Carriers that have opted for this layout have a chequered history. Remember Eos, Maxjet, Silverjet and L’Avion? The first three launched transatlantic services from London in the mid-noughties, while L’Avion operated out of Paris. Silverjet also served Dubai. They had ambitious plans to expand across the Atlantic and the Middle East, but after a couple of years their plans became unstuck.
We shouldn’t write off the all-business class concept, however. Despite the experiences of these airlines, it can succeed provided the route is right and the carrier in question has deep pockets and can provide the marketing expertise.
The idea is a clever one. Business class passengers pay high fares so seats are hugely profitable. Throw out the other seats and the higher business revenue enables an airline to offer the impossible – lower fares plus more comfort and service.
That’s the theory. In practice, airlines find they cannot sell premium seating on a “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” basis like the budget carriers do with their masses of surplus economy capacity. Business class passengers are fussy – they don’t just want a cheap seat from A to B.
Anyone paying upwards of £2,000 for a ticket expects reliability and good service as a right. He or she also expects good scheduling, back-up facilities and convenient airports. Loyalty schemes and interlining facilities are similarly required.
That is why we find British Airways and Swiss have successfully operated all-business class flights to New York from London City and Zurich respectively (though Swiss is set to change to a three-class A340 on March 31), while Singapore Airlines maintains the world’s longest nonstop business class flights from the city-state to Los Angeles and New York.
Now it’s the turn of Hong Kong Airlines. Using three factory-fresh A330-200s, it will operate a daily overnight service in each direction between London Gatwick and Hong Kong. Flights from the UK start on March 8. Although its planes will have solely business class accommodation, there will be two distinct products. Passengers in the front cabins will find 34 Club Premier fully-flat, 73in/185cm-long beds disposed in a 1-2-1 layout. There will be fine-dining and a turndown service. This product is aimed at top tier passengers who would normally be taking one of the established carriers on the route.
Further back will be 82 Club Classic seats configured 2-2-2, with 51in/130cm of legroom. These are cradle seats and resemble the seating offered by British Airways in the 1990s. They are perfectly adequate and aimed at the cost-conscious traveller.
All cabins on the plane have wifi, audio-video on-demand in-flight entertainment, digital magazines and high-definition TV screens measuring 15.5in in Club Premier and 10.5in in Club Classic.
What is the target market? A spokesperson says: “We are seeking a wide variety of passengers for our two business class cabins. There is no such thing as a typical business class customer nowadays. SMEs [small and medium enterprises] are an important focus for us, as are the corporates. But we are also aiming at the luxury travel market and the Chinese VFR [visiting friends and relatives] market.”
The carrier is better known in Asia than in Europe. It operates a well-established loyalty scheme in Asia and offers numerous connecting possibilities beyond Hong Kong to mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and so on. Its 15-hour turnaround at Gatwick will be good for reliability. It also enjoys backing from Hainan Airlines.
The arrival of Hong Kong Airlines has to be welcomed. Such is the demand for seats that despite five nonstop carriers plying the route, the prices can be expensive. Although the newcomer’s rates are attractive (especially compared with tickets where no Saturday-night stay is involved – see Route of the Month), it will face stiff competition from the indirect carriers. The latter charge less than those flying nonstop and offer the advantage of providing regional passengers with a departure from their local airport.
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