Squeezing Economy class; Raising the bar in Business and First

The other day I was looking at a very cool website: http://www.airlinemeals.net and took a look at historical images on of on-board catering. What I noticed is that compared with the past, today’s offerings in economy class are extraordinarily paltry. As little as 10 years ago, an economy class passenger could expect a hot meal for a flight lasting 90 minutes. Today, most airlines wouldn’t even offer you anything more than a cheese or ham sandwich.

It got me thinking – is there a trend in the industry where so-called full service carriers (British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France/KLM) are being forced to lower the bar in economy class and raise the bar in their premium cabins?

My explanation for the worsening of in-flight catering in economy class is related to the emergence of LCC competitors. Passengers are less willing to pay $$$ more a ‘full service’ flight if they can get a close to equivalent LCC alternative. And of course, what is the response of the ‘full service’ carriers to this threat? A race to the bottom. Rather than raising their game, they are lowering their standards. I know of one airline that is bucking the trend – Bangkok Airways. Based out of BKK and smaller airports in Trat and Koh Samui, Bangkok AIrways offers full meals (even for the shortest flights) AND free access to an airline lounge offering free food and drinks to ALL its customers. They now fly to the Arab Gulf, India and the Maldives so they have gone beyond the ‘local’ airline so there is little excuse from ‘full service’ airlines for not offering such service. It’s entirely possible to maintain standards and compete head to head with LCCs – as Bangkok Airways does. I think it speaks a lot to the short term thinking of airline executives and their ‘me too’ strategies that few of the ‘full service’ carriers can break out of this race to the bottom. On some Air France planes, there is NO recline on their seats. On Iberia flights, you cannot open a laptop because the space between seats is too narrow!

At the other end, we have the premium segment – business class and first class. Here we have seen the exact opposite effect. ‘Full service’ airlines now bend over backwards to offer yet more luxurious on the ground and in the air experiences. From lie-flat beds, the porcelain dishes and crystal glassware. Pyjamas to showers on board, the premium customer has come to expect substantially higher quality experiences over the years – especially on long-haul routes. Airlines who refuse to offer such services will suffer defections from their most valuable customers. The in-flight experience has been intensified by extraordinarily high quality ground services – limousine pick-ups to the airport, in terminal spas, full service restaurants. Who is driving this trend? Again it’s not the European or US based carriers. It’s the Middle-East and Asian airlines that are constantly raising the bar from Emirates to Qatar to Singapore to Turkish Airlines.

What is perhaps interesting is that Air France/KLM have recently ‘upgraded’ their business class cabin for long-haul, but didn’t install lie-flat seats. An astonishing oversight in my view given the trends in the industry and you wonder why they did that?

If you want to find out more about how the airlines stack up when it comes to seats – check out http://www.flatseats.com and http://www.seatguru.com. Essential research for the long haul traveller.


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