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Elevating the Land of Nod

Virgin Australia "Lie-Flat Business Class Seats"
Darren Booth | CNBC
Virgin Australia "Lie-Flat Business Class Seats"

Those flat-bed seats for international business-class fliers? Now that most airlines offer them, they are not so special anymore.

Instead, in the newest iteration of the battle for deep-pocketed fliers, the airlines are introducing an ever-growing assortment of in-flight amenities to go with those seats. (Read more: Delta Joins Other Airlines to Offer Lie-Flat Seats)

Delta Air Lines, in the latest move, plans to announce on Tuesday that a partnership with Westin Hotels and Resorts will give business-class passengers on international and transcontinental flights "Westin Heavenly In-Flight Bedding," starting this summer.

That follows the introduction in the last two years of upgrades in business-class services by airlines like American Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, featuring everything from improved mood lighting and in-flight entertainment to designer amenity kits and the option to pre-order meals by e-mail. (Read more: On Singapore Airlines, Fliers Order Premium Meals in Advance)

Carriers are willing to invest in the services, said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst for Hudson Crossing, a travel industry consultancy, because "profits from long-haul, international premium cabins can be five times greater, or more, than what is earned in economy, and several times greater than what is earned on domestic or regional flights."

"Since the end of the last financial recession in 2010, we've seen the beginning of reinvestment by airlines in their products," he added. "It reflects the normal cycle."

Peter J. Bates, president of Strategic Vision, a marketing communications company in Tarrytown, N.Y., said that "as airlines consolidate into smaller groups, they are continuously trying to find ways to gain market share and differentiate their product." He added: "This goes in phases. Now that the airlines have gone through the flat-bed phase, they have to create more bells and whistles to differentiate themselves."

Carriers no doubt also want to respond to what Egencia, the travel management arm of Expedia, identified in research last summer as companies' "increasing willingness to bump their travelers" to business or first class on "flights lasting more than nine hours." Egencia said 45 percent of business travelers were permitted by their employers to travel in such seats "on flights over nine hours, compared to just 6 percent of business travelers on flights lasting less than nine hours."

Delta's Westin bedding is part of a new, broader strategy to cater to the need for a good night's sleep, company executives said. They pointed to customer research, which has shown that this is the top priority for all passengers, regardless of their class of service.

Tim Mapes, Delta's senior vice president for marketing, said, "The airline that comes to represent a good night's sleep in the minds of customers will be the airline that attracts a disproportionately large share of customers."

To that end, Delta worked with Westin to create a comforter as well as sleeping and lumbar pillows and pillow cases. The hotel chain introduced its "Heavenly Bed" program, featuring a pillowtop mattress and special sheets, pillows, down blankets and duvet, in 1999, and briefly collaborated five years ago with United Airlines to offer special bedding on transcontinental flights and Westin seating, lighting and scent in some airport lounges. Delta will begin offering the new bedding this summer in business-class cabins on all international flights, and on flights from Kennedy Airport to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and from Atlanta to Honolulu.

In addition, Delta is training its pursers, who supervise cabin crews, to change in-flight procedures to provide a more restful environment by, for example, streamlining public announcements, closing overhead compartments gently and controlling lighting. Delta's in-flight entertainment system has a new "white noise" channel, and the carrier is creating an express meal menu, with lighter fare and one-step delivery, for transcontinental business-class passengers. The menu is already available on many international flights.

The introduction of the Westin bedding coincides with an agreement announced this month by Delta and Westin's parent, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, to offer reciprocal benefits to elite-level participants in both companies' loyalty programs. (Read more: Got Status? Delta, Starwood to Offer Reciprocal Elite Benefits)

In addition, Delta has been working with prominent, often high-end, consumer brands. It uses Porsche cars to transfer top frequent fliers to connecting flights at its main hub in Atlanta. It sells Diageo premium liquor brands at its airport lounges, and this month it began distributing Tumi amenity kits, with Malin & Goetz luxury skin care products, to business-class passengers on international flights.

Mr. Mapes declined to say how much money Delta was putting into the new sleep strategy, describing it as a "substantial investment, in the hundreds of millions of dollars," which would also cover the installation of flat-bed seats.

Peter Vlitas, senior vice president for airline sales and marketing for Protravel International, a travel agency in New York that books business and leisure travel, predicted that the strategy could help Delta win passengers on relatively short transcontinental flights and on trans-Atlantic flights from the East Coast of the United States. "If an airline can maximize comfort and the passenger perceives this is the way to go to get the best sleep, it could have a significant impact," he said.

Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, said Delta's initiatives might appeal to companies concerned about their employees' productivity on the road. "They're focusing on what kind of value they're getting for the airline ticket, and if the meeting is revenue-producing, the traveler is rested and as productive as possible for the business mission," he said.

But Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation Corporate Travel, a travel agency in New York, said price, schedules and corporate travel policies were the most important factors in business travelers' choice of airlines, followed by loyalty program benefits and then in-flight amenities.

Similarly, Gene Kaskiw, an aviation lawyer from Newark who has flown in Cathay Pacific's updated business-class cabin, said an airline's seat and schedule were the most important factors when he chose a flight. "Amenities like a duvet are important," he said, "but they're not the primary drivers of my decision."

Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a Web site on travel loyalty programs, called the Delta initiatives "better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick." But they would not be "a difference-maker," he said. "If I'm looking to choose an airline for a long-haul flight, I'm not focused on bedding, I'm focused on the seat itself."

In fact, he said the latest loyalty program collaboration by Delta and Starwood was more significant than Delta's sleep strategy because Delta and Starwood were the first travel companies to offer reciprocal benefits to each other's elite customers.

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