When you're on an exhausting longhaul flight, do you find yourself pining for the days when passengers relaxed in onboard lounges, wearing Mad Men-era suits and looking glamorous? Well, that experience (minus the suits) is still available —if you’re forking out the same kind of money as you needed to back then.
I recently flew from London to New York and back with Virgin Atlantic on their new Airbus A350, and had the chance to try out The Loft, which is the new living room space at the doors where everyone boards the aircraft. Instead of walking through the industrial boxes of a galley kitchen, everyone gets to walk into a lovely, shiny, moodlit space with low sofas, which replaces the previous generation of onboard bars.
It’s a very pleasant place to sit and have a drink, chat with fellow passengers and relax if you’re travelling in ‘Upper Class’, which is what Virgin calls its business class. (There's a long-held industry legend that Richard Branson was only just dissuaded from calling economy class the very tongue-in-cheek “Riff-Raff”.)
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This lounge is what’s known by the people designing and building airline cabins as a “halo product”: the unusual signature seat, bar, onboard shower or double bed that people will think of when they think of an airline. For Virgin it’s the lounge space, for Emirates it’s both the bar and the onboard shower, for Etihad it’s the one-bedroom double-bedded suite in The Residence.
It’s the very swankiest of seats where the chosen celebrity spokesperson is reclining with their glass of something delicious-looking, wrapped in the plushest of duvets with the crispest of linens, being tucked into bed by the most attentive of cabin crew, in soft lighting that only makes the spokesperson’s beauty glow from within. What I'm getting at is: it's not really reality.
Halo products are by no means a new thing, of course, but these days it’s not Concorde or the Champagne-and-Chateaubriand trolley service, it’s business and first-class seats — and of course the other onboard products like bars and lounges.
It’s enough to make anyone a bit green with envy when you turn right to head back to economy, and believe me, I’m no less envious than anyone else when staring up at the privacy curtain from my seat down the back of the plane.
But those of us who book economy when we’re flying on our own dime also need to realise that on airlines which have business and first class on board, the people up front are essentially subsidising our travel.
The rough rule of thumb in aviation is that premium economy is 1.5-2.5 times the price of economy, with business class going for around four to five times what we’re paying down the back. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the profit for the flight comes from these swanky seats — and if those seats weren’t there, it’s very possible that the flights we’re on wouldn’t be commercially viable, and we’d have to either connect at another hub or even switch to a different mode of transportation if no other airline could make the route work.
Where flying is getting better for everyone, though, is with the inflight entertainment. Pretty much everywhere at this point, what you’re watching down the back in 87G is exactly the same as what that person in 1A is watching.
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In fact, you may even be having a better viewing of that same movie: with the new thirteen-inch screens in economy seatbacks, the widescreen effect of new 1080p or 4K displays and HD content is often better than a slightly larger screen quite a bit further away up in the pointy end of the plane.
With new jets like the A350, Boeing 787 and the longer-range Airbus A320neo family aircraft arriving all the time, as well as airlines upgrading their cabins and systems on older planes to match, you’re finding these new TVs on more and more flights.
You’ll also have the same access to inflight Wi-Fi where that’s available, and on the majority of airlines you’ll be paying exactly the same price as passengers in business or first class. You’ll also usually have access to a power socket if you want to keep your own devices powered to listen to music, watch TV and movies you’ve brought with you, or read an e-book.
Newer planes are also quieter throughout, and they have bigger windows for those of us who like gazing out onto the world below. (In ‘business class problems’, it’s usually easier to see out from economy given the way new business class seats are arranged.)
And, with the newest of composite-material planes like the A350 and 787, you get the benefit of the higher humidity level and lower cabin altitude. That change from 8,000 feet to 6,000 feet is a real bonus, as is the fact that you (and your skin and hair) won’t get so dehydrated, no matter where you’re sitting.
(Funny story: the cabin is actually a lot drier in business and first class, because there are fewer fellow travellers breathing out humid air. I’m not sure whether that’s faintly reassuring, faintly icky, or possibly both.)
Look, I’m not here to tell you that flying economy is getting more luxurious, despite the shinier televisions and a plug to keep your tablet charged. Believe me, I know it’s not; I fly in economy seats too.
But flying is also more accessible to more people in relative price terms than ever before. At the same time, if you want to buy more comfort — whether a little through paying for a bulkhead seat or a lot through an upgrade to extra-legroom economy or premium economy — more airlines than ever will sell it to you.
And with the growth in point-to-point flying on new, fuel-efficient, longer-range jets, you’ll have to connect less and less through large hubs, which can cut a journey by something like three or four hours on average.
Yes, flying doesn't have the glamour of the jet age, but at the same time you’re not in a noisy, juddering smoke-filled tube that makes five stops to get to Los Angeles and which costs the equivalent of a modern first-class ticket. For this and so many reasons, the Mad Men era might look great through those rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight, but there’s a lot to like about today as well.
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