It's a Flat-Out Competition for Jet-Set Business

In today's ultra-competitive airline industry, keeping up with the Joneses is essential.

In the premium seats of Business and First class that means offering as many luxuries as possible including sleek cabin designs, wider flat-bed seats, high-tech entertainment systems and top-quality food and wines.

A number of airlines - Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Air Canada - are starting to implement many hundreds of millions of dollars of cabin improvements to entice, and keep, these elite passengers.

"It's critically important for airlines to keep up with their international competition," says airline analyst Karl Moore, of the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University in Montreal.

Business travellers are focused on comfort, Moore says.

"The flat bed provides a very nice sleep. I'm 6-foot-3 and without the flat bed I don't sleep well. Resting in a comfortable seat makes one a sharper business person. Ultimately, these features are important because if you don't have them, travellers will change their flying habits."

While executive seats account for less than a quarter of an airline's capacity, they have a big impact on the bottom line.

"Business travel is very attractive from a profit viewpoint and has an impact on an airline's reputation," says Moore.

Executive seats on Air Canada represent 12 per cent of the total seats, but "provide a disproportionate share of revenue, so business travel is very important," says Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick.

Singapore Airline's $360-million roll-out of new cabin products and services is attracting much attention.

Changes are being made to all classes but it's the new seats in First and Business that are getting the most buzz. They are the largest on any airline - the fully flat seats in Business are 75 centimetres wide and 87 centimetres wide in First.

Other features include an on-demand KrisWorld inflight entertainment system that offers more than 1,000 entertainment choices as well as office tools that include spreadsheet, presentation and word processing.

Amenities Business includes a 39-centimetre LCD monitor equipped with USB ports and in-seat power, exclusively designed bedding and dining-ware by Givenchy, an enlarged dining table that is adjustable for height, as well as full carry-on bag storage under the seat. (First class has 58-centimetre LCD screens).

"It's a complete reinvention of the entire in-flight experience from the walls, to the lighting, seating, entertainment and the forks, knives and spoons," says James Boyd, spokesperson for Singapore Airlines.

"We want passengers to come off feeling they have had a great travel experience."

In addition to the wider seats, the forward-facing seat configuration has changed from "two-three-two" to "one-two-one," giving each passenger access to an aisle.

"It removes the last frustration passengers have in climbing over their seat mate. We believe this is a change you'll likely see in other airlines," says Boyd.

These changes coincide with the carrier's expansion as the Boeing 777-300ER (extended range) and A380 aircraft begin to join the fleet.

The new B777-300ER debuted in the United States this week. The entire program will unfold through the next couple of years.

Air Canada is also upgrading its seating across its entire fleet, with a flat seat for its Executive First passengers that measures 191 centimetres.

The herringbone layout of the seats provides direct aisle access for all passengers. And for those who fly Economy, the reconfigured seats offer seat back entertainment systems with increased choice of audio and video programming.

British Airways set the standard in 2000 with the launch of the first flat bed for Business on Atlantic routes.

Part of its new £100 million ($220 million Cdn.) investment program provides its next generation Business class flat bed.

The new Club World bed is 25 per cent wider, growing to 64 centimetres; the arms can be lowered to become level with the side of the bed. In the new "Z" bed position, the bed is foot 195 centimetres and supports the knees and back.

Other features include electronically operated privacy screens, a laptop locker for stowing electronic items, a small bag and shoes, a standard 110v in-seat power socket that only needs an adapter, enhanced entertainment and onboard Club Kitchen for hot and cold snacks between meals.

British Airways says premium business grew by more than 8 per cent last year, representing 20 per cent of its capacity and the airline is re-configuring aircraft to increase Club World capacity by 8 per cent, moving from 38 to 52 seats on some Boeing 747 aircraft.

The roll out of new Club World will be completed by the end of 2008 and will be available across the airline's fleet of 57 Boeing 747s and 43 Boeing 777s.

Cathay Pacific has also started this month to offer its revamped long-haul product with changes to seating, cabin design, and inflight entertainment in First, Business and Economy.

In Business class, the new ergonomically tested seats go totally flat, and seat controls allow full adjustment, including lumbar support, while a two-way massage function that aids blood circulation.

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