Digital Transformation » Systems & Software » AIR TRAVEL – Staying ahead of the crowds

AIR TRAVEL - Staying ahead of the crowds

Life at the sharp end is easier if you get to fly at the pointy end. But it may be the length of your journey rather than your seniority that determines whether you can.

Business class air fares have risen by more than 12% in the past year – way more than inflation. In justification, airlines mutter about increases in the cost of crude oil. However, oil prices have now started to come down, but there is no sign of air fares following suit.

As ever, supply and demand and the strength of the economy are the significant factors. Fares are pushed up at the front of the aircraft because business class is less price-sensitive; if airlines hiked the cost of an economy class ticket, passengers would flee to competitors.

In the past two years, major carriers have ploughed huge sums of money into business class. Leg room extends to 50 inches and on some night flights executives are even tucked up in pyjamas under duvets. Seats have been redesigned to take better account of ergonomics, and food supposedly has a higher nutritional value. In addition, greater flexibility has been built into meal services.

In-flight entertainment systems are becoming ever more sophisticated, with personal Sony Video Walkmans becoming standard, plus video games, and more news and entertainment channels.

And one of the great advantages of flying – being out of touch – is being whittled away, as more and more in-flight phones and faxes, originally only for out-going communications, will increasingly receive calls.

But, however comfortable a flight can be made in the air, the first impression is on the ground. If that goes wrong passengers start the flight tense and irritated. With this in mind, airlines have been spending money improving their on-the-ground services. Express check-in, often by phone, is being extended to those with hand luggage only – and these days, large suit carriers qualify as cabin baggage; and lounges are equipped with faxes, phones, PC outlets and showers, as well as bar and snacks ranging from biscuits to more substantial sustenance.

Generally, companies benefit from paying for staff to travel at the front of the aircraft. Those who downgrade travel policies to economy class are met with a raft of resistance, ranging from executives refusing to travel at weekends, to taking the day off after returning to the UK. At least those who travel in premium class are fit to do business on arrival, and can reasonably be expected to go straight into the office from the airport, particularly with the now widespread arrivals lounges with shower facilities and continental breakfast – an idea initiated by British Airways in 1994.

At high street chemist Boots, for example, each division is responsible for its own travel budget. Some of its regular travellers choose to fly to the US in economy class, as they will have time to recover when they get there, and returning in business class. This saves enough money to allow more travel. According to Steve Raven, manager of business travel services for Boots: “For flights of four hours or less, staff travel economy.

After that, they may upgrade to business class and although many choose not to, it is not policy and we would not write it in.”

Most airlines undertook major upgrades at the end of recession, to seduce executives back into business class. Since then, demand has stepped up and the smaller cabins are groaning under the weight. For travellers and companies to get a seat on the flight they want is becoming a major challenge, let alone at the fare they want.

With the return to the front cabin came a change in thinking. Where previously, directors flew first class, middle managers business class and the rest at the back, privilege based on hierarchy became unacceptable. So the right to extra comforts became allied to length of journey: the benchmark is usually around five hours, sometimes more.

Travel policies are an essential part of controlling travel costs, but implementing them can prove problematic. The tone of the company policy will control how strictly it is adhered to. If the end users do not see any benefit in it they will ignore it.

So is business class worth the considerable extra sums charged? For comfort and convenience, yes; for value for money, probably not. The upturn in the economy and therefore in business has brought rises in air fares that show remarkably short memories on the part of the airlines, and these heavier load factors are combined with fewer seats. The airlines might remember that behind every boom, there is a bust, and be a little more circumspect.

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