Each step is familiar and unpleasant. I am getting on a plane from New York to Seattle to visit the mock-up of the new 787 Dreamliner, which Boeing promises will herald a more comfortable era of air travel. But since the Dreamliner won’t be flying until the end of the year at the earliest, experiencing this comfortable future means enduring the present: discolored wallpaper, worn cushions, tabloid-size windows, and fluorescent lights. A few hours later, all the familiar discomforts are there: my mouth and contact lenses are dry, I’ve got a wisp of a headache, and the walls have closed in. But the future will be better, right?
Blake Emery is Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy, responsible, in part, for making the company’s planes more comfortable than anyone else’s. When we meet, he’s talking about a dinner party where—not for the first time—a frequent flier eagerly shared ideas about how to improve passenger comfort. "I cringe. Not that I wouldn’t love to hear something different, but it’s like, Gee, you don’t have enough legroom?But that’s not going to change, because you’re talking about the most expensive real estate on the planet."
The arms race in premium classes has engendered some staggeringly luxurious cabin configurations—recently abetted by the arrival of the double-decker Airbus A380 "super-jumbo." And several airlines are placing renewed emphasis on the door-to-door experience, expanding their scope of service to the lounge, check-in, and even the trip to the airport. There’s never been a better time to fly first class. And while the seats may not be getting any bigger in coach, at least you’re more likely to have your own TV to be distracted by.
In October, Singapore Airlines, long an industry leader, became the first to fly the new A380, which it has partly outfitted with 12 fully enclosed "suites." Resembling Pullman cars circa 1905 (but with 23-inch televisions), they have fold-down beds, some of which can be combined to create a double bed in the sky. More striking is what they’re not doing with all that extra space: there’ll be none of the casinos, duty-free shops, or cocktail bars that Airbus had originally envisioned. Instead, they’re filling the entire upper deck with sofa-size business-class seats.
Qantas, which will roll out A380’s in August, expected that their passengers would jump on the cruise-ship-in-the-sky novelty of varied onboard activities, but focus groups have proved otherwise. The company’s premium-class customers initially expressed enthusiasm for the idea of showers on the A380, until they got to the details. "What would happen if there were turbulence?How would the showers be cleaned?Who would manage the queue?" said Qantas’ Lesley Grant, general manager for customer products and services, recalling their concerns.
Qantas has expanded its first-class lounges in an effort to enhance the "curb to curb" experience—which has been a strong suit for rapidly expanding all-business-class airlines like Eos and Silverjet. "Customers are very uncomfortable by the time they get on a plane, which makes it hard for the crew to make them comfortable again," says Silverjet CEO Lawrence Hunt. Domestically, Delta is betting on the basics. "Our customers want quality and style, and they care about their well-being," said Joan Vincenz, Delta’s managing director for global product. "It’s not caviar, but it may be organic," she added. The airline has begun installing "slimline" seats that add an extra 1½ inches of space. Sounds nice—but the idea that such a change is news only underlines the fact that the band of opportunity for improvement is extremely narrow.