By Lubna Hamdan
It may be time to reimagine flying all over again
The first time I ever flew business class, the bit I enjoyed more than the flight itself was the check in process. Even though the airline said I didn’t need to show up at the airport until 90 minutes before boarding, I got there three hours early. Just so I could hang around the check in desk and be seen by the hundreds of passengers in line for the economy check in. I have to admit, it made me feel good. Special. Everyone probably thought I was rich, not knowing the ticket was paid for by a company I was travelling to meet for a story.
I wasn’t the only one. For a multitude of reasons, business class travel has pretty much become an industry in itself. Whilst airlines only make 60 percent of their revenues by selling tickets to passengers, business class accounts for 12 percent of all passengers (pre-Covid-19) but a staggering 75 percent of airline profits. And a huge chunk of that has come from corporate travel, with companies willing to shell out more than 10 times the price of an economy ticket for executives flying anywhere.
The real game changer came in 2008 when Emirates unveiled its A380 super jumbo jet, with the entire top deck dedicated to business and first class. Over the next decade, airlines were desperate to outdo each other with the lavish offerings for premium travelers. By the time Etihad launched its first A380 in December 2014, The Penthouse concept had been introduced. Etihad’s then boss James Hogan described it as “flying reimagined” and he was right – it was nothing short of spectacular.
But it may be time to reimagine all over again. Covid-19 has devastated the airline industry beyond repair. This is not a case of waiting for a vaccine and then everything will be okay. That is why Emirates, by its own admission, is doing a huge cost review. Job cuts are certain – Bloomberg says these could be as high as 30,000, while Etihad announced job losses across several areas. This is not to mention business class perks that once made me rush to the airport three hours earlier have now been stripped. The extra attention you pay for is gone. Flight attendants will focus more on social distancing than pampering as they minimise interaction. In the world of Covid-19, there's little difference between business and economy class passengers.
Say goodbye to hot towels and fine dining table set ups and hello to plastic trays and disposable cutlery. Even nibbles like peanuts are no longer a luxury airlines can afford. It doesn't sound like much of an experience, does it? And why would companies fly me or anyone else out for a story when we can get the job done over a free Zoom meeting?
Some may beg to differ, however, arguing that the intricate details of mergers and acquisitions or financial audits need to be done in person.
In fact in a Twitter poll where I asked whether Covid-19 will kill off business class, the majority of nearly 200 voters said no, while the remaining majority said it will temporarily suffer before re-emerging.
"There's going to be heaps more value with [Business Class]," said one user, "especially in award flights in premium classes going forward. Airlines are already offering crackers deals for points purchasing."
"I think it will be more popular as people will want the extra space," said another.
While ticket prices have gone through the roof since the start of Covid-19, they have a point. Pent up demand will eventually lead to lower fares and ultimately, the return of business class. Just as Dubai hotels are reducing rates to convince residents to have staycations, so will airlines reduce fares. How else can you convince people to fly if it’s more expensive? If people are still worried about dining out, they’ll need a lot of convincing to fly.
But there’s no doubt that people will miss and want to travel. If they are slowly going back to dining in places like Zuma, they will fly Emirates and Etihad soon. Albeit, like myself, many might not care where they sit as long as they get to travel, and I will never complain about airplane food again. But I don't want to imagine a world without business class, without the warm dark wood in the Emirates lounge, without being called by my first name as a flight attendant takes my order - I'll even miss the Instagram posts boasting about an upgrade. I’m just hoping those won’t be a thing of the past with a sad #throwback to go with them.