To me business class is always and everywhere about the seat. Sure, I love Singapore Airlines service and pre-order meals. It’s great that I get pajamas in Virgin Australia’s long haul business. But I will always make decisions based on seat first.
Singapore Airlines Laksa
Virgin Australia Pajamas
Food matters to me but I’ll eat prior to flight and at the end of the day it’s rare that you can get as good a meal on a plane as on the ground (that Singapore Airlines laksa notwithstanding, it’s awesome).
I bring my own airline pajamas on long haul flights where the airline doesn’t provide them, because changing into something comfortable during flight makes a difference for rest and relaxation. I’m just as comfortable in pajamas I’ve brought on board than those I’ve been given inflight.
I’ve argued many times that the big Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar – have a reputation that far exceeds their product. Emirates packs 10 seats across in coach on their Boeing 777s, and many of their long haul business class seats are angled rather than flat, for instance. But investing in an over-the-top first class product lets them brand as truly premium (even though their Airbus A380 suites are actually quite narrow, 4 across on the upper deck compared to Singapore Airlines with 4 across on the wider lower deck).
Business Class Bar Onboard Emirates Airbus A380
Customers think the Gulf carriers are better than US and European airlines, even though British Airways pioneered the true lie flat seat, United is all flat on long haul international flights from their hubs, and American has what arguably ties for the best business class seat in the world on their Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A330 aircraft.
American Boeing 777-300ER Business Class
American Boeing 777-300ER Business Class
An airline’s brand influences passenger perception and that’s not just marketing or branding, it’s a sense of small touches and how they’re treated overall by the carrier.
No matter how much US airlines invest in their hard product, they aren’t going to match the service of Asian airlines though they certainly should be able to exceed service levels provided by European ones. For all of the inflight meal improvements on US airlines, they don’t come close to what international carriers offers. And so people believe they’re inferior even when they have as good or better seats. To me that’s nuts, but it seems to be a persistent truth.
[I]n a comprehensive survey of over 60,000 passengers, 30 airlines and 39 hubs, IATA found that passenger opinion of the onboard product is heavily influenced by the airline’s brand.
“One thing that we’re pretty sure is significant is the brand,” Tim Jasper Schaff, Director Marketing and Sales for IATA told attendees at the IATA World Passenger Summit in Hamburg. “We know there are airlines out there that have a much stronger brand than others, and the hard product may not necessarily be different. If a business traveller flies on an airline that doesn’t have a flat-bed in business class, but has a really strong brand, people actually feel great about it.”
What is more, passengers don’t judge cabin products like-to-like.
“If you put the same seat on another airline that doesn’t have a strong brand, then they complain about this [same seat], because they don’t feel good about traveling on that brand. We think there’s a strong influence that may actually override some of the rational emotions of passengers.”
I’ve argued that food matters for purely utilitarian reasons. But I also know how much better I feel about an American Airlines flight in coach when, as an Executive Platinum, I’m offered a complimentary buy on board sandwich.
And United is really on to something starting Saturday where domestic first class customers will be able to choose complimentary buy on board from economy in lieu of the first class meal if they prefer.
It’s not about the $8 – $13, it’s about an airline treating valuable customers as valuable, with respect, and that influences perception of the experience.