It's a well-known fact that premium class ticket sales are one of the most important factors in any long-haul carrier's profitability. The days when only the super rich could afford to travel by air may be a distant memory, but on long-haul services, the premium class passengers still effectively subsidise today's economy seats. For decades the major airlines have constantly reinvented their first and business class cabins in an effort to capture the hearts of the top-end traveller. Despite the global 'credit crunch', the amount of time and effort spent in creating these premium facilities means that although these are testing times for all airlines, those carriers who feel the time is right for change have pushed ahead with their new look projects regardless. This enables them to keep up with the competition and be in an even stronger position when economic recovery begins.
At least two of the world's top long-haul airlines will launch new premium cabin identities later this year, but for this; the third in our new series of articles focusing on the best services that airlines have to offer, we look at Australia's Qantas.
A homeland surrounded by vast oceans means that for generations of Australians, long-haul travel is almost 'in the blood', so its no surprise that the Australian flag-carrier has a long pioneering track record that stretches back almost as far as the birth of all passenger carrying flight.
Like every other airline that has been in the air travel business for generations, Qantas has reinvented itself on many occasions. While service and presentation remain at the forefront of the premium class product, the various styles and technologies introduced have changed almost beyond recognition.
The introduction of a major new aircraft type has often been the catalyst for carriers to redevelop their product and the introduction of the giant Airbus A380 has generated the latest wave of airline progress and invention.
Qantas introduced its first 'superjumbo' into passenger service on the Melbourne--Los Angeles route on October 20, 2008. This milestone event marked the end of more that five years of work preparing for the world's largest airliner, which involved every aspect of its customer service.
Qantas' new generation of First Class lounges was launched in the autumn of 2007, ten months before the first A380 was delivered, but this was due to the fact that Airbus delayed all airlines' A380 delivery dates because of internal manufacturing issues.
The airline has First Class lounges at Sydney and Melbourne, alongside Business Class facilities that are also present at Brisbane. Distinguished Australian industrial designer Marc Newson, known for his futuristic yet technically rigorous creations, worked on every aspect of the First Class cabin and lounge--a task that took more than five years. He had worked with the airline before, developing its previous Business Class seat, which was launched in 2002.
For those who wish to do their work in the First Class Lounge, Qantas offers complimentary high-speed broadband Internet access through the computers in one of the private work suites. Outside the Business Centre, there is wireless access throughout the lounge, so the customer can conduct their business wherever they feel most comfortable.
A library enables travellers to enjoy a quieter moment, perhaps to catch up with world news or simply unwind--they are mobile-free zones. In addition to the usual selection of newspapers, magazines and coffee table books, there are also board games, such as chess and backgammon.
For those wanting a little more 'action', entertainment such as sports coverage, Foxtel digital and Panasonic plasma televisions are supplied. 'Gamers' can play a computer game using a Sony PlayStation 3 in one of the private work suites or by borrowing a Portable Sony Playstation (PSP) to use in the lounge. All the traveller needs to do is simply speak to the concierge upon arrival, or a Lounge Host, to book a PSP, then select a game or movie and book a private work suite.
As with all premium class brands, the cuisine on offer will play a major part in forming the customers' opinions of the overall travel experience. Nell Perry, head chef and founder of the exclusive Rockpool restaurants located in Sydney and Melbourne, has created Qantas' menus. He has earned a reputation for using the finest fresh produce and delivering unique seasonal dishes. Passengers can dine a la Carte; order from the chair-side menus or dine at the bar. As you would expect, whether your mood is for a nice cuppa or it's time for your favourite tipple, an outstanding selection is available.
Business Class Lounges
Last year Qantas opened its new, dedicated Domestic Business Class Lounges within its key airport terminals at Brisbane (June), Sydney, Melbourne (both July) and Canberra (October). A further facility is scheduled to open at Perth in 2010.
In addition to Business Class customers, they are also accessible to top tier Qantas and oneworld Frequent Flyers.
Offerings include quiet work suites; computer access and complimentary wireless internet; premium selection of hot and cold food; barista service; separate bathroom and private shower suites; and lighting created by renowned Dutch design label, Moooi.
Mr Borghetti said the new lounges were part of an extensive upgrade of Qantas' domestic airport facilities.
"Qantas is the business travellers' airline and our facilities are designed to meet their particular needs," he said.
"The existing Qantas Club continues to be a dedicated space for our Gold Frequent Flyers and customers with a Qantas Club membership."
Complimentary wireless connectivity is now provided in all Australian Qantas Clubs and in dedicated Meeting Rooms in Sydney and Melbourne. The airline also provides web Connect workstations in gate lounges offering PCs, power charging outlets and wireless connectivity hotspots in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.
When Qantas signed up to be one of the first customers to purchase the world's largest airliner, it triggered the decision to revolutionise all its long-haul aircraft cabins.
The Qantas A380s are configured with 450 seats in four cabins; 14 in First Class, 72 in Business Class, 32 in Premium Economy and 332 in Economy Class. The airline expects to have eight examples in service by the end of this year, with the remainder of its 20-strong order delivered by the end of 2013. The carrier introduced the type on the London-Heathrow route via Singapore this January.
While the First Class cabin hasn't grabbed headlines by announcing onboard showers or double beds, its style is more subtle. When referring to the A380, the airline's Bob Lange, responsible for aircraft interiors, marketing and customer affairs, says that the Qantas brand: "is not about excess or exuberance, but every feature on the aircraft has been defined and refined to the very last detail. All of our customers pay attention to detail, but this has been particularly the case for Qantas."
The cream-coloured First Class seats are set in a one-one-one configuration with four in the centre of the cabin and five along each side. Each could be described as a herringbone / front-facing hybrid, because after the seatbelt signs are off, passengers can turn their seat either to the left or right, depending on where they are seated, from the standard front-facing position. They can then watch their 17-in (43cm) widescreen TV or stretch out across their 83.5-in (212cm) fully flat bed.
An ottoman forms either part of the bed or, if required, can be used for companion dining. Two electronically controlled dividers can be used to create an almost a private suite for the individual and the package is complemented by a foldout table and a significant amount of individual storage.
At the launch of the new cabins Qantas' Executive General Manager, John Borghetti, said the interiors throughout the aircraft had: "set a new benchmark for the airline and the industry" and: "combined intelligent design with functionality to deliver more space and comfort in every cabin. He added: "Marc [Newson] has designed almost everything onboard, from the seats through to the coat hooks, with style, practicality and passenger comfort in mind.
"The design process has included an unprecedented level of customer involvement, with many customer-initiated ideas being followed through to prototype and customers participating in sleeping comfort trials and ergonomic testing of seats.
Business Class Cabin
In the Business cabin, the airline aimed to enhance its existing Newson-designed Skybed sleeper seat, making it longer and changing it into a fully flat bed with better cushioning. A larger in-arm TV screen and additional storage space have also been provided.
One new feature provided within the A380's upper-deck Business cabin is a private lounge area complete with leather sofas, a self-service bar and large-screen video monitors with laptop connectivity.
The quality and capability of airlines' in flight entertainment (IFE) systems are perhaps the most noticeable elements of how on-board passenger facilities have leapt forward in the last decade or so.
Qantas' latest generation of IFE, manufactured by the Panasonic Avionice Corporation was introduced with the airline's A380s.
Its features include 17in (43cm) widescreen monitors in all cabins providing digital picture and sound quality. On-demand audio and video channels provide over 100 movies, 350 television selections, 500 audio CDs, 30 PC-style games, as well as a selection of audio books and radio channels. Lonely Planet destination and arrival guides are also provided along with language tutorials and online duty-free shopping opportunities. Moving maps, text news and weather information are also available.
Wireless connectivity is provided throughout the aircraft along with in-seat access to email, the Internet, telephone calls and SMS. USB and RJ45 ports and PC power are provided for all seats; and an external camera gives a pilot's eye view of take-off, landing and cruising.
Airports International hasn't had the opportunity to try it out yet, but John Borghetti says it offers customers greater choice. "There has never been anything like this onboard a commercial aircraft," he said, adding, "wide screen digital monitors in all cabins and a state-of-the-art graphic user interface allows passengers to easily navigate through a vast range of entertainment options, including on-demand video and audio programmes and games.
"We have gone beyond the traditional movie and audio options to include Lonely Planet destination information, language tutorials, audio books, Deloitte business courses and PC-style games.
"Customers in all classes are also able to stay connected with in seat email and Internet access or using their personal laptops to connect to a wireless network."
Qantas has already completed the refit of its Boeing 747-400 fleet by using some elements of the A380 cabin and, like the giant Airbus' launch customer, Singapore Airlines, the Australian flag-carrier is currently adding surcharges to First and Business Class tickets on its A380 services.
A380 Premium Cabin Facts
* 14 individual suites featuring electronically adjustable seat with programmable positions and fully adjustable multi-zone massage function.
* Seat converts into a fully flat, extra long and wide bed with foam mattress; exclusive sheepskin overlay and fitted cotton sheeting.
* Electronically deployed 17" LCD widescreen video monitor.
* Touch-screen control unit featuring personal flight map and operating all electronic functions including electronically adjustable privacy screens.
* Leather guest seat and large dining table designed to accommodate two.
* Variety of personal stowage options including dresser unit.
* High quality finishes including Edelman leather and solid wood.
* Noise cancelling headset port, PC power, USB and RJ45 ports.
* Electronically-controlled dual layer window shades.
* Main deck cabin with mood lighting and enhanced cabin soundproofing.
* Designer amenities, soft furnishings, tableware plus male/female amenity kits.
* Enhanced Skybed, electronically adjustable sleeper seat, which at the touch of a button converts to extra long, fully flat bed with pre-programmed seating positions, adjustable lumbar support and improved massage function.
* Illuminated seat controller operating all seat functions, electronically deployed privacy divider and fully adjustable in-arm video monitor.
* Variety of personal stowage options including dedicated spaces for laptops, headset, shoes, reading material, water bottle and coat hook.
* Multiple reading lights, noise cancelling headset port, PC power, RJ45 and USB port.
* Lounge area featuring self-service refreshment bar, large sofa, seatbelts for in-flight use, selection of reading material, large entertainment screen with laptop connection for presentations and feature display cabinet.
* Upper deck cabin with mood lighting, seating configured in two-two-two layout.
* Designer amenities, soft furnishings, tableware and collectable male and female amenity kits.