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Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. “On Experience” dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond.
Across the board, first and business offerings are the battleground for innovation for global carriers.
The reason? They are the moneymakers and where the margin resides. But as more travelers from younger generations grow up in their jobs, sell their tech companies, and graduate to the front of the plane for business and for pleasure, they have a few different requirements and expectations.
Airlines should take note and stop the relentless focus on the 50-something male business traveler.
1. Updated F&B to counter jet lag
A lot of carriers enjoy touting their Caligula-like decadence in terms of food and wine on the plane. But everyone I know doing long-haul on a regular basis wants to maintain a semblance of normalcy with their diets. Think light, organic, healthy, and clean.
Also, knowing that the best way to counter jet lag by a few days is to eat as minimally as possible (and hydrate), what about a meal on the menu specially designed for this, and branded as such for pre-ordering? It’s the opposite of poorly cooked, over salted steaks. Also, keep those bottles of water coming.
2. Mobile seamlessness in switching flights
I can’t wait for carriers to figure out how to bypass their antiquated IT back-ends, and allow certain segments of passengers to engage with customer service through Facebook Messenger or WeChat. Imagine being able to get on your earlier flight with a few back and forth messages, and have any change fee billed to the account you have on file with Facebook or the airline.
Would save back and forth and solve for that continuing issue of “my meeting ended early, can I get on the early service home?” All too often these requests need to go through the abyss of the corporate travel department, which is in a pain in off-hours, or through a phone-based customer service call.
3. Clean, crisp sheets
In many business offerings, you get a pillow and a duvet, getting to sleep directly on a seat where countless weary travelers have rested their heads. Elegant airlines like JAL offer a small fitted sheet on overnight flights that allows for a bit more comfort as you try to catch a few Z’s.
4. Thoughtful wine
Every airline seems to have an association with some bland sommelier who manages to pick not very exciting and middle of the road wines with really pretentious descriptions. Why not push it a bit, and select some regional picks from interesting restaurants (think Amass in Copenhagen or Pearl and Ash in NYC) doing limited, interesting runs of stuff that you can’t find elsewhere: interesting summer whites from the Loire, etc.
5. Better coffee
Imagine a french press of freshly ground Parlor or George Howell coffee as you’re preparing to land off the red-eye. Not logistically that hard. And anything could be better than whatever is currently being served on most carriers.
1. Treat them like Kanye, even if they’re not
If you’re paying full fare for First, there’s no reason you shouldn’t get special treatment when boarding. Typically these cabins only have a handful of seats, and pre-boarding before all of the masses is a nice perk. This doesn’t mean lining up like cattle along with every other person with elite status, it means a quick escort from the lounge to board the plane. It just requires a bit of operational effort and a bit of coordination. And it makes people feel cool. Also, a few readers wrote me to say that the actual deep cut is boarding last, which is evidently the Kanye AA transcon move.
Note, this doesn’t need to apply for mileage redemptions, see point below.
2. Restricted access for mileage redemptions
Singapore does something smart: they only allow their top-tier KrisFlyer members to book first seats. It keeps the product exclusive and weeds out some of the mileage running masses that are typically annoying, snapping countless photos of every minuscule detail to brag about to their friends on Instagram. People paying full price can’t find this very amusing, especially if you’re paying for privacy and not iPhone flash photography in your face.
A side note: some carriers use First as their de-facto staff cabin. That’s fine, but it should come with a catch. Etihad has the right idea by enforcing a strict dress codes for staff traveling in J and above. They need to look the part. A recent trip in AA first found the cabin crew slightly too relaxed, as they felt they were basically looking after their peers, many of whom were wearing denim cutoffs and Cabo tank tops in the front of the plane. Staff traveling on passes are entitled to their travel benefits and deserve them, they just need to be mindful of the tone they set among the passengers that are paying full fare.
3. Privacy and nuanced service onboard
To this point, people flying in First are paying for privacy and seclusion. A quick chat with the purser regarding your your habits, how you want to approach the flight, and if you want to be bothered, when you want to eat, and any other preferences can make a flight feel highly custom and not cookie cutter. Some flight still feel like boxes are being ticked as the flight progresses, when it should feel improvisational and intuitive.
4. Calm lounges
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, airlines like Cathay and Qatar are strongly limiting access to their First lounge properties, keeping masses of travelers out and creating smarter, calmer spaces. A emphasis on seclusion, great design, and more customized F&B and services should come with the price of the ticket. Also, high-speed, incredible Wi-Fi to download that presentation or top-up last season of The Americans for your flight is a must.
5. Custom IFE
It’s cool to have a bunch of movies, but what about exclusive content at the front of the plane? Imagine interesting directors, celebrities and other figures curating a channel of music, movies, and podcasts? What is Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda a fan of and listening to at the moment? With the new generations of in-flight entertainment platforms, this isn’t hard and just takes some contacts and a bit of imagination.