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Refine & Redefine

With airlines wooing the ‘elite’ business traveller with a host of new offerings, Mohinder Singh gives you a glimpse of the recent product innovations that not only refine, but redefine business travel

British Airways’ new business class seats that can be turned to face each other for meetings mid-flights

Till the mid-1960s, there were only two classes on the old narrow-body planes: first and economy. First class was for the big bosses and those seriously rich. Everyone else flew economy. You paid for your drinks and headsets, but the food was OK and you had enough room to stretch your legs. With all sorts of people thereon, the mode, shall we say, was democratic. Life became more complicated when business class emerged as a third cabin in the late 1970s. The idea was to reward business passengers paying full economy fare, with a separate cabin away from the holiday crowd with its cheaper excursion tickets.

Airlines are now operating a myriad of discount economy fares; better to fill up all those huge planes than take off with empty seats. But this has led to a growing gap between business class and economy. While the premium class becomes ever more opulent and expensive, economy class has become virtually cattle-class on popular routes. And whereas business class fares have risen steadily during the last five years, economy fares have fallen correspondingly. On many routes, the prevailing business class fare often figures four times the discounted economy fare.

Having the privilege of using an airport lounge is one of the prime perks of flying first or business class

Indeed, several airlines such as Continental and Air Canada have abandoned first class for a more lavish business class. Business class, today, commonly boasts facilities that surpass first class of the 1970s. It’s another matter, the business class cabin - with all that upgrading through frequent flyer miles - may be holding more of a motley crowd than select company.

If you think business travel isn’t getting better, you are flying the wrong airline - and staying at the wrong hotels.

It seems, airlines and hotel chains everywhere have been busy trying to outdo each other with services, gizmos and gadgets intended to ease the process of business travel. Virgin Atlantic, Malaysia Airlines and Japan Airlines now provide complimentary limo service to and from the airport. Virgin chauffeurs even check you en route, allowing you to bypass the airport check-in desk entirely. In certain cities, United Airlines will deliver your luggage to your hotel, so you can go straight to your business meeting without having to stop at your hotel. Singapore Airlines provides a complimentary cell phone for your stay in Singapore.

Airlines are constantly upgrading their business lounges

Most innovations are designed to cater to travellers’ individual needs and preferences. For example, airlines like Virgin Atlantic are starting to serve dinner when you want it, rather than when they want to serve you. If you like, you can dine before boarding the plane.

Space, in the form of seat-width, legroom, and angle of incline is the prime issue in the airlines’ battle for the hearts and minds of business travellers. A few airlines have eliminated the dreaded middle-seat altogether for the business class in the new Boeing 777s. And seats are now coming up with a 160-degree incline - some convert completely into flat beds. Electric motors provide for lumbar and full leg and thigh support, with six-way adjustable headrests. A personal reading light and a swivel tray table that enables you to leave your seat before you have finished your meal. Airlines are now designing seats that conform to your body contours. British Airways foresees airline seats that will read your shape and programme your seat position preference into a smart card. They have launched their new business class seats that can be turned to face each other, for meetings mid-flights. Singapore Airlines has introduced new in-flight entertainment units: 14-inch personal video screens for watching 25 different movies and 50 short features, and special headphone for listening to 50 CDs.

Airlines are constantly upgrading their business lounges

Having the privilege of using an airport lounge is one of the prime perks of flying first or business class. It takes some of the pain from flight delays, cancellations and long connecting times. You can relax with a drink, take a shower, or catch up with work. And all this away from the madding crowd; safe in the knowledge that you will be called up a few minutes before your flight is finally called. Of late, airlines have been laying a great deal of emphasis on upgrading their business lounges; equipping them with computers and fax machines, choicest drinks and inviting snacks. With the number of business travellers on the rise, all this ‘grand experimentation’ by airlines is not likely to stop soon.