Why airlines need to spruce up first class ground services

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First class is becoming increasingly luxurious in cabins at 38,000 feet, but are ground services falling behind? After a number of international first class flights recently, as well as discussions with frequent first class flyers, it has become apparent that there are areas for improvement in service design by every airline.

Yes, these are first class problems, but the airlines that offer international first often use the product to subsidise cheaper fares in economy. The international first class ground experience is competing for passengers who are used to luxurious hotels and top-flight offices where everybody knows your name, to top-floor penthouse living, to the latest consumer technology, to household staff, to upscale branded toiletries, to furniture costing more than a business class longhaul flight, and even to executive jets. Are these customers, however, really getting what they pay for?

First off, booking. Airlines use the same booking path for first class travel as they do for every other class of service. Their websites often do little to attract passengers, explain service offerings or delve into detail of what might be offered. More information, presented more attractively, is a big opportunity.

The airport experience must be also a pleasure to enter. That ideally means a separate road entrance to checkin, but don’t neglect the terminal entrance there too — first class flyers may well take public transportation for speed and convenience. Virgin Atlantic does this particularly well both for road arrivals to its Upper Class Wing and for passengers entering from the terminal, and that’s ‘just’ business class. Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal is great by road, but an inadvisable walk from the main terminal. British Airways is planning something in between. In the age of facial recognition, ubiquitous cameras and beacons there is no longer any need to ask passengers who they are — the airline should know before they step out of the car or lift. Can airlines have the passenger’s departure and destination immigration formalities prepreinted, with the information they hold?

This checkin area needs to be chic, stylish, comfortable and functional, eschewing as much as possible the industrial surfaces in the rest of the terminal — or going whole hog on brushed metal and an industrial feel. Can the bag weighing scales be recessed into the floor coverings? Can the monitor be either a style statement on its own or recessed to disappear from view? What is the signature scent for the area? What is the soundscape — airport hubbub? White noise? Signature jazz? Is there space for families travelling with children to pause comfortably for a moment while the checkin formalities are taken care of? Can business travellers used to the flow dance through like a prima ballerina with rolling luggage?

Singapore Airlines’ first class checkin zone is a great example but can it be made to feel more welcoming. Image: John Walton

From checkin, it’s all about the private security lane: an absence of queueing, particularly polite staffers, and perhaps someone on hand to assist with luggage, particularly for families in first. What can be done to make this space less airport-like, within the bounds of security requirements? Is it about an escort? Rolling luggage ramps to the X-ray machine? Trays that don’t look like they were run over by a baggage loader?

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After security: where’s the lounge, and how smooth is it to get there? Is it far enough away to require a buggy? Can an escort be offered to passengers with children or luggage? To what extent do passengers need to dodge milling passengers in duty free or the constricted general terminal? Airports may balk at the option for top-spending passengers to avoid the duty free perfume spritzers and cut-price whisky samplers, but airlines need to stand firm. Can a personal shopper service to the first class lounge be offered instead, both to assuage airport concerns and to provide a real boon to first class passengers?

Entering the lounge must be seamless — here, too, there should be no need for passengers to identify themselves, whether this is old-school “the tall woman with red hair in the blue checked suit” or leading-edge with beacons or facial recognition. And once inside, the overall design must feel like somewhere a first class passenger wants to both explore and curl up quietly. Again, what is the soundscape? The scent? The lines of sight? Are there TVs blaring CNN — and if so, can they be tucked away into smartly designed sound-containing zones or rooms? What facilities are there for passengers to quietly take mobile calls — or are they broadcasting to the whole lounge? Are picocells installed to ensure reception from all local networks? Can passengers adjust the temperature of the area in which they are seated? How will staffers welcome passengers: with a signature chilled beverage and cold towel if it’s warm?

Singapore Airlines Private Room is impressive but needs to work on its acoustics and range of seating space options. Image: John Walton

Singapore Airlines’ Private Room is impressive but needs to work on its acoustics and range of seating space options. Image: John Walton

Lounge seating needs to be as varied as modern first class flyers. Personal nap rooms, which can also double as silent spaces, are a great offering. Family zones are a must, as are small business areas for passengers who need to borrow a PC and printer — which, in the age of the tablet-toting flyer, is making something of a comeback. But I have yet to find a first class lounge (or even a business class lounge) that caters to the busy modern flyer who wants to relax in something akin to a home sitting room or a business breakout area: comfortable seating that allows for a range of positions, a multipurpose adjustable work or dining surface, ample accessible power outlets (at least two universal AC, two 2.4V+ older USB sockets and two USB 3 Type C outlets), and have space left over for a beverage.

Keep kids happy and keep them from disturbing other passengers – a double win. Image: John Walton

And those beverages need to feel premium. Prestige cuvée Champagne — the category 4 Dom Pérignon, Krug, Grande Année or La Grande Dame level of bubbles, as served inflight — shouldn’t be out of the question for passengers often paying high thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, yet most first class lounges serve little beyond a non-vintage or entry-level vintage bottle. These can be offered alongside something unusual and cheaper from the airline’s sommelier, and perhaps an upmarket NV rosé and a backroom bottle of NV brut for cocktails to keep a control on costs. Signature Champagne cocktails are one of the easiest ways to class up a first lounge, and they’re so easy and inexpensive to offer alongside a range of other cocktails. The Aperol Spritz and Negroni may have passed their hipster prime, but presenting a classic version alongside a twist makes a lounge feel like somewhere a first class passenger might actually want to spend time in.

The mix of Champagnes to offer in a first class lounge is a crucial one for branding and for costs. Image: John Walton

The mix of Champagnes to offer in a first class lounge is a crucial one for branding and for costs. Image: John Walton

Premium beers with an emphasis on local, seasonal and micro-produced brews, together with a range of interesting, quirky wines to tempt a variety of palates, and of course a range of quality spirits like carefully selected whisky round out the booze selection — presented, perhaps, in some sort of liquor cabinet that feels more premium than the usual litre-bottles-on-the-counter lounge way. Non-alcoholic drinks, too, need attention. Signature mocktails are a great idea, but so are fresh juices and upmarket brands of soda, mixers and the rest. A key trick: offering both a quick reference guide for someone with a few minutes of time and also a wider list for passengers who might have a couple of hours to spend.

It doesn't have to be a wall of booze but upmarket it should be. Image: John Walton

It doesn’t have to be a wall of booze but upmarket it should be. Image: John Walton

Lounge food is often excoriated, although quite a few first class lounges go above and beyond. Qantas’ Neil Perry-directed restaurant is a destination in its own right, for example, and Air France’s first class lounge food is from a panel including Joël Robuchon. And while home comfort food is often popular, it’s sensible to dress it up like proper restaurants do. Add lobster or pancetta as options for the mac & cheese. Offer unusual meat, cheese and topping options for a burger — bison with mozzarella? ostrich patty melt? — and dot richness with injections of flavour, all presented as if it were a restaurant aiming for a Michelin star.

How can airlines upgrade their lounge menus? Image: John Walton

How can airlines upgrade their lounge menus? Image: John Walton

Wifi must be lightning fast. Passengers need to pull down a movie or two for their iPad Pro in a few minutes.

Bathrooms and showers often let a good lounge down, with industrial fittings and equally industrial toiletries. Some of this is building code and accessibility driven, but lavatories should feel, sound and smell like a five star hotel rather than gate 47. Replace generic soap dispensers with branded partnership toiletries — British Airways manages this with Elemis even in its business lounges, although falls down by offering the same products in first. Cotton or linen towels should be offered alongside upmarket paper options.

Flowers and linen towels yes but, industrial blue goo soap out of the sink, no. Image: John Walton

And once it’s time to leave for the gate, how can the airline continue the premium feeling from the lounge door to the aircraft door? With an aging population and increasingly large terminals, are there buggy-style transport options that are more comfortable, more carry-on-friendly, and less noisy? How can transfers direct from lounge to aircraft work? What about the boarding process — are first class passengers combined with other premium travellers? Finally, in an age of separate boarding jetways for first and business class, can the look and feel of these spaces be spruced up, even if it makes them a little less hard-wearing?

How can the transition from lounge to aircraft be made to feel first class? Image: John Walton

How can the transition from lounge to aircraft be made to feel first class? Image: John Walton

On arrival, from jetway to baggage claim, it’s still about that premium look and feel, and serving the needs of passengers who may want to sprint away from the aircraft as well as those who would rather be pampered to their destination. Can partner hotel staffers be airside-checked to provide seamless service? How about a quiet arrivals lounge with comfortable seating, beverages, snacks and fast wifi while staffers retrieve luggage and coordinate with ground transportation?

It’s a fair cop if airlines look at this list and think they’d rather go for today’s business-first model, although it might be surprising just how many of these offerings are provided by the better business class lounges. But if an airline really does want a future first class, it can’t afford to ignore the evolving demands of these experience-sensitive passengers.

How else can airlines surprise and delight their first class passengers? Image: John Walton

How else can airlines surprise and delight their first class passengers? Image: John Walton

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2 Comments

  1. Philippe Brun

    This article is very interesting as it draws my attention, the one of an old (retired) First class jet hopper who has been privileged enough to experience flying during the golden years of the commercial aviation and up until it was fashionable to withdraw First class product for the benefit of some ‘’upscale’’ business class offer…back in the 90s. Although I remain an air travel lover and specialist as well as a living encyclopedia about commercial air transport marketing and its history, despite my much moderated use of commercial airliners nowadays, I agree that it is about time, for both the industry and its clientele, to reflect upon the authenticity and about the legitimacy of First class, both from a branding, positioning and product standpoint.

    As some of you may know, the First class product and its fare basis has been the paradigm, the root yet the ‘’port of call’’ for any subsequent fare alternatives and subsidiary products, such as the introduction of the Tourist class by Pan American in 1952, the Business class, by KLM in 1976 as well as the Supersonic class, by British Airways and Air France that same year.

    Despite its most honorable role in defining what traveling by air would be at a time when the high yield market preferred wining and dining for 5 days aboard magnificent sea liners across the Atlantic, the airlines’ First class brand and product have been facing considerable challenges soon after the introduction of Jet Age’s iconic Boeing 707s and DC-8s on regular airlines’ scheduled flights, effective in the very late fifties, however.

    Challenge #1: Because jet service reduced traveling time by 50%, many corporate ticket payers opted for the very modern and comfortable Economy class (59’’ seats trio at a pitch of 36’’) thus gradually shifting some front cabin passengers to the main one.

    Challenge #2: In 1963, when Marcel Dassault launched its first line of private jets (the Mystère 20), the regular sight of many financial icons, business and showbiz celebrities gradually vanished from the decor of the First class cabins.

    It did not take too long before airlines revisited their jetliners’ cabin configurations as 50% of the revenue space was exclusively devoted to the First class product. In fact, from the 28 to 32 First class seats configurations aboard DC-8s and 707s, with their private bar/lounge, in the early 60s, we could count 20 seats in the late 60s, 16 in the early 70s and mainly 12 towards the late 70s. With the introduction of the Boeing 747, in 1970, standard First class seating configurations mainly offered an average of 32 seats as the goal was to concentrate two flights into one so to better take advantage of the profit margin per seat / mile the new jumbo jet promised to its operators.

    I will spare you the history about the nightmare airlines had to live when the acquisition of their new jumbo jets coincided with the withdrawal of the USA from the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971 and the OPEC embargo in 1973. But this marks the beginning of the end for the very well-known glamour of air travel. These events taught us, the hard way, that the visionary Juan Trippe was definitely not a forecaster, unfortunately.

    So the 70s emerged with its crowd of a new breed of passengers wearing t-shirts, bermudas, ripped jeans, flip flops and their back-sacks in the elegant halls of relatively quiets airports, at the time, and rubbing shoulders with full fare paying economy class passengers…who later claimed their right for a better cabin and inflight living.

    Therefore, it is a fact that the flying First class clientele has been exposed to an ever yet consistently degrading airport environment since the mid-seventies. Moreover, since the 1980-82 recession, as corporate airline ticket payers instructed the airlines that they would not pay for luxury travel anymore but for travel conditions that would insure their employees to arrive at destination and back to the office in shape to conduct business immediately while being more productive at the airport and inflight, the First class product offer took quite a beating. Fully personalized serviced cozy yet modern and elegant residential like and reasonably sized plush living room First class lounges of the past became overcrowded and Walmart sized business centers with office like armchairs and self-service bar areas letting in whoever paid the access, no matter what class of service flown!

    In the late 80s and during the 90s, as many airlines agreed to make their new Premium Business class their top of the line product, British Airways and Air France, slowly preparing the retirement of their Supersonic class loyal customers to an eventual retirement of Concorde, showed (and ruled) the world with what flying First class would be all about, from then on…in 1995! And the full flatbed seat was successfully introduced yet resuscitating the First class product in front of a stunned and highly seduced industry and clientele.
    Since post-World War II, the blooming and booming of the commercial air travel industry worldwide, along with the aviation industry, has evolved tremendously and Juan Trippe’s lead, in his unstoppable quest to democratize air travel, has convinced all key actors and airlines’ executives to adopt a business model that may have not necessarily been the best, after all. When you realize that an average 85% of the overall economy class market, today, can hardly contribute to 50% of the overall revenue, one can wonder if, even today, the mass market option is still worth gambling over. Meanwhile, will airlines be motivated, still, to further invest in improving the First class passenger experience on the ground? Why am I doubtful about it?

    Today, when I get to fly First class, or J class, I feel nostalgic about the (always physically present) First class dedicated check-in counter agent, in his impeccable suit and tie, very well mannered. I feel nostalgic about the very private, luxurious and intimate First class airport lounges where I was greeted and treated as an expected and highly valued guest and where occupants would never dare drink their soda pop and beer directly from the can. I feel nostalgic about passengers dressed like First class passengers who do not enjoy eating Oscietra caviar while drinking a dark brown beer.

    Today, although some of the First class products are simply out of this world, I must deplore that most of its clientele is not at par with the product itself and with the brand level. As a former luxury hospitality sales and marketing professional, I very well know that what primarily makes a First class sport a First class spot, is a truly First class clientele. As one of my General Manager used to say; you can dress a servant like a King, he will always act like a servant. But if you dress a King like a servant, he’ll remain a King and serve you like one.

    ©Philippe Brun – 2016.

  2. Mark Skinner

    Thai Airways First class in Bangkok does much of this: A comfortable reception area where your documents and luggage disappear and are processed while you sit. You are then escorted through Immigration and buggied to the longe 2here you are offered a meal, drinks (vintage Dom) and a Thai massage. They then keep watch and regularly fill glasses and snack bowls. When your flight is ready to depart, they let you know, and take you to the gate direct where you stroll to the plane.