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Despite challenging economic conditions that have prompted many companies to curtail business- and first-class airline ticket purchases, airlines continue to focus on enhancements to premium products. Continental Airlines, Japan Airlines and British Airways' OpenSkies subsidiary were among several carriers showcasing their newest high-end services during the National Business Travel Association's annual convention here, while Emirates, Qantas Airways and Singapore Airlines highlighted new first-class "suites" and business-class sleeper seats on their Airbus A380 aircraft.
Beginning next year, Continental for the first time will offer a seat that can become completely flat to promote sleeping on longer flights. "What we hear from our customers is that our seat is not as good as they'd like it to be," said CEO Larry Kellner. When asked if the absence of lie-flat seats has thus far been a detriment in attracting premium customers, Kellner said, "I don't think it cost us premium business yet ... but you've got to have it. By 2012, you need to have it. We didn't want to be first, and we didn't want to be last."
To be installed in Continental's BusinessFirst cabin aboard Boeing 777 and 757 fleets serving transatlantic and transpacific routes (as well as new Boeing 787s, once deliveries start in 2010), the new seat "is one of the widest business-class seats in the air," with a maximum 25-inch width. It also includes a "universal" outlet for laptops and other electronics, a privacy "shell" and other assorted amenities.
A key aspect of the new product, according to Continental executives, is not losing any BusinessFirst seating capacity, which theoretically eliminates an immediate need to raise business fares. "More important than lie-flat was not going up in price," Kellner said. Specifically, the reconfiguration sacrifices no premium seats and only one row of coach seats on B777s, without any loss of seat capacity on B757s.
Continental won't be installing these particular seats on its Boeing 767 aircraft, given the BusinessFirst cabin configuration, but plans to add a lie-flat seat to those planes "eventually."
Meanwhile, BA's OpenSkies had a noticeable presence at the NBTA convention and, after starting service in June (between Paris Orly and New York JFK airports), announced a new route (JFK-Amsterdam, effective 15 October) and a reconfigured cabin featuring only premium seating.
The airline eliminated economy seating in favor of an expanded business class-like cabin. OpenSkies Boeing 757s as of 1 October will have 24 first-class seats and 40 "Prem" seats. The initial configuration including the economy product had 82 seats.
"We always had the notion that we wanted to be a premium player," said managing director Dale Moss. "We are committed to this segment."
British Airways by "early 2009" plans to fully integrate all-premium transatlantic airline L'Avion, which it acquired in July, within the OpenSkies operation. "With L'Avion, we offer Orly-New York as a legitimate business," Moss said. "We'll have three flights a day." Moss noted that L'Avion's B757 aircraft (which carry 90 business-class seats) "for now" will not be reconfigured.
In addition to Amsterdam, new destinations for OpenSkies potentially include Barcelona, Brussels, Frankfurt and Milan in Europe, and Boston and Washington, D.C., in the United States. Moss said OpenSkies is targeting profitability "by the end of the third year."
Elsewhere on NBTA's trade show floor, airlines planning to operate superjumbo Airbus A380s to the United States were talking up their planes' premium cabins.
Emirates became the first airline to fly passengers aboard the world's largest commercial aircraft to a U.S. airport on 1 August, when nonstop Dubai-New York JFK flights began. It described its A380s as an "airborne hotel." The entire upper deck is "dedicated to premium passengers," including 14 "flat-bed, massage-equipped private suites," with desks, minibars and an "onboard shower spa." The business-class section features 76 seats that transform into flat beds.
Emirates will use A380s on the Dubai-London Heathrow route starting 1 December, followed in February by deployments on routes to Sydney and Auckland. Overall, the airline has 58 A380s on firm order.
Australia's Qantas this month will begin taking delivery of the first of its 20 A380s on firm order. The carrier will configure the planes with four classes of service: first (including 14 "private suites"), business (with 72 lie-flat sleeper seats), premium economy and economy. Inaugural Qantas A380 service is scheduled for 20 October, between Melbourne and Los Angeles, followed by deployment on routes between Sydney and London, Los Angeles and Singapore.
Meanwhile, Japan Airlines showed off its new first, "executive," and "premium economy" seats. They debuted on 1 August aboard B777 jets serving the Tokyo-New York route, and will be installed by 13 September on B777s operating between Tokyo and San Francisco.
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