Saturday 27 December 2014

Why first-class air travel is no longer a costly flight of fancy

It used to be beyond the dreams and wallets of most of us, but now Aer Lingus plans to auction off its posh long-haul seats. For 6ft 2in Graham Clifford, it sounds like a idea whose time has come

Graham Clifford

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

Living the high life: First class cabin service in the 1960s.
Living the high life: First class cabin service in the 1960s.
At your service: A flight attendant at the bar in business class on Emirates Airlines with a range of drinks and treats on offer
An Aer Lingus jet taking off
Singapore Airlines suite

What's behind that curtain? I've lost count of the occasions on which I've pondered life on the other side of the fabric while sitting in my economy-class seat mid-cabin with an out-of-sorts baby crying in the row behind me. At 6ft 2in, I sometimes dream of extra leg space, champagne bubbles popping on my tongue and puffy pillows, of smiling air hostesses and hot face towels.

For most of us the prospect of first-class travel in the sky is an extravagance we just can't afford to splash out on. Until now. Aer Lingus have come up with an ingenious plan (to be fair the model is already used by a host of other airlines) where passengers already booked onto an economy ticket can upgrade to the next level if availability allows. Social mobility at the press of a button.

Over the last few weeks, the airline has offered passengers on its transatlantic routes the chance to get an upgrade to business class from as little as €300 extra each way. Those availing of the 'upgrade auction' can travel in business class for, in some cases, half the price of the regular charge. Bids start at €300 and go up to €900. If your offer is accepted, you'll be notified by email 24 hours before the flight is due to depart.

Declan Kearney, the Director of Communications at Aer Lingus, told the Irish Independent this week: "On average, we could have between 30 and 40 pc of business class seats which aren't filled on transatlantic flights. This is a way of putting people in those seats, and we're seeing a greater demand for our transatlantic business section, so really everyone wins with this model."

It's a far cry from the days of silver service when only the wealthiest and most high profile of first-class passengers glided into their luxurious section of the Irish carrier's fuselage.

"The luxury was something else back in the early seventies," explains Liz Howard, who spent seven years working as an air hostess for Aer Lingus before moving on to the airline's human resources section and, eventually, into cabin crew management.

"On the old Boeing 707 carriers, the space was confined but still the passengers were treated to amazing levels of personal attention. You had silver service with the best of cutlery – Waterford Crystal glasses, Tara China and beautiful linen napkins," she explains.

In terms of food, Aer Lingus gained a reputation for providing the best in air travel."Everything was so fresh," says Liz. "We had fresh prawns, salmon, lobsters, caviar and vegetables. There was none of these pre-prepared dishes. Passengers were served as they would be in a restaurant, and the staff were trained to the highest standard."

With the introduction of the Boeing 747 came more space for cabin crew to pamper their first-class guests. The champagne, Irish liquors and, in some cases, tea flowed.

"Because of the exclusivity of first-class air travel back then, which was so very expensive in relative terms at the time, we were catering for some of the world's wealthiest and most recognisable guests," recalls Liz.

"On one flight from America, the great actor Richard Harris got us all together in first-class and early in the morning, as our aircraft descended in over the Cliffs of Moher, he recited the poem 'The dawn over the grey hills of Ireland.' It was a moment I'll always cherish. I'll never forget he was wearing a long sheepskin coat and an Irish rugby scarf as the team were playing in the then Five Nations later that day in Lansdowne Road."

Over the decades, first-class travel became less exclusive as rock 'n' roll stars arrived on our shores after having enjoyed their fair share of liquid refreshments en route.

"In the Boeing 747, there was a lounge upstairs in the first-class section which could get lively," Liz says. "There was a bar and so on. Some people used it to relax. When Pope John Paul II came to Ireland in 1979 they put a bed up there for him."

Though progress has been made in providing comfortable air travel in economy, trends suggest more and more of us are paying that bit extra for greater comfort and attention.

"Twice as many passengers using Aer Lingus are now booking business-class seats as they were five years ago," explains Declan.

"In relative terms, the price of first or business-class seats has dropped substantially. Now our business fares are usually available at €899 each way. It's been said that in the 1970s paying for the top seats on a transatlantic flight would equate to the cost of a class C Mercedes."

But is the fact that the piece of carpet behind the curtain is now more reachable a good thing? "I don't know really," says Liz.

"Air travel today is like getting a bus in the sky. People pay for the flexibility of flights rather than the service, in-flight entertainment, food or drink.

"The standard of service and quality of experience across all airlines isn't a patch on what it once was. That's not nostalgia talking – that, sadly, is just fact."

Life's suite

LIFE'S SUITE FOR €31,500Those extra few inches of leg-room, complimentary drinks and pillows may be enough to excite your average passenger but Etihad Airways is to bring on-board luxury to an altogether different level – from this December the airline is to offer 125 sq ft, three-room suites to passengers on its Airbus A380 superjumbos.

To be known individually as 'The Residence' these premium cabins will cost about €31,500 for some flights. The fare is for two travellers and comes with a butler, chef, and shower. With a living room, separate bedroom and en suite bathroom, 'The Residence' will be the only three-room suite in the sky.

Over at Singapore Airlines, the cost of first-class air travel is somewhat eye-watering for your average flier. A return trip in economy from Dublin to Singapore in September will set you back €850. First class is €7,387.

Singapore also offers lavish suites  and on some routes can give passengers the option of more than 60 dishes.

British Airways also offers first-class cabin accommodation on its A380 services with personal wardrobes, shoe compartments and writing desks. Food and drinks are served as and when desired, and the afternoon tea service is based on London's Dorchester hotel. All this luxury comes at a considerable cost, though. A return flight from London to New York in September will set you back just under €14,000.

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