Air New Zealand offers help in the air

This month, Air New Zealand (NZ) becomes the first airline to offer an inflight concierge service to its passengers. The carrier says it has seen “huge” interest in the innovative posts and has spent the last few months whittling down 500 potential candidates to the 40 employees who will launch the service.

ANZ deputy CEO Norm Thompson said: “We’ve had interest from candidates including school teachers, café and restaurant owners, senior hotel concierges, crew members and even sales staff. We’ve also had a lot of interest from tourism operators, who have provided us with a mass of information for the concierges.”

The airline says the onboard concierges will be available to all passengers, and will have diverse duties ranging from recommending must-do Kiwi activities, to assisting with onward bookings, supporting those affected by weather disruption, advising them on managing their Airpoints, and talking through the finer points of inflight wine choices.

Thompson said: “As technology develops, they might even be able to make restaurant bookings for passengers from the plane. The concierges will be available to answer queries on a one-to-one basis, something that cabin staff are not always able to do when there are 350 passengers onboard.”

Thompson said that the concierges would work in conjunction with the flight-service manager, but would not be involved with tasks such as meal duties or safety announcements. They will be introduced to passengers at the beginning of flights and will wear a different uniform from cabin staff so as to stand out.

Thompson added that 60 to 70 percent of the service’s focus will be on New Zealand, with flights between Auckland and Los Angeles seeing onboard concierges from this month.

London is also in the process of recruiting, with plans to have concierges onboard flights ex-Heathrow from July.

The service is just one way that ANZ is aiming to “do things a bit differently” and thus compete with larger long-haul carriers. ANZ offers a round-the-world service (pioneered by the defunct Pan Am), with passengers able to circumvent the globe with stops in London, Hongkong, Auckland, LA and back to London all with ANZ. As Thompson put it: “For a relatively small carrier, these services make us look bigger.”

Mark Caswell

Japan Airlines perks up Economy

Economy Class passengers on Japan Airlines (JAL) are finding it more convenient to check in with new facilities at Narita Airport Terminal 2. They are now able to check themselves in using one of 36 Self Check-In Machines. Those with suitcases should then proceed to the luggage check-in counter, otherwise they can head on to immigration.

There is also a new express counter located in the departure lobby close to the south entrance for immigration control. A counter for JAL Premium Economy customers is also due soon, as well as an E-style section for those who have already checked in using the internet.

Since an inline luggage screening system was introduced in April to Terminal 2, passengers no longer need to have their belongings go through the X-ray machine security checks prior to checking in. They merely proceed to one of the check-in machines or counters.

JAL’s renovated First Class and Executive Class areas, which were unveiled last December, included counters for frequent-flyer members of JAL Global Club and MBG Sapphire members. There were also facilities for priority passengers such as those with disabilities, travelling with infants or expectant mothers.

Earlier in July, a completely revamped First Class Lounge and Sakura Lounge at the terminal’s main building opened their doors to reveal a new buffet-style meal service, bar counters, masseuse service and showers.

Shop for VIP travel at the Asian Luxury Travel Market

A yen for the luxury lifestyle is sweeping through various Asian markets, and nowhere is it having the most impact than in China. Which makes it logical for a show focused on the high-end travel niche to happen there.

For the second time, the Asia Luxury Travel Market (www.ALTM.com.cn) will be held in Shanghai from June 16 to 19 at the Shanghai Exhibition Center, following the success of its inaugural outing in June 2007.

Organised like a private club, the invitation-only event showcases leading luxury travel suppliers to full hosted VIP travel buyers. The number of buyers is expected to double this year. Unlike other trade shows, ALTM works on a pre-arranged appointment system, meaning discussions between the parties are organised prior to the show.

Asia-Pacific currently boasts 2.3 million high net worth individuals, which is equal to the US, accounting for over 50 percent of the consumption of the US$80 billion global luxury goods and services business.

Caviar to fly for

Who says fine gastronomy and busy airports don’t mix?

Caviar House & Prunier is proving it to be possible, opening chic dining spaces at London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Stansted, Copenhagen Kastrup and most recently, Hongkong International Airport, its first establishment in Asia. Global food travel specialist Select Service Partner Asia-Pacific is also part of the expansion.

Located airside in the Departures Hall, the indulgent menu includes signature dishes ranging from the “Tsarina” caviar, served with smoked salmon and toasted blinis, to classic Balik smoked salmon, seafood platters and salads, prawn cocktails, lobster, local sushi and sashimi specialties and caviar “shots” with vodka or champagne.

Duck foie gras and traditional Spanish ham specialties are also available.

The company also operates flagship restaurants in Paris, Geneva and London, with outlets in Dubai, Crans Montana and Vienna.

Hilton’s new offerings to Asia

Hilton Hotels’ big push in the Asia-Pacific concerns not only growing its well-known flagship brand but also other members of its portfolio, notably Conrad, Double Tree by Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn.

Properties in these respective tiers are projected to come into the market this year in places such as Shanghai (Conrad in Xintiandi), Beijing (Doubletree near the Forbidden City – artist’s rendering above and Hilton in Wangfujing), Kunshan (Doubletree), Niseko Ski Village, Japan (Hilton), Sri Racha in Pattaya (Double Tree), Shillim Retreat in India (a Hilton-run resort) and Saket, New Delhi (Hilton Garden Inn). In 2009 and 2010, the chain will have a presence in Nanshan (Hilton), Inner Mongolia (Hilton), Guiyang (Hilton), Melbourne, South Wharf (Hilton), Pattaya (Hilton), Surfers Paradise (Hilton) and Dunedin, New Zealand (Hilton).

Introducing newcomers to the region, Double Tree by Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn, Hilton is responding to the dynamic travel phenomenon, especially in the economic powerhouses of China and India. As travellers increase, so do their demands, which can be diverse and require a flexible range of facilities and services from hotel providers.

With a current 184 locations in the US, Canada and Latin America, Double Tree by Hilton boasts full-scale service in an upscale but welcoming atmosphere. It sets the tone at check in by offering a warm chocolate chip cookie, part of its CARE culture philosophy. The Sweet Dreams by Doubletree Sleep Bed is a hallmark of all guestrooms and suites.

Garden Inn targets the mid-market sector, but doesn’t stint on the tools to ensure guests remain productive on the road, from complimentary high-speed internet access in all rooms and secure remote printing to free access to the 24-hour business centre, to getting a good night’s sleep on the Garden Sleep System Bed or working comfortably with the Mirra chair by Herman Miller. Other perks include the Pavilion Pantry mini market stocked with microwavable items and universal mobile-phone chargers, a restaurant offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, Stay Fit Kit to help maintain a healthy regimen in room and an onsite laundry facility.

Starwood’s aloft encourages clever mixing

Starwood Hotels and Resorts ramps up its portfolio (which includes familiar names such as Sheraton and Four Points) with the imminent launch of aloft. At press time, aloft properties in Canada, South Carolina, Kentucky, California, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Beijing were rushing completion works to make a July 1 opening.

Described as possessing the “DNA of a W (the chain’s hip tier)”, aloft’s characteristics include having an urban-influenced design, accessible technology, panache and a strong social atmosphere. aloft Beijing, located in the city’s technology district Haidian, is expected to appeal to IT-savvy, on-the-go travellers, who want no fuss in their hotel and are definite about the services they need to function such as the latest business tools, quick but tasty meals and a warm and friendly environment.

aloft Beijing will feature 186 loft-like rooms and suites with nine-foot-ceilings and oversized windows for more natural light, spacious bathrooms, a signature bed and plug-and-play connectivity solution for multiple electronic gadgets such as PDAs, mobile phones, MP3 players and laptops, capable of being linked to the large flat-screen HDTV-ready monitor for optimal sound and viewing.

The F&B concepts will vary from what business travellers are used to. These spaces are envisioned to be more flexible, perhaps a snack corner by day, a bar at night; a nook offering grab-and-go items 24/7 has been allocated. Vivid colour schemes and stylish furnishing are combined to encourage networking and interacting.

Even the reception area has been re-imaged into the “Aloha Desk” where guests can always expect to be welcomed and their concerns addressed by the staff, who are trained to respond to a demanding clientele.

The starting rate at aloft Beijing is CNY500 (US$71). For future reservations, log onto www.starwoodhotels.com/alofthotels

Pay more to enter China during the Olympics

Frequent business travellers to China will not be able to secure a multiple-entry visa, until after the Olympic Games.

They are now restricted to single or double-entry visas valid for 30 days. However, multiple-entry visas that have not expired are still valid.

The cost of single and double-entry visas have been reported to have risen. Australians, Canadians and most Europeans now pay HK$500 (US$64) for a single-entry visa and HK$600 (US$77) for a double-entry. Previously, six-month multiple-entry visas for them cost about HK$450 (US$58). British passport holders now pay HK$850 (US$109) for a single-entry visa and HK$1,050 (US$135) for double-entry. Until recently, a six-month multiple-entry visa cost HK$1,080 (US$138). Americans now pay HK$1,180 (US$151) for single and double entries.

Going the low-cost way with Philippine Airlines

Philippine Airlines (PAL) has hopped onto the low-cost carrier bandwagon and launched PAL Express, a new budget-fare unit consisting of turbo-propeller aircraft. It will be based in Cebu and operate to mostly domestic island points.

This is the first time in the carrier’s 67-year-old history that it is creating a sub-brand. “PAL Express will meet the growing demand of the travelling public for a high-quality carrier offering low fares,” said PAL president Jaime J Bautista. “At the same time, it supports the Philippine government’s efforts to promote trade and tourism, particularly to our many small islands, providing a much-needed lift to the local economy of these communities.”

PAL will acquire nine turbo-props – three Bombardier Q300s and six Q400s – to comprise the budget airline’s initial fleet. PAL Express will primarily fly intra-regional routes in Visayas and Mindanao (two of the Philippines’ three main islands) from its Cebu hub, as well as secondary routes to smaller airports in island provinces that are not able to accommodate PAL’s regular jet aircraft.

The development marks the return of PAL to the “missionary routes”. In June 1998, PAL entered receivership after a series of external and internal crises that led to significant losses, shutting operations to two weeks and pushing it to the brink of liquidation. The restructuring that followed led to a reduction of its route network. The slack was later taken up by other players like Cebu Pacific and to a lesser degree, Air Philippines (owned by some PAL stockholders) and Asian Spirit. PAL emerged last year from its rehabilitation programme earlier than expected due to improved performance and optimistic projected cash flows.

PAL Express will begin operations with eight daily flights between Manila and Caticlan, the jump-off point to the beach mecca of Boracay, which expects to get a Shangri-La resort late this year. Soon following these will be flights between Cebu and five points in Visayas and Mindanao.

More than departures at Changi Airport Terminal 3

You can do more than catch a flight at Changi Airport’s new Terminal 3 (T3). The seven-storey building features three basements and four upper levels of some 230 retail outlets and over 110 F&B selections.

With the launch of these new public areas, the largest dedicated to shopping and dining among all three terminals, the public is encouraged to use T3 as they would a regular leisure complex.

Lim Kim Choon, director-general and CEO of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, said at the recent launch of the facilities: “Though the airport is primarily for travellers, many Singaporeans, especially those living in the eastern part of the island, visit Changi Airport to dine and relax on weekends. We hope they will continue to enjoy these activities, in particular, the unique retail and F&B experience at Terminal 3.”

The range of attractions is indeed varied, and includes Ya Kun Kaya Toast, Singapore’s popular local jam and butter toast café on basement two and Outdoors, a sports gear and equipment boutique. More shops and eateries are located at B2 Mall @ T3 on basement 2 and 3-Top on levels three and four. Most establishments will keep late hours, some closing at 2300 or operating round the clock.

Lau Liang Tong

Exclusive: Air France announces premium economy class

Air France is to launch a premium-economy style seat across its long-haul fleet, with the first plane due to see the new product in around 15 months’ time.

The exclusive announcement was made by the airline’s executive vice-president of marketing and network, Bruno Matheu, onboard Air France’s “ferry flight” between Seattle (where the carrier took delivery of its 50th Boeing 777-300ER – full report to follow in a forthcoming edition of Business Traveller) and Paris.

The new class has been codenamed C38 – the “C” referring to the fare code usually reserved for business class, and the “38” to the pitch of the new seat in inches. Matheu said the offering will be aimed at the SME market, and at leisure passengers in economy “looking for more”.

The seats will be retrofitted to all of Air France’s long-haul fleet with the exception of the 747 aircraft, which are due to be phased out by 2012. It will also be installed on new aircraft, including the forthcoming A380, although passengers will have to wait for the seventh delivery of the superjumbo before they will see it onboard from the outset (the first six will be retrofitted at a later date).

Air France will make space for the new seating by removing four rows in economy and replacing them with three rows of the C38 product, in a 2-4-2 configuration (22-28 seats in total depending on the aircraft). The new offering will be divided from both the economy and business cabins by wall partitions rather than curtains, and the seats will be enclosed in a fixed shell so that passengers can recline without encroaching on the row behind them.

Matheu said that Air France would be able to retrofit the fleet relatively quickly as there would be no need to change the configuration of the business class offering, or indeed to move economy seats (other than those being taken out).

Features of the new offering will include a sliding recline mechanism, a larger TV screen than economy, individual seat power and reading lights, as well as on-the-ground benefits such as priority check-in, and “possibly lounge access”. However, Matheu said that while there would be four seating products on the planes – Tempo (economy), the C38, Classe Affaires (business) and Classe Premiere (first) – service would remain in three classes, with the C38 seats being attended to by economy crew.

Matheu added that the 38-inch pitch offering is equivalent to Air France’s business class seat 15 years ago, and said that while the seat will more nearly resemble the current business class product than the economy seat, it will be priced closer to the latter. Air France does in fact already offer a premium economy class which goes by the name of Alize, but this is only available on certain leisure routes to the French overseas territories in the Caribbean and French Guiana.

The premium economy concept has risen in popularity in recent years, with carriers such as Air New Zealand, Virgin and Japan Airlines all introducing their own versions – for an in-depth look at the premium economy phenomenon, see Alex McWhirter’s report in the February 2008 edition of Business Traveller.

For more information visit airfrance.co.uk.

Report by Mark Caswell