IAG SA, owner of British Airways and Iberia, said in July that leisure demand will recover before corporate travel, and this “structural change” in the market will lead to new cabin layouts. On a conference call, IAG Chief Financial Officer Stephen Gunning said British Airways retired its Boeing Co. 747s early partly because they had so many premium seats.
Low-cost airlines such as Ryanair Holdings Plc and EasyJet Plc, largely catering to short-haul leisure travelers, are likely to bounce back faster than airlines with a bigger international focus, UBS Group AG analysts led by Jarrod Castle said in an Aug. 21 report.
The appeal of a larger, more comfortable seat that extends fully flat may be enough to keep business class passengers coming back, said Volodymyr Bilotkach, a lecturer in air-transport management at the Singapore Institute of Technology. But it might be different for those in premium economy.
“On the airlines where I have experienced it, this product was more ‘economy’ than ‘premium’ to begin with,” said Bilotkach. “I don’t know if passengers would be willing to pay that price differential now.”
Yet airlines somehow need to keep filling premium seats, or get rid of them. According to Bilotkach, a single business class seat that lies flat needs to generate at least four times the profit of an economy seat to justify all the space it takes up in the plane.
Some airlines will use the pandemic to permanently downgrade their offerings in premium cabins to save money, said Jeremy Clark, who runs Malaysia-based JC Consulting, which advises carriers on catering and service. That means many airline-dependent suppliers will shut, limiting the scope for on-board dining and service to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels when travel recovers, he said.
That said, “there will still be airlines that recognize the value good food and service bring to their brand in return for the relatively small cost of providing it,” said Clark. “We’re human beings. We like to be spoiled.”
While Covid-19 has reduced the frequency of service onboard, when safe, airlines will return to a fuller culinary service with premium cabins leading the way, according to David Loft, chief commercial officer of Emirates unit dnata catering.
Until then, business- and first-class passengers should expect scaled-back service and more modest meals, said Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia, who has worked with British Airways and Qatar Airways for almost two decades.
He said travelers needn’t worry about the risk of infection from the food or even a tipple — “having a scotch in a plane with 40% alcohol is safer than having a glass of tap water” — but they want to see some Covid-19 precautions.
“The safety aspect has to be very visual,“ said Bhatia. “The passenger wants to see crew maintaining distance, greeting him fully covered, giving him his meal in a wrapped up box and leave. That looks like science fiction, but that’s how it is.”
Even that wasn’t quite enough for Graziela Guludjian, who took a 12 1/2 hour flight to Barcelona from Singapore in business class last month. The Singapore Air crew gave her a bag with a facemask, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
“I didn’t feel comfortable,” said Guludjian, who was moving back to Spain with her husband and three children. “I didn’t want to fly, but I had no option. I don’t want to travel any time soon.”