SINGAPORE – Keen competition in the luxury air travel segment is seeing an ‘arms race’ in first class flight, with big commercial airlines overhauling their premium products to expand their suite of offerings. Meanwhile, industry watchers have said private jet travel is also taking off for short-haul flights around the region.
Earlier in November, Air France launched its new first class ‘La Premiere’ suites in Singapore.
Four individual suites of about three square metres each are on board 19 of the airline’s Boeing 777-300 fleet, and they will be available on daily flights between Singapore and Paris by the middle of Jan 2015.
Mr Nicolas Ricard, Country Manager Singapore, Air France-KLM said: “Luxury air travel demand is growing in Asia. This is a target for Air France. Air France is undergoing significant transformation with an investment of €500 million in upgrading all the long haul products, and services. This is not only La Premiere suite, but also other cabins.”
In May, Middle Eastern airline Etihad unveiled its new first class suite, the Residence, which will feature a living room, double bedroom and ensuite shower room.
Also within the past month, British Airways announced that it has added Singapore as its fifth destination in its network of A380 service routes from London. The move is part of a £5 billion investment the carrier has made in the last two years to upgrade its products and services.
Mr Robert Williams, Regional General Manager, Southeast Asia, British Airways, said: “The A380 allows us to offer even more space to first class customers than they are already enjoying on the other air craft in the fleet. They have 30 percent more space in their seat, 60 percent more personal storage.”
“We maintain Singapore in Southeast Asia as a hub down to Australia as part of the traditional kangaroo routes between Europe and Australia. Those stories demonstrate our commitment to SEA and what we’re doing in this market,” he added.
DEMAND FOR LUXURY AIR TRAVEL DEPRESSED: ANALYSTS
Despite the ‘arms race’, aviation analysts said demand for luxury air travel is currently somewhat depressed. According to statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), first and business class travel within Asia contracted around two percent in September, compared to a year ago.
IATA said overall traffic growth within Asia has expanded only 0.2 percent during the first three quarters of 2014, compared to the same period in 2013. The slowdown has been related to notable declines in international travel for Thailand and Malaysia, due to geopolitical events and weakness in the Chinese economy.
Internationally, current performance for premium travel is relatively weak, growing by 2.3 percent year-on-year in September, compared to the overall rate of increase of 3.7 percent during the first three quarters of 2014.
Changi Airport Group said about 10 percent of passengers fly on first and business class.
Mr Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor, Flightglobal said: “These products tend to be very sensitive to economic issues. So for example, in a weak economy, you might get people trading down from first class to business, and from business class to economy. And certain things have also depressed first class travel recently – the crackdown on corruption in China, that has seen a reduction in some first class usage.”
GROWING DEMAND FOR PRIVATE JETS FOR SHORT HAUL FLIGHTS
While airlines largely offer a product for long-haul travel, many do not have a first class cabin for short-haul flights. Instead, aviation analysts said there is a growing demand for private jet chartering for regional travel. Industry players have also said supply is on the rise.
It is estimated that there are more than 30 private jets based in Singapore, up from just about 10 aircraft five years ago. About half of these are available for charter.
Mr Stefan Woods, Sales Director, Singapore Air Charter said: “What that’s done is it has brought the price down for the consumer, which is a good thing. A lot of our clients locally are local businesses that use our services as a tool.”
“It’s not a luxury at all. It’s a necessity to go to some places that the airlines don’t service, or they service infrequently. Sometimes airlines don’t have business class on board, and it’s not as flexible as having a private jet,” he said.
Mr Woods also said first class passengers on ultra-long-haul flights often arrive in Singapore and head straight to a private jet to a destination in the region.
According to Changi Airport Group, business aircraft movements at Seletar Airport have grown at an average annual rate of almost 20 percent from 2009 to 2013.