We all realise by now that the aviation industry is in it’s biggest crisis ever. One year ago airlines were growing, buying new planes and launching new destinations. The only challenge was finding enough qualified staff to fly those planes. Today looks very different. No one can predict the future, but let’s take a look at our favorite way of flying: long haul business class. How will that be once this pandemic is over?
Reporter and avid avgeek Nico shares his views on the future of business class.
Airlines react very differently on covid
Saying that not many people are flying business class on long haul flights these days is stating the obvious. But there are still a few people out there who really need to cross a continent and fly business. Airlines have adjusted their service in order to handle this pandemic, and it is interesting to see how different the approach of each airline is.
At Lufthansa for example, almost nothing has changed. There is a simplified service in economy, certainly on short haul flights. But business class on long haul flights pretty much looks the same. On the other end you’ll find Turkish Airlines: business passengers just get a box with a cold meal and that’s it. At Emirates, you still get as much food as before, but it is served on one tray to reduce contact between cabin crew and passengers.
What about the future?
Nonstop Dan made an interesting video titled ‘The Death of Business Class‘.
I recommend you watch it, but if you don’t have time let me summarise for you: the video claims business class will never return to pre-covid levels. Due to this pandemic people have learned how easy meetings can be replaced by video calls, so the demand will never return as it was last year.
Let me start with saying nobody can predict the future (who would’ve guessed last year that in a few months aviation would change like this?) and the rest of this post isn’t intended negatively towards Nonstop Dan, but I don’t agree with the video and I have a few reasons.
Let me explain.
Video calls aren’t everything
I was impressed how fast companies were able to switch to a completely digital business model during this pandemic. Most of us have worked from home (a flight attendant tried: it didn’t really work but it resulted in a funny video) and yes: we’ve seen a lot of possibilities.
But at the same time we’ve learned to value face-to-face contacts. A quick meeting can perfectly be done online, but more sensitive topics still require people actually coming together. And on top of that: informal contacts are equally important to formal contacts: on conferences you get to build a network that will lead you to new opportunities.
A study done before the pandemic has shown how much more efficient it is when people actually meet, over a digital alternative.
Not only business people are flying business class
After the first wave in Europe we’ve learned some interesting things about the recovery of aviation. People were eager to travel, but it was mainly for tourism/leisure reasons and mainly to destinations not too far away from home (understandably during this pandemic). So it’s safe to assume the long haul business passenger will be the last to return.
But that’s not the complete story. For a long time, Air France had a specific type of planes flying to the Carribean and the Indian Ocean. These are routes with virtually no business passengers.
Yet at the beginning of this year Air France invested a lot of money to upgrade the business class experience for passengers flying from Paris Orly (the second airport) to these leisure destinations. They did this because more and more tourists want to fly business class too. So business class is no longer filled with just business passengers.
People value space and privacy
A big asset business class cabins offer over economy class is space. The industry trend in recent years was to give people suites with direct aisle access and doors. In covid times, this extra space can comfort a lot of people who are still hesitating to fly. That’s why some people in the industry believe business cabins will become even more important than ever before.
It’s all about the money
It is a known fact that long haul flights are mainly profitable due to premium passengers. On short haul flights, low cost carriers have changed the industry. But up until now, that didn’t work out on long haul flights. Low cost long haul airlines went out of business, are struggling to survive or add business class cabins. This was already the case before covid.
So basically business class passengers make a long haul flight profitable, and are therefore needed for airlines to resume their long haul services. On top of that, there is another very interesting cash cow for airlines: miles and loyalty programs.
People pay for airlines branded credit cards, or go shop at stores where they can collect miles. It is such a lucrative business that for example Delta Airlines was able to raise 6.5 billion dollars backed by their miles program. And why are people so keen on collecting these miles? Not because they want to fly on a basic economy fare on a short haul flight, right?
No one can predict the future, but it sure is an interesting time to see what the aviation industry will look like after the covid pandemic.
I am optimistic about the future of business class because I think people will appreciate space more than ever, the group of people flying in business class has become more diverse and airlines will do everything they can to attract business passengers as they are the most valuable passengers.
Will I be right? Let’s wait and see.
Nico retrieved photos in this op ed from press releases by the airline companies.