The following article was authored by Joe Curry. Acknowledgements: Updesh Kapur and Supply Management 9th. September 2004 Penny Haw and Business Day.
On-board beds, ticketless booking and executive jets are only a few of the recent developments in a rapidly changing market for executive travellers, says Updesh Kapur The era of luxury jets - both big and small - is making life less arduous for the corporate traveller as airlines step up the battle for passengers by turning their aircraft into flying offices/homes with seats that turn into beds.
A cup of hot chocolate while watching a movie on your personal seat-back TV, which you can pause whenever you like, while stretching out in your airline pyjamas on a flat bed, makes for a more relaxed executive at the end of the journey.
And after avoiding the tensions of lengthy queues at airport check-in thanks to new technology, the entire travel experience is being turned into an enjoyable one. At least, that's the aim.
At one end of the scale, the corporate jet may be the ultimate in luxury, but if you can convince your travel manager that flying with colleagues for a far-away meeting makes good commercial sense by avoiding hotel costs and the hassle factor of trawling through airports with all of their associated delays, it starts to appear a necessity.
With speeds of 540mph, easily matching those of a jumbo jet, and a cruising altitude of up to 50,000 feet, far higher than any commercial aircraft, corporate planes are the crème de la crème of business aviation.
Although the leading business-jet manufacturer Bombardier has seen a small drop in sales of its Learjet and Challenger aircraft, it still views the business travel market as the growth area of the future, with flexibility the key requirement for all executives on a mission.
Whether flying across Europe or trans-continental, a corporate jet can carry up to eight passengers. Nor is it all about sipping Champagne and eating gourmet food. The workspace onboard, from telephones to laptop points and TVs with videos, is a big selling point.
But it is the journey time and quick processes that can make it a cost-effective form of travel. For example, imagine a flight from London to Moscow: a Learjet 45 can fly eight passengers there (it's a 2,000-mile journey) in under four hours, or the Learjet 40 cruising to the edge of space at 51,000 feet will cover the same journey with half the number of passengers in even less time.
If you fancy greater luxury over a longer flight of nine hours or so, say between the UK and North America, the Bombardier Global 5000 is the widest, longest and furthest-range jet of its kind. But where it could convince managers that the expense is worth it is in its communications links.
Keeping in frequent touch with the ground through high-speed telecom-munications is a key feature of the jet, which also has digital-quality in-flight entertainment for a bit of relaxation, and interiors that offer a club-style and conference-seating arrangements. And why not throw in a touch of mood lighting that is not harsh on your eyes - it is the ultimate in travelling in style.
But for the majority of travellers who are sticking to conventional means of travel, technology has revolutionised the way flights are booked and processed in ways they could never have imagined 10 years ago. Airlines are Internet-savvy, loading their fares on fancy-looking websites to cut costs, while at the same time they ask passengers to book without being given a physical travel document and introduce unmanned check-in kiosks at airports to avoid queuing at a counter.
Extending this to check-in by telephone avoids queues and, in what is seen as an industry first in the UK under trials carried out by British Airways, passengers board the aircraft with a pass transmitted on fax paper with the special bar code strip captured at the gate by an electronic reader.
The technology is helping to alleviate many problems, marking an almost certain end to the frustration of business travellers arriving at an airport at the last minute and finding themselves queuing at check-in, with the threat of missing their flight.
Airline paper tickets will disappear by the end of 2007 so we will have to get used to travelling ticketless or, until then, being slapped with processing charges as high as £25 being introduced by some carriers to fly with a document. Corporate travel managers are already instructing their travel buyers to book e-tickets wherever possible to avoid the extra charges.
Many corporate travel managers also allow their employees to book flights themselves through company intranets, which send the booking direct to their appointed travel agent. Ray Wooldridge, travel procurement manager at satellite TV giant BSkyB, says its in-house online booking tool is a useful asset to save time and money.
The company spends millions of pounds on air travel each year, a large chunk of it on domestic flights between London, its head office, and Edinburgh, where the blue-chip company's call centre is based, as well as Glasgow, Dublin and Newcastle.
"About 60 per cent of our bookings are online through the intranet. We'll never get to 100 per cent because of complicated bookings and executives' PAs just picking up the phone for ease," says Wooldridge.
The ticketless revolution has really taken off in the US, the most advanced e-ticket market in the world. Many carriers there say that as many as 80 per cent of passengers travel paperless, while the European figure is still lagging behind at around 30 per cent.
Once on board, in-flight entertainment for the average flyer has also come a long way since the days of bulkhead screens where the chance to watch a film with good sound quality and without interruption was slim, if not impossible.
Seat-back screens, with new technology offering audio and video on demand, can now offer up to 400 different entertainment options, including 60 movies - Singapore Airlines spearheads the entertainment drive. Imagine all of those Hollywood blockbusters you may have missed in the cinema through lack of time - the aircraft has become a personal cinema. On a 12-hour flight, you could easily go through two or three movies and still enjoy some sleep.
If you really cherish a good night's rest, the flying business bed is now commonplace. British Airways started the trend with seats in business class that turn into flat beds at the touch of a button and a string of other airlines have followed its lead. Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Air France and Lufthansa are some of the big names to have introduced their own "beds" as marketing weapons, with an obsession for having the best seat pitch (the distance between rows), width, length, personal space and privacy in the air.
You can forget the days of a 38-inch seat pitch. Instead, go for the small group of carriers that have moved up a few gears with a 70-inch seat/bed with all the trimmings, from a foam mattress that "flips" over at the touch of a button to leather finishing, as is the case of Virgin Atlantic's new Upper Class Suite.
For a mere couple of thousands of pounds more, you can relax, unwind and stretch sipping Champagne, or specially brewed cappuccino, eating made-to-order roast salmon prepared by chefs, in a business seat and watch endless hours of TV.
Airlines throw money at corporate travellers to buy their loyalty in what is becoming a very competitive market. And value for money is enjoying a new meaning if you think that for the price of an airline ticket you can get VIP perks such as a chauffeur car service to and from the airport, choosing from 100-plus drinks in a business departure lounge, having an in-flight massage, restaurant-style food service onboard and even spa treatments and a trouser pressing service on arrival.
Travellers will see another change in 18 months when the hype surrounding the arrival of the world's newest jet becomes reality: the Airbus A380 "superjumbo" promises to change the way we fly in the future. Airports around the world are being reshaped for the arrival of the superjumbo, which can carry up to 550 passengers in a three-class configuration.
These double-deck monsters of the sky, built by the French aircraft manufacturer Airbus, will be the biggest, widest, longest and heaviest planes around, capable of flying more passengers than any other plane for up to 13 hours non-stop for distances of about 7,000 miles.
The thought of being packed with so many passengers for such a long flight may cause anxiety, but if flyers get what the airlines are promising, it could prove hard to resist. Airlines are pitching the concepts of on-board shops, libraries, gyms, showers, self-service restaurants, beds and even casinos. Which sounds great, but who will ever bring such a wealth of new features to the skies is questionable - after all, real estate in the air costs money and every airline will be looking for a return on investment on space used.
One travel manager of a leading London-based corporate finance house that has an annual travel spend of £14 million says: "If business executives travelling on these new two-deck A380s are having to pay more just to fly them, that will be an issue for us. From what is being said, these aircraft are going to look great, but who is paying for them? We're certainly not."
We're going to see at least 125 A380s in the air over the next decade flying highly congested routes such as Singapore-London, which will be the focus of attention in Spring 2006 when it becomes the inaugural route of the superjumbo operated by Singapore Airlines.
Crossing numerous time zones, stuck in a metal tube for 18 hours at a stretch, is a daunting thought, but the new A340-500s make it all possible and put a whole new meaning to term "long-haul".
As it is, SIA set the record earlier this year for the world's longest non-stop flight between Los Angeles and Singapore, an 8,000-mile journey covered in 16 hours, only for the feat to be broken months later between Singapore and New York, a 9,500-mile distance flown in 18 hours.
London-Perth non-stop is possible with the A340, yet no one has taken the plunge on a direct Australian flight. But as it saves time avoiding a transit point and the hassle of getting on and off, such routes could prove a real boon.