return, compared to €702 in economy. It costs €4,290 to fly first class to Dubai, €4,769 to cross the Atlantic to New York and a hefty €6,183 to travel to Los Angeles.

Optimism about the return of premium travel isn’t universal; only this week, Australian carrier Qantas said it was cutting first-class seats from all but a few routes, after reporting a 72 per cent drop in profits.

The Australian carrier said that henceforth passengers would only be able to fly first class between London and Australia via Singapore, and between Australia and Los Angeles, because of a drop in demand caused by the worldwide economic downturn.