As airline competition heats up, innovative onboard developments become essential for continued success.
1. Lie-flat beds
Increasingly, lie-flat beds are becoming popular in business class, replacing the traditional reclining seats. Airlines across the world are gradually phasing out the old seating in favour of the up-to-date, comfortable flat beds.
With its modern fleet, Etihad Airways is able to offer flat beds across all its business class flights. Peter Baumgartner, Etihad's vice president of product marketing believes consistency of product is very important. "The entire current fleet of 42 aircraft are equipped with the same products; lie-flat beds in business class and suites in first class. That's a consistency that our premium passengers really appreciate."
Meanwhile Dubai-based Emirates airline has introduced lie-flat beds on many of its newer Boeing 777 models. The beds, which are set in twos and separated by a small panel, have been extremely popular with business class travellers. On the lie-flat model passengers are able to sleep more easily and reduce the effects of jet lag, which is particularly useful for long-haul business customers who are flying on a regular basis.
Whether it's a brand new movie release or a sitcom rerun, there's plenty of entertainment choice on today's modern airliners. Emirates airline boasts one of the most impressive systems; an on demand ‘ICE' service which includes a large selection of movies, music and television programmes.
"In 2003 we introduced the new on demand system which brought in the concept of immense choice," says Patrick Brannelly, Emirates vice president of in-flight entertainment. "It was really important on long-haul flights, like non stop to Sydney or New York. People would be flying for such long periods of time we needed to increase the choice," he adds.
Meanwhile other leading carriers in the Middle East have joined the ‘on demand' bandwagon, offering a wide selection of entertainment for passengers to access in their own time.
The Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways currently has some 78 films and 40 hours of TV programmes in its repertoire. "When we started the airline [four years ago] we only had a small selection," explains Albert de Wit, in-flight entertainment manager for Etihad Airways. "But in June 2006 we went through our first major content upgrade and basically doubled it to what you see now."
For Turkish Airlines, it is important to provide entertainment to all passengers even on short-haul flights. "Some of the long-haul aircraft have the video on demand system which passengers enjoy," explains Temel Kotil, CEO of Turkish Airlines. "But we also provide movies even for just a two hour flight which is a nice feature of the entertainment system."
3. Mobile phone services
Mobile in-flight technology allows passengers to use mobile phones in the aircraft in the same way as on the ground. "The traveller can make and receive phone calls on the usual number and be charged international tariff on the regular invoice," explains Benoît Debains, CEO of in-flight communications provider, OnAir. "Technically we have a kind of mini cellular network in the aircraft with an external link to the satellite. The signals are then delivered back to the OnAir network where calls are completed on the ground."
Emirates airline has installed Aeromobile technology on over a dozen aircraft, allowing passengers to use their own phones onboard. "On flights equipped with Aeromobile, we see over 50% of passengers switch on their mobile phone during the flight, with SMS service by far the most used," says Mike Simon, Emirates' divisional senior vice president of corporate communications.
Meanwhile Etihad Airways has chosen not to adopt this type of technology, due to onboard disturbance. "Based on feedback we are getting from our customers Etihad has no current plans to introduce the technology to enable mobile phone use on the aircraft," explains Claire Claxton, Etihad's vice president of product.
"If customers do need to make an in-flight call they can do so now using the existing onboard telephone system. The internet is also something Etihad is keen to introduce onto our aircraft and continues to research options with our suppliers."
4. Children's entertainment
A restless, screaming child is everyone's idea of an in-flight nightmare, particularly on a long-haul journey. But recently, airlines have begun introducing more ‘kids entertainment,' to ensure a peaceful family environment.
"In addition to toys and games, children flying with Etihad can enjoy a range of in-flight entertainment programmes and interactive games specially designed for kids," explains Claire Claxton, Etihad's vice president of product. "The airline also has a special menu for younger travellers including burgers, fish fingers, chicken nuggets, French fries, chocolates, vegetable patties and vegetable nuggets," she adds.
Meanwhile Gulf Air offers a free sky nanny service, whereby trained, dedicated child carers travel onboard with children to assist parents. The service, which extends to the Bahrain lounges, provides adults with a professional babysitter ready to prepare meals, distribute toys, books, colouring books and games, and give attention while the parents rest.
Qatar Airways also extends a special service to its younger passengers. "Our in-flight entertainment programme embraces a selection of children's games as well as children's movies for even our youngest passengers," explains Irena Sevcikova, Qatar's marketing executive. "We also provide special backpacks for children on long-haul flights which contain crayons, colouring book and a children's wallet."
5. Duty Free
Qatar Airways, which recently won ‘duty free of the year' at the annual Aviation Business awards, believes the shopping service is essential, particularly on long-haul flights. "We offer duty free services onboard our aircraft, as well as a large duty free shopping area in Doha International Airport and at the Premium Terminal in Doha," says Irena Sevcikova, marketing executive for Qatar.
"Our duty free offers a wide selection of luxurious brands and range of products for passengers to choose from and embraces an extensive collection of fragrances, cosmetics, watches, jewellery and fashion accessories. Qatar Airways' Duty Free is popular and has been awarded several accolades, which proves passengers enjoy the convenience of shopping onboard, during their transit or prior to departure."
According to Claxton, Etihad's range of products is updated every four months. "There has been a considerable growth in duty free sales, an 85% increase during the first nine months of 2008, compared to the same period in 2007," she adds. In addition, the airline has introduced 80 new gifts to its onboard duty free collection which was launched in October 2008.
"These include 15 items exclusively available with Etihad from luxury brands such as Christian Dior, Swarovski, Cerruti and Omorfia watches. The duty free includes an exclusive selection of products from perfumes and jewellery to watches, cosmetics and gifts.for children." 6. Internet
More popular than the phone communications service is easy access to wireless broadband. "In terms of OnAir's internet services, the message goes to our server in Seattle, where we have our office and then it goes through the web," says the company's CEO, Benoit Debains.
"What we are doing is offering a low capability application. We offer a broadband system which is already working well on the Qantas A380, where it's regularly used for webmail and web chat. We are the only company to provide the full internet service today and it's something airlines want to provide for their passengers."
Many airlines, including Qatar Airways, currently operate an onboard broadband service for first and business class passengers. But over time, communications companies, such as OnAir, argue airlines will expand this service into economy class.
Earlier this year, German airline, Lufthansa, was keen to reintroduce live broadband on its flights across all classes. The idea was first launched onboard the airline's flights in 2003, but has since been discontinued. "We had internet with broadband but our partner disrupted the service," says Thierry Antonori, vice president of sales and marketing for Lufthansa airline.
According to Enrico Manaresi, international PR and media relations manager for Technogym, fitness equipment is popular onboard private jets, rather than passenger airliners. "We offer very small, but very space efficient gyms, which are particularly useful for onboard application. It's very convenient, easy to use and very efficient," he explains.
The private jets that currently operate with onboard gyms tend to adopt small treadmills and stretching space. Exercising onboard, particularly during long-haul travel, lessens the chances of flight related illness such as deep vein thrombosis and can make passengers more comfortable. "At the moment we're road testing new areas for doing stretches which is obviously very good for long flights and also for use at airports," adds Manaresi.
At present there are no airlines using the onboard gyms, though Manaresi is keen to look into this in future. "We work mostly with private jet customers who want to kit out their own planes. However as airlines start to adopt the super jumbo A380s it's something we'll be looking into."
Simon points out that although Emirates airline does not offer exercise facilities or gym equipment, it does encourage passengers to stretch during flight. "We currently have a health and relaxation channel on our in-flight entertainment system that encourages passengers to stretch and do gentle exercises during the flight. Our in-flight magazine also has a dedicated page illustrating exercises that can be done easily in your seat, and also tips for keeping well refreshed and hydrated during the flight," he adds.
According to the region's leading airlines, fine dining is no longer confined to five star restaurants. In the past few years, in-flight cuisine has developed considerably to satisfy the palates of travellers and enhance the general service of flights. "Airline catering suffers from this myth that everything's re-heated and frozen, which is far from the truth," says George Banks, Emirates food product manager.
"Most of the food here in Dubai is freshly prepared." The airline, which serves some 81,000 meals a day, works in cooperation with several different catering companies across the globe including Swissair-founded Gate Gourmet and LSG Skychefs.
For Etihad Airways, quality is paramount. To distinguish itself from other airlines, the carrier has introduced onboard food and beverage managers to advise passengers about their meal and wine choices. "You'll see someone in a light coloured cream jacket and that someone has come from hospitality," says Peter Baumgartner, executive vice president of marketing and product.
"That person has probably been a beverage manager in a five-star restaurant. They're there to get the food right, the temperature right and the filet mignon done exactly the way you like."
On selected A330 and A340 wide-bodied flights, Bahraini carrier, Gulf Air, provides its first class passengers with the advice of a qualified sky chef. After browsing the extensive and recently enhanced in-flight menu, travellers are invited to discuss their options with the chef, to decide how they would like the food to be prepared and served.
9. Onboard showers
The Airbus A380 super jumbo jet is the first aircraft to provide space for onboard showers in first class. The idea, which has been somewhat controversial in the industry, has been adopted by Emirates airline on its new A380s, which began operations last summer. "This service has been very popular," says Mike Simon, Emirates' divisional senior vice president of corporate communications.
About 75% of our first class customers onboard the A380 are taking advantage of this facility. We've also received positive feedback from our customers - many of whom appreciate the opportunity to refresh themselves before disembarking from a long flight," he adds.
However, leading Asian carrier, Singapore Airlines, chose not to install onboard showers on its A380s for environmental reasons. "At Singapore we always carry cargo at the same time as passengers, that way we are saving on fuel which is both economically and environmentally beneficial," explains Meow-Seng Lim, Singapore's general gulf manager. "We would never use the space to carry water onto the aircraft for onboard showers, I think these are environmentally disastrous," he adds.
Meanwhile, other carriers, including Etihad and Qatar remain tight lipped about the future design of their long- haul aircraft. "Qatar Airways is all about leading the way with competitive edge and being the best in what we do," says Irena Sevcikova, marketing executive for Qatar. "This means to set the pace as a trendsetter within the industry. However, at this stage we cannot reveal any information on any of our future aircraft interior design."
The first class suite, which has been introduced by several airlines in the new A380s, is designed to offer a superior first class experience. Singapore Airlines was among the first carriers to adopt the idea and so far the service seems to be very successful.
"Those who've flown on the new A380 are very happy with the aircraft, particularly those flying in the first class suites," says Meow-Seng Lim, the airline's regional manager. Privacy and space are the two most important aspects of the 12 suites onboard the Singapore A380. "Passengers are able to wander around, eat when they like, have access to an expansive entertainment system on a personal 23-inch widescreen TV and even invite others into their suite if they desire," he adds.
According to Stefanie von Linstow, Airbus' product marketing manager for the A380, the aircraft manufacturing company based its cabin designs on market research.
"We have talked to the airlines and the passengers for some time and we've been working on different aspects of the A380 since 1996. We first put in LED mood lighting on the A340-600 then we further enhanced the system for the A380 so we can offer four scenarios of lighting inside every cabin and they all have a different purpose," she says.