Heading off on a business trip used to be simple. Book a ticket, pack your bag and be on your way.
In the future? Not so much. Business travellers could have to navigate a variety of fare types and add-ons in some cases inspired by low-cost airlines and their thirst for what the industry terms ancillary revenue.
This is revenue earned on top of the original booking: typically using a low headline price to reel in the traveller, then dangling cost-extra items such as meals, baggage, seat selection and frequent flyer miles.
While full-service airlines aren’t rushing all the way down that route, they’re beginning to slice and dice the market to unlock additional profit from premium passengers.
Business class unbundled
The good news is that this can result in cheaper fares, even at the pointy end of the plane.
Case in point: Emirates’ business class ‘Special’ fares, which remove core components of the airline’s business class proposition such as lounge access and a chauffeur-driven ride to and from the airport.
Ever cautious not to cannibalise its premium cabin – one reason why Emirates has yet to introduce premium economy, although that’s planned for 2020 – the Gulf colossus says that while these cut-price fares have been “introduced on all routes, availability is often based on demand and supply.”
The savings are not insignificant. For example, for selected dates in early 2020 Emirates lists its ‘Special’ business class fares between Dubai and Paris at AED7350 (US$2,000) – a discount of AED1500 (US$410), or around 17 percent, over the next-cheapest Saver business class ticket, and almost one-third off compared to the mid-range Flex fares.
“We understand that passengers have different travel priorities,” Adnan Kazim, Emirates’ Chief Commercial Officer, tells Executive Traveller. “With the special fares, we simply wanted to offer our customers a variety of fare brands with unique propositions that suit their needs and give them flexibility of choice.”
The cut list
So exactly what do travellers give up in Emirates’ business class unbundling approach?
No complementary chauffeur drive: this free VIP ride to and from the airport is a hallmark of Emirates business class, although it’s arguably less relevant in the era of ride-share services such as Uber, Lyft and Grab, or for companies which have existing arrangements with chauffeur drive companies.
No lounge access: Special fares won’t permit entry to Emirates business class lounges. However, travellers holding top-tier Gold or Platinum status in Emirates’ Skywards frequent flyer scheme can still get into the airline’s lounges with a flash of their shiny Skywards card regardless of the type of ticket they’re booked on. Not a frequent flyer? Emirates also lets passengers pay their way into its business class lounges for US$100.
Reduced frequent flyer miles: although you’re sitting in business class, you’ll earn the same number of Emirates Skywards Miles and Tier Miles as top economy fares. For regular travellers, this means more flights to retain the Skywards status which unlocks free lounge access.
No upgrades: there’s no opportunity to use Skywards Miles to upgrade to Emirate's first class suites.
No early seat selection: passengers can choose their seats only after check-in for the flight opens, which means they’ll be left with the less-desirable seats such as the middle seat on most Emirates Boeing 777 aircraft.
Will other airlines follow suit?
In spire of that cut list, Emirates says it’s an appealing trade-off for many corporate travellers, with CCO Kazim reporting the reduced fares have been "very well received… we’ve seen a strong take up across the Gulf and Middle East Region, West Asia and Europe.”
Brian Sumers, Senior Aviation Business Editor for travel industry website Skift, says the jury is still out on unbundling business class.
“Much has been made of Emirates’ 'business class light’ fare but we haven’t seen a lot of other carriers copying it,” Sumers tells Executive Traveller. “Why should airlines bother giving passengers the opportunity to choose a more basic fare? Food and lounges aren’t that expensive in the scheme of things, so an airline might as well bundle everything and charge a higher fare.”
Sumers reflects that premium-heavy routes which are increasingly open to competition, such as the trans-Atlantic corridor between New York and London, “could see a scenario where some road warriors would trade down, because they don’t use a lot of the amenities except for perhaps the lounge.”
A more likely driver, Sumers believes, will be the health of the global economy.
“At least as long as the economy is strong, airlines seem to be selling a lot of premium seats at good prices. Maybe this will change if the global economy sours. Emirates is reporting more softness in its business than many other airlines – perhaps if other airlines feel the same strain, they will copy Emirates.”
From business class to business plus
Lufthansa is also moving towards a ‘business plus’ model built around what it describes as "tailored needs-based airfare bundles”.
At the German flag-carrier’s 2019 Capital Markets Day, held at its Frankfurt headquarters on 24 June, the airline laid out plans for a simplified set of base fares replacing the current complex roster of ticket types with add-ons available through an “upselling structure” across all cabins except first class.
Those options, the airline says, will be built around "tailored offers and services" ranging from a "new variety of seat options” to “individual food offers”.
The key to this, in turn, is "bundling the right offers and pricing them according to the customers’ willingness to pay."
Lufthansa cites examples of what it describes as Efficiency and Traveller packages – and even a beefed-up Plus version of each – being purchased atop a base fare.
Passengers are also being broken down into sociographic sets, each representing a discrete chunk of Lufthansa's market, so that these add-on packages can be designed to suit their perceived needs.
The airline is even changing its own definition of premium travel, from being simply a class of travel to something which is "defined individually by every customer.”
Business class goes bespoke
Lufthansa Group Chief Commercial Officer Harry Hohmeister is quick to stress this approach “is not unbundling, it's upgrading” and will still include lounge access.
However, in the case of Lufthansa’s new Boeing 777X – due to take wing in 2020 – the airline will charge extra for those business class seats which convert to a longer lie-flat bed, or have extra bench space and privacy, compared to the regular seats.
“Having a 220cm bed (as an upsell) is of course a selling argument, especially for (taller) guys like me,” the lanky Hohmeister told Executive Traveller on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association AGM in Seoul in early June.
“It's not just one business class anymore. Within the (Boeing 777X) business class cabin, you can upgrade yourself to an even better product than just standard business class.”
“The challenge for us, is how do we present this to the customer,” Hohmeister continues.
“We have to make clear in the market that we are not disrupting the (existing business class) product, but developing it to a better quality standard… to give the customer the best selection for themselves in terms of individualisation.”
Hohmeister maintains that the price point for the standard Boeing 777X business class experience will remain comparable to today’s business class fares.