Airline seats to dream on

Comfort: British Airways introduces bed-seats on the wide-body planes it flies between Baltimore and London.

February 16, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

It's not often that Baltimore Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller is flat on his back in front of spectators at a stadium - and smiling about it.

But at a news conference at Oriole Park at Camden Yards yesterday, Boller seemed pleased to help British Airways demonstrate its fully reclining business-class seats, a feature new to this market.

British Airways, which introduced the seats in 1996, phased them in to all of its 100 wide-body planes recently, including all of those used for the nightly flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Heathrow Airport near London.

Business-class tickets are $1,998 round trip through March 20, which is 76 percent off the usual $8,250 ticket price. First-class tickets are more than $12,000, and coach fare is about $310, according to the airline's Web site.

Business travelers have long been a key to profitability for airlines because they typically pay for last-minute, higher fares that are for the more expensive cabins.

Business air travel, nationally and internationally, dipped significantly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has been slow to recover. Airline analysts suspect that the big-spending ways might never return because passengers can use the Internet to easily shop for cheaper fares. Many also are limited by their companies on what they can spend.

At the Camden Club at Oriole Park yesterday, Boller joined former Orioles third baseman and Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson in stretching out in the 6-foot-long seats, which have more than twice the leg room found in coach.

At 6 feet, 3 inches tall, Boller nearly fit, with his size 14 shoes just flopping over the edge. At 6-foot-1, Robinson just about made it. A shorter bunch - airport and airline officials, business executives and a throng of journalists - who came to see the celebrities and the seats had an easier time stretching out.

"When I first started playing ball, we'd ride the bus," recalled Robinson, who played for the Orioles from 1955 to 1977. "When I got to the majors, we'd take the train, get in at 5 or 6 in the morning and try and go to sleep. When you're in your 20s you don't mind, but when you get a little older you want comfort."

As many carriers in the distressed airline industry cut back on food and luxuries in general, British Airways is banking on those willing to pay more for five or six hours of sleep without the sore neck.

Business travelers and high-end leisure customers make up a small fraction of the total passengers aboard a Boeing 767 or 777 wide-body airplane but bring in the most revenue.

The British Airways flights from BWI will have 24 or 40 of the new business-class seats, depending on the Boeing airplane, in addition to some first-class seat-beds that are a bit longer and more private. The airline also added another business section with seats several inches roomier than those in the economy class farther back in the plane. Economy class will continued to have the most seats, 122 or 141.

British Airways spent more than $376 million developing what the airline calls "club world" business class, which includes the new seats, enhanced entertainment, and Internet and phone access. Other amenities, such as showers, meals and drinks, are offered at airports.

The London airline is making money, unlike many of its major counterparts, but officials acknowledged yesterday the risk in spending so much on new seats that forced the elimination of a couple of rows in coach. The airline reported a profit of about $137 million in the fiscal third quarter, which ended Dec. 31, about 40 percent less than in the 2003 quarter.

"Time and time again we've asked business travelers what they want most on overseas flights and they say sleep,'" said Derrick Surratt, a regional director of sales for British Airways. "We've made quite an investment at a time when profit is being devoured by fuel costs. It's a tough scenario for the airline."

British Airways officials said the number of business travelers has been on the upswing and that a good night's rest will mean increased productivity for the businesses' work forces, possibly making up for some of what they spend on tickets for the new seats.

The Travel Industry Association reported this month that business travel is returning to 2000 levels after several years of decline. An association survey found, however, that the bulk of increasingly cost-conscious business travelers book their flights by phone or Web site, or use a service that searches for the best fare.

Gregory H. Barnhill, partner and board member of Brown Advisory Securities LLC, said his Baltimore financial-services firm sends people to London once or twice a month and that he thinks British Airways is on to something.

"In today's economy, all companies are concerned about budgets and expenses, but when you have to get off a plane and go directly to a meeting, being able to sleep on the plane means a lot," said Barnhill, who came to see the seats yesterday.

Officials at BWI said they, too, have something riding on the seats.

The airport's international terminal has struggled to live up to its billing since opening in 1997 and has had some setbacks in the past year, with Air Ghana and Aer Lingus canceling service. That left about a half dozen, mostly small airlines offering about 12 international flights a day.

Paul J. Wiedefeld, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees the airport, said he has been in discussions with other airlines to begin or expand overseas service from the airport. But most of the growth at BWI has come from low-cost, domestic service, such as Southwest Airlines, which will open its terminal in the spring.

Wiedefeld said the new British Airways seats will allow the airport to offer something more to the higher-end traveler.

"These seats are just the type of difference British Airways can provide in the marketplace," he said.

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