Flying business class isn’t what it used to be. Efforts to minimise human interaction and reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection are taking the shine off the most expensive seats onboard commercial aircraft. Gone are the multi-course banquets and warm personal service, once the hallmarks of carriers like Singapore Airlines Ltd and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. These days, what’s left of premium-grade travel is functional, hygienic and closer to cattle class — only with more legroom.
The limitations are one more headache for an industry grappling with a near-total collapse in demand and follow years of luxury oneupmanship among carriers in a contest for the most profitable passengers.
It’s suddenly harder to tell airlines apart when you’re up the pointy end. That’s making it tougher to win top-paying customers, and risks pushing some to the back of the plane.
“There’s nobody to help you with your bag, you’re not escorted to your seat,” said Sandra Lim, who flew business class to Singapore from Los Angeles with Singapore Air late last month. “It feels like it’s reverted back to economy class.”
Crew wore face masks and eye shields, and avoided contact and shared touch points where possible, Lim said.
Meals came with everything on one tray, just like in economy, rather than in separate courses.
“When you strip away the food and service, it’s just a mode of transport to get from point A to B,” said Lim, a 38-year-old food and beverage consultant.
Some overseas routes have resumed, but traffic worldwide has barely started to creep back. International passenger demand was down 92% in
July, and the planes that were flying were typically about half full, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
It’s also not clear to what extent the premium market, which IATA says generated 30% of airlines’ international revenues in 2019, can recover. Many grounded business travellers have become accustomed to video conferencing rather than making visits in person, and a global recession threatens corporate budgets.