Airlines serve new perks to lure business travelers

Flying: Flat beds, massages, manicures among the new benefits for corporate clients.

Strategies

February 06, 2000|By Marisa Milanese | Marisa Milanese,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Airlines have always fought for business travel loyalty. Traditionally, frequent travel rewards, like free tickets and seat upgrades, have been used as a lure. But this year, the airlines are testing a new strategy to woo the business traveler: better perks, and more of them. "That's a very big thing," says David Kaufman, a senior editor at Business Traveler International. "First-class perks and privileges are trickling down to business class without an increase in price."

British Airways, for instance, will introduce flat beds in their Club World class sometime in March. Although business-class sections on some airlines already offer "sleeper seats" that recline, British Airways' seats don't just lean back, they actually roll down to a flat position, a perk that first-class passengers have traditionally had a monopoly on.

The beds are part of an extensive overhaul of British Airways' Club World class, which will also include an improved individual entertainment system at every seat and complete in-seat power for lap-tops, e-mail, phones and fax.

Virgin Atlantic has poured $59 million into its business-friendly Upper Class, offering passengers new perks that are practical and fun.

Passengers can now order items from a new "Freedom Meal" menu at their leisure -- from coriander chicken to hot fudge sundaes.

Famous for its in-flight beauty therapy-like massages and manicures, Virgin also has added a new treatment room where passengers can be pampered in privacy. "We want to bring back a more glamorous feeling to travel," says airline spokeswoman Sharon Pomerantz.

The look of the new Upper Class cabin will heighten the glamour. Eschewing a more traditional airline aesthetic, the red-leather, purple and chrome interiors are rock-star chic.

The new focus on high-end perks is a result of the declining relevance of travel reward programs, according to travel industry analysts. "The alliances have done it," said Michael Mahoney, managing director of Price Waterhouse Coopers, a hospitality and leisure consulting group. He was referring to coalitions like oneworld, which allies several airlines, including American Airlines, Canadian Airlines and British Airways.

Mahoney said that because travelers can transfer their miles within so many different airlines, the reward programs no longer command the same draw. "It's like the sulfite warning on a wine bottle," he said. "You know it's there, but you don't notice it anymore. Now business travelers are asking: `What else can you give me?' "

Few other airlines are offering such dramatic new amenities as Virgin and British Airways, but several have developed new amenity kits for their business classes. Air New Zealand, for example, has unveiled aromatheraphy kits designed to combat jet lag. Products include a floral-scented eye compress and a foot massage gel. Unfortunately, it does not include a masseuse.

Continental Airlines also has added new products to its Business First kits.

Continental's prime amenity, however, isn't only reserved for business travelers flying Business First. In a backlash against many airlines' restrictions of carry-ons, Continental has been expanding the overhead compartments in all of its classes.

This development, in the works since last August, will affect all of its aircraft this year and is in addition to the airline's existing policy of treating carry-on limitations on a case-by-case basis. "We want our customers to be able to carry on what they need for the flight," said Continental representative Julie Gardner. The flexibility, she said, is vital to business travelers hoping to get work done en route.

To woo business travelers, many airlines have focused their developments on new technology. American Airlines is now offering Bose noise-canceling headphones on select business-class flights. United and Singapore also offer the headphones on certain routes. Continental Airlines has installed a GTE Airfone at all of its Business First seats.

And while personal entertainment screens are becoming standard in most business classes, JetBlue Airways, the tiny airline launched this month, has one-upped the others. Every one of its seats has access to 24 channels of live in-flight television.

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