Fast Company

A First-Class Production

Business class is the new first, as startup airlines and old stalwarts try to woo you with fresh seats and services.

Riaz Shah, head of audit operations for Ernst & Young in London, crosses the Atlantic twice a month. He has flown the almost 3,500-mile hop in business class on most of the majors. Nowadays, if he can swing it on his schedule, he opts for the upstart Eos, a year-old business-class-only airline. "It's just a better seat than either British Airways or Virgin has," Shah says. "And the food is the best I've had on an airline, including first class."

But what really won him over was being able to check in at New York's JFK as late as 15 minutes before his flight. "An Eos employee actually escorted me to the front of the security fast-track line. The other passengers thought I was a celebrity."

More and more business-class passengers will be getting that glitterati feeling. There have always been a few international carriers that offered more-attentive service, seats that stretch out to flat beds, and perks such as pampering airport lounges. But now more airlines, old and new, are stepping up their game to compete with the likes of Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic. As the global economy continues to bloom, the business traveler flying long-haul international routes is in for a sweet ride. Eos is just one example of what's on the horizon for the business-class cabin, but it is emblematic of what you can expect in the next year as ergonomic experts, lighting designers, and culinary consultants redefine the flight experience.

A flurry of startups are entering the battle. The first two out of the gate have been Eos, which flies Boeing 757s outfitted with just 48 premium "suites" between JFK and London's Stansted, and Maxjet, which flies 102-seat Boeing 767s to Stansted from JFK and Washington's Dulles. Maxjet has chosen to target value-minded business-class travelers less interested in frills. Its $2,000 New York--to--London tickets have been discounted as low as $1,000 (compared with $3,000 on Eos for an advance ticket). David Lax, cofounder of the negotiation strategy firm Lax Sebenius, tried Maxjet once and said he'd opt for the carrier again if it flew from Boston (his home airport). "It's not as good as the best business-class service, but it's good enough that it would be hard to justify a big price differential," he says, explaining that he prefers to fly to Europe during the day, so he's less picky about amenities such as a fully flat bed.

Three other companies--Fly First, Primaris, and Silverjet--have all announced plans to start business-class-only service, but so far none have put planes in the air. As intriguing as the startups are, each flies a very limited schedule. "The problem with Eos is that they have only one flight leaving Stansted every day," says Shah. "If you miss the flight, there is no other option. You have to drive to Heathrow, which is probably 70 miles away, or fly the next day."

Meanwhile, industry leaders such as Singapore Airlines and British Airways are getting ready to roll out upgrades, and even second-tier carriers such as Air France have gotten into the act. All of this activity seems to have finally spurred the major U.S. carriers to reinvigorate their offerings. Both American and United have announced plans to install new business-class seats. In July, American unveiled its version, which it will begin installing on its 767-300s this fall; United plans to invest $165 million to upgrade its first- and business-class seats starting in 2007.

Much of the effort is devoted to creating an ever-better seat/bed, which is, after all, where you're going to spend most of your time. The past few years have seen Qantas introduce its Skybed (where you're nestled in a "cocoon" for more privacy), Northwest its World Business Class seat (with 60 inches between seat rows), Singapore its SpaceBed (with Tempur-Pedic foam in the seats), and Virgin Atlantic its Upper Class Suite (the longest bed in the air, accommodating people up to 6'7" tall). "In this industry, it's a constant game of leapfrog in terms of development," says James Boyd, a spokesman for Singapore. "Even when you're finishing installation, in some cases, you're already working on the next product to be installed."

Business-class seats can only go so far, of course, before they're effectively first class, so each airline is trying to "think outside the fuselage" for ways it can further pamper its customers with luxurious amenities in the air and on the ground. Virgin spent $20 million to renovate its clubhouse at Heathrow Airport, which now features a spa, including a pool, multiscreen cinema, and game room. Singapore has been expanding its in-flight broadband Internet service, a perk also offered by Lufthansa. American's new seat includes two tray tables that interlock to create a larger workspace. And celebrity-chef menus and personal entertainment systems that offer wider screens and video on demand are becoming de rigeur.

But before you start dreaming of adjustable footrests and door-to-door handholding, keep in mind that upgrades take time to trickle though a carrier's fleet. Joe Matukewicz, a film executive from Los Angeles, made that rude discovery when he flew on an upgraded Air France plane to Cannes, only to return on "the oldest plane they must've had in the entire fleet." It's tough to predict whether you'll get an overhauled plane, but you can ask the airline before booking or consult SeatGuru.com to increase your odds.

And with all the focus on details like seat "pitch" (the amount of space between rows) and the angle of recline, many travelers wonder if better service is getting left behind. As Matthew Bennett, publisher of the newsletter "First Class Flyer" puts it, "The in-flight service is so hit or miss, the discussion is reduced down to the performance of the actual seat." Considering that discount carriers like JetBlue and Southwest manage friendly service at low prices, you'd think long-haul airlines could give the red-carpet treatment to passengers paying top dollar. Perhaps once everybody has the same souped-up seats, that'll be the next competition to take off.

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