The Fares May Be Grand, But So Is The Pampering

A collection of favorite airline meals? It sounds like a bad joke, but American Airlines claims that so many people want the recipes for the premium-class menus on its international routes that the carrier published a cookbook last year. The meals were designed by top chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and Alice Waters. Interested in a free copy? Act fast, because supply is limited. Send a postcard to American Airlines Cookbook, Mail Drop 5575, P.O. Box 619616, DFW Airport, Tex. 75261-9616.

These days the airlines are using anything they can, even designer meals, to woo the international business traveler--and justify steep fares. In the past year, international business-class and first-class fares have risen about 6%, according to the American Express International Airfare Index. In some cases, they're more than 10 times the price of a coach fare: A round-trip British Airways ticket between New York and London costs $6,734 in first class, $4,296 in business class, and $446 to $642 in economy through the end of March. "Now that airlines are making more money, they're plowing it back into business class, rewarding the people who pay more to travel," says Chris McGinnis, publisher of The Ticket, an Atlanta-based newsletter.

Indeed, airlines are spending millions of dollars trying to one-up their competitors for a greater share of the international corporate market. The war is being waged in the bedroom, the kitchen, and the den--or at least that's how the airlines hope you'll view their efforts to make the front cabins feel more like home. Semi-private sleeping quarters, continuous snacking service, and personal entertainment centers are just some of the changes in store this year.

STRETCH OUT. Forget the extra bag of peanuts. Customer surveys show that what the corporate traveler wants most is space. When Michael Menard started flying overseas on business, the free shaving kit was enough to keep him happy. Now, years later, the 44-year-old vice-president for engineering at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J., says what he cares about most is sleep. Menard logs nearly 300,000 miles annually, many of them to Asia. "There's nothing worse than flying all night, getting no sleep, and going straight to a meeting," he says.

That's why many of the airlines are spending the most money on seat redesign. British Airways is investing $185 million in its premium service, which will feature first-class seats that convert to beds and business-class "flying cradle" seats that tilt to reduce pressure on the back. By the end of 1996, all first-class passengers on British Air will have the new seats. Pulling a table out from the side of the compartment and folding down a second seat for visitors instantly converts the space into a dining room or office. Air France is the only other airline with fully reclinable "L'Espace 180" seats.

Other carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and All Nippon Airways (ANA), to name a few, have first- and business-class seats with extra inches of recline. American Airlines just announced that it, too, is reconfiguring the front cabins on all 80 of its international planes, at a total cost of $400 million. By May, all of the new business-class seats will have 75% more legroom and additional reclining ability, says Michael Gunn, American's senior vice-president for marketing.

With more passengers routinely making 18-hour flights to Asia, a few added inches of room are greatly appreciated. Virgin Atlantic Airways is even considering installing sleep cabins in the cargo hold, where passengers could stretch out on individual bunks.

FOREIGN FILMS. Besides comfort, the airlines are spending more to keep passengers entertained. Most premium passengers now have access to their own video screens on the seat back or armrest. First-class customers on Japan Airlines can watch a handheld videocassette player while relaxing in a vibrating massage chair. Movie buffs in American's first and business classes can choose from a video library of domestic and foreign films on their individual video machines, as well.

Airlines are also experimenting with interactive technology. This spring on limited flights, British Airways will test a system that will enable people to send faxes or make reservations from their seat, shop from stores such as Harrods and Saks Fifth Avenue, and place catalog orders. Purchases will be waiting at the airport on arrival or can be sent to the hotel or home. Over the next three years, Lufthansa will expand its video technology to offer games, news services, stock quotes, and a reservation system.

Lufthansa is also using technology to expedite the check-in process. As of Mar. 1, frequent fliers will receive chip cards that allow them to check in and get boarding passes without waiting in line. Passengers simply wave their card within 12 inches of an ATM-style terminal and then receive a receipt that they use to board. Furthermore, "it will automatically credit your frequent-flier miles," says Lufthansa spokesperson Dan Lewis. The airline hopes to build other features into the card, perhaps allowing users to make reservations with its hotel and rental-car partners.

While creative uses of space and technology are the most notable improvements, some airlines are hoping unusual luxuries will set them apart. On Virgin Atlantic, the pampering begins with a limousine ride to the airport. Once in the air, passengers have the option of complimentary manicures and massages.

For those who want some preflight relaxation, Singapore Airlines offers first-class fliers a chance to kick back in massage chairs in some airport lounges. At Virgin Atlantic's "clubhouses," front-cabin passengers can get a free haircut or facial at the beauty salon in most lounges. The clubhouse at Heathrow has an English library, a rooftop conservatory, a music room with the latest sound equipment, and a putting green.

If you have too much work to think about your putting stroke, many airlines have installed business facilities in their terminals, complete with conference rooms, faxes, and copiers. Air Canada recently opened 18 new business centers at airports in the U.S., Canada, and England with personal computers, faxes, and Internet access.

Meal service is also changing. Most airlines now give front-of-the-plane customers greater flexibility as to when and what they eat. For those who would rather sleep than eat on board, Trans World Airlines, Lufthansa, British Airways, and Virgin offer preflight buffets in the lounge at select airports. Most airlines, including American and British Airways, have continuous snacking services in first and business class. And most carriers allow premium passengers to order meals a la carte anytime.

After a multicourse meal, free champagne, and unlimited snacks, you may need assistance disembarking. American, British Airways, Northwest, and Virgin are among the companies that offer a fast-track program: An airline representative greets you by name at the gate before whisking you through passport control. But there are no special privileges when it comes to going through customs. Most airlines have priority luggage handling to make sure your bags arrive when you do.

EASY TRANSFER. Frank Dinovo Jr., president of Travel & Transport, a corporate travel business in Omaha, recalls having to change terminals recently on an international flight. Northwest Airlines sped him to his connecting terminal at the Minneapolis airport via limousine. It was a lavish but much-appreciated touch for premium customers, he says, which allowed him to catch an earlier flight back home.

Comfortable sleeping quarters and getting a manicure may not be everyone's idea of added value. But airlines anticipate that such services will win them loyal customers in profitable international markets. "A lot of these amenities are a nice surprise for the business traveler," says Karen Goodwin, editor of Frequent Flyer magazine. Considering how much the airlines are charging for these seats, they had better be extra comfy.

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