I had one stop left, Singapore itself, before the airline would carry me home on the longest flight in the world -- 18-something hours over the North Pole to Newark, and if nothing else, I’d be well-rested at the end of three weeks on the road. When it’s all over, I will have spent more time aloft on those two flights than during the rest of my three-week trip combined.
This visit wasn’t some boondoggle I’d stapled onto the end, but was actually a chance to brush up against the science-fiction version of Airworld that has sprung into existence in Asia. While airlines in the U.S. were laboring to build new terminals for under a billion, the governments out here spend three or four times as much just on landfill -- the artificial islands reclaimed from the sea on which Osaka’s and Hong Kong’s airports were built. And if JetBlue, Frontier and Song represented the future of the low-fare-carrier model at home, then Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas sit at the other end of the curve, battling for the full-fare business and first-class passengers on long-haul routes. Singapore Airlines is the most profitable airline in the world, in fact, posting a record net profit in its last fiscal year of $820 million. Although I’m certainly no expert on airline accounting, I can only imagine what tax and other advantages stem from the airline’s being 57% owned by Singapore’s government.
And Singapore Airlines, in turn, owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, which I happened to fly to London in Upper Class -- its typically cheeky name for a business/first-class hybrid offering. Virgin has perhaps the most clearly articulated brand positioning of any airline flying in the U.S. today, thanks in large part to the efforts of its advertising agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky. (As for how I was able to
|Singapore Airlines stewardesses stand in front of a model of the behemoth Airbus A380 that will usher in a new level of luxury for the company's customers. Click to see large photo.
But if I’d simply wanted to engorge myself on raw amenities, I might have ended up in Frankfurt instead, ensconced at the new $18 million terminal Lufthansa has built for its first-class passengers, who are ferried to their planes across the tarmac in a Porsche. Or I could have accepted Emirates’ offer of an upgrade to a “privacy suite” aboard one of its fleet of A340-500s, essentially enclosed seats that the airline paid $125,000 apiece to install.
"The key word is differentiation -- between our competitors and between our customers,” Lufthansa's vice president in charge of innovation recently told Newsweek. "We have to give those who are prepared to pay extra an extra-special product."
While U.S. legacy carriers seem stuck in a race to the bottom in terms of amenities at home, they are increasingly betting that they will be able to keep up -- using their vast route networks, multicarrier alliances and frequent-flyer programs -- in the luxury arms race that is already well underway. Lie-flat beds, once the last word in first-class luxury, are practically a business-class commodity, and the next lines in the sand will be drawn when Singapore, Emirates and the other launch customers of Airbus’ behemoth A380s finally take possession of their custom-configured planes. The mechanized “SpaceBed” I napped in on the way here will likely be rendered obsolete when the first one lands here at the end of 2006. Both Airbus and Boeing expect 2005 to be a record year in terms of the number of planes ordered, thanks to overwhelming demand for fuel-efficient long-haul models.
Crispin creates the 'jetrosexual'
While all of the airlines above are battling for “the business traveler,” only Virgin and
|While airport designers in the U.S. pinch pennies, governments in Singapore and other parts of Asia support the building of opulent new airports that serve as aerodromes as well as national status symbols. Click to see large photo of downtown Singapore.
I really did find myself at the onboard bar at midnight for a nightcap while wearing my “Sleep Suit” pajamas and carrying on simultaneous conversations with a buyer for Marks & Spencer and an intellectual property manager for Diageo.
“Nobody’s really rooting for the guy wrecking his life on road. We wanted to find a way to get behind him,” said Jeff Steinhour, managing partner, director of account management at Crispin. “If they’re tied to their frequent-flyer miles somewhere else, then how can we break the back of that resistance, and have them approach this as an event, rather than as enduring six hours sealed in a tube?”
The 'Suite Dream' really was
And while one would expect to find an airline’s biggest supporters drinking its wine in its clubhouse before a flight, the passengers on the flight that night (Flight 010, “The Suite Dream” you see in Virgin ads everywhere) raved about the airline in similar terms. “They’re innovative, they’re modern, they get it,” said Nicola Burden, the IP manager for Diageo. “It isn’t like [British Airways] where the staff is 70 years old.”
Comments like that must thrill Virgin’s chief executive/mascot Sir Richard Branson, whose feud with BA goes back decades, but even the outsider hired to rebrand BA’s first-class service in the face of challenges from Virgin and other carriers is willing to give the airline its props. “One thing that they have done, and BA has done, and other carriers have done is completely focus on the experience,” said David Melancon, president of FutureBrand North America, a unit of IPG. On FutureBrand’s watch, BA introduced lie-flat beds in business class and opened travel spas at Heathrow with Molton Brown-branded skin-care products.
Marketing an experience
“I have a mental picture of who the Virgin customer is, vs. who the BA customer is, because they’re both offering very consistent, high-quality experiences," said Melancon. "BA is more traditional, and Virgin is a little less so, but they both do an amazing job. We diminish that by saying ‘That’s the European way,’ or ‘That’s the Asian way,’ in the case of Singapore or Cathay Pacific, but that’s bull, because what you’re doing is creating an experience. If you want to talk about what American carriers are doing, my grandmother used to have a saying about burning the furniture –- it may keep you warm for the moment, but you’ve burned something you need.”
Not that BA itself should be one to talk after its dispute with the catering service Gate Gourmet snowballed into a wildcat strike by crucial staff that led to nearly 10,000 passengers being stranded at Heathrow -- a memorable experience, to be sure. More than a month later, there’s nothing but tea and coffee available on BA’s short-haul flights, a fact the captain apologized endlessly for during my shuttle run to Paris.
But still, I have better understanding of what he meant after a week overseas spent making new friends at Virgin’s onboard bar and being fawned over by the unreconstructed eye candy known as the “Singapore Girls” on my flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle. I’ll need that again tomorrow, when I’ll be sealed in a tube for another 18 hours before finally –- finally –- coming home.