Rising above the competition

The major airlines are innovating to maintain premium brand positioning and stay one step ahead of their budget rivals. Angus Montgomery reports

A passenger lounge with a spa and jacuzzi, and a specially tailored airline service flying 32 people at a time between London and New York, might not be the sort of products you’d expect to launch in the middle of a recession.

But these are the services, recently unveiled by Virgin Atlantic and British Airways respectively, that the airlines hope will help them maintain their premium brand positioning in a market riddled with low-cost carrier competition.

Almost all premium airlines have a track record of innovation in customer experience, and even an economic crash can’t bring that to a halt. Joe Ferry, head of design at Virgin Atlantic, says, ‘If innovation is one of your brand values, then you have no choice but to invest in your brand regardless of the economic climate. People won’t accept you not innovating just because times are tough.’

And Virgin Atlantic seems to have put its money where its mouth is with the new Gatwick Clubhouse, which launched last week.

The facility, designed by the airline’s in-house team in collaboration with FD Architecture, follows one at Heathrow, designed with Softroom, which opened in March 2006. The Gatwick lounge – covering more than 795m2 – features a spa run by Cowshed, a rock garden, a restaurant boasting leather-clad Eames chairs and Pearson Lloyd’s Turtle Lounge chairs, and dedicated Guitar Hero and Wii areas. Ferry says, ‘We want to challenge the preconceptions of what a business-class lounge should be – we want to create experiences people want to have. In the Heathrow lounge, we have guestbook comments such as “I came here early just to use the spa”.’

Ferry says the Gatwick lounge, which is ‘a close relation to Heathrow’, differs due to the distinct customer profiles of the two airports. Gatwick passengers travel predominantly for leisure, says Ferry, and tend to be families who fly in the morning. With this in mind, Ferry adds, the Gatwick lounge has more of a ‘breakfasty or family feel’.

Not to be outdone in the luxury stakes, rival BA recently launched a new long-haul service from London City Airport to New York. The service uses two specially configured Airbus A318s carrying just 32 passengers each in gloriously spacious interiors designed by Forpeople. To further heighten the sense of opulence, the service, which launched in September, has been given the flight number BA001, which was used by Concorde until its retirement in 2003. The aircraft feature Club World seats which convert into fully flat beds, and are equipped to allow customers to work on e-mail, Internet and mobile phone texting during the flight.

Forpeople, which is now working on an overhaul of BA’s first-class cabins with Tangerine and BA’s in-house team, says the project is the perfect test-bed for product and service innovation for the airline’s premium customers, as the team has been able to trial a variety of design concepts quickly and on a small scale. The consultancy’s creative director Richard Stevens says, ‘This project has been a bit of a test to help define the style of all BA aircraft interiors going forward. Our main aim has been to help unify the fleet, but clearly differentiate and enhance the cabin brands while consolidating the use and application of all trim and finish materials across the fleet.’

He adds, ‘When the new BA first class launches, it will be very different in look and feel to the majority of new first-class experiences we are starting to see. There is actually very little differentiation between carriers’ propositions, where the look and feel tends to default to the current automotive world of “beige and wood”, rather than thinking more holistically about the overall environment.’

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, US Airways has taken first delivery of a new business-class seat designed by James Park Associates. The seat uses a reverse herringbone configuration that allows it to turn into a lie-flat bed without compromising the seating density of the cabin. The seat, which the airline has termed the ‘envoy suite’, was developed for manufacturer Sicma Aero Seat Services, and US Airways is the first carrier to take it into service.

Ben Olsen, senior designer at JPA, says, ‘This is a new product, so obviously it gives US Airways a unique position.’ Olsen says he expects the product to roll out to other airlines in the near future.

Ferry concludes, ‘The philosophy of innovation has stood us in good stead as a brand, and while there may not have been many major project launches this year, you will see some launches in the coming years that will show what we have been up to during this recession.’

Other recent innovations

  • Last month Oman Air rolled out new first-class cabins, designed by Eads Sogerma
  • KLM is refreshing its cabin interiors and passenger experience following brand repositioning by Landor Associates
  • Swiss Air has launched a new first-class suite designed by Priestman Goode
  • Design Acumen, Factory Design and Honour Branding are working on the passenger experience for Etihad Airways, the United Arab Emirates’ national carrier


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  • Alex November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    they may be comfy and all but those interiors hardly look premium. They look bloody awful. especially the 3rd picture…

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