The chase is on for the corporate trekker.
Airlines are racing to fill premium cabins on their planes with bed-like seats. They're speeding up access to the Web. And they're carving out space in coach class for those who'll pay more to stretch their legs.
The goal? To woo business travelers, who often book the more expensive, last-minute fares, as well as others willing to pay more to fly. The premium-paying customer has always been valuable, but they're more important than ever as airlines grapple with volatile fuel prices and try to compete in an industry increasingly dominated by a handful of mega-sized competitors.
"Premium customers are fewer in number, but they spend a greater amount of revenue,'' says Chris Kelly Singley, a spokeswoman for Delta . "You have to continue to really invest in the product that's bringing those customers to you in the first place.''
Lie-flat seats, which allow road warriors to get some quality shut eye before heading to meetings, have become a particularly popular offering. United offers flat-bed seats in the premium cabins of nearly 150 jets and is adding them to over 30 more planes by early next year.
United, the world's largest airline since merging with Continental, says it has more of the bed-like seats than any of its U.S. peers. But other airlines are in hot pursuit. Delta plans to offer similar seats on more than half of its international wide-bodied fleet by the end of this year. And US Airways has its lie flat "Envoy Suite'' on its entire fleet of A330 jets, which ferry passengers across the Atlantic.
Going Out of His Way for Comfort
That's welcome news to Mark Cooper, a field engineer for Microsoft , who travels every week. A lie-flat seat is so important , he says, he bypasses a non-stop flight from his hometown of Portland, Ore., to Tokyo to fly to Seattle or Los Angeles where he can grab another Delta, and sometimes American, flight with the bed-like seats.
"It's worth the extra time to be able to actually sleep while en route and enjoy the experience,'' he says.
Access to the Internet while in the air and space to stretch his legs also are important, he says. "I would much rather fly on a Wi-Fi-equipped flight or one with extra legroom for an extra hour or so, than get there faster and not have access to these services."
Providing Wi-Fi in flight has become a game of one-upsmanship. Virgin America, for instance, the first U.S. carrier to offer Wi-Fi throughout its fleet, now plans to offer a connection that is four times faster by early August. The change is in direct response to requests by business travelers, says spokeswoman Abby Lunardini.
Virgin America also has a program aimed at smaller businesses and entrepreneurs. If they spend at least $20,000 traveling on the airline during a given period, they get 3 percent of that amount back in the form of a credit on future travel.
"This was designed for small- to mid-sized companies that deserve some sort of discount,'' says Diana Walke, the airline's vice president of planning and sales. "We really like our leisure travelers but we love our business travelers. … We can't deny the fact those fares tend to be higher.''
Airlines are stretching comfort options toward the rear of planes, too. Many have created sections of coach that offer extra leg room for extra dollars.
United has "economy plus." Delta's version is called "economy comfort.'' JetBlue says its single class of service offers "even more space,'' with early boarding and a quicker pass through security as part of the package. American plans to offer its "main cabin extra'' on all flights, allowing passengers to purchase four to six more inches of leg room and the privilege of boarding before others in coach.
Delta, keying in on the differing needs of business travelers, tweaked "economy comfort'' when it introduced the section domestically this month.
Domestic passengers won't be able to recline as much as their counterparts on overseas flights. The reason? "On international long haul flights, the goal of the flight is to get some shut eye,'' Delta's Kelly Singley says. "On domestic flights, when you push the seat back that far it inhibits the use of laptops and laptops are essential.''
Other come-ons being rolled out by the industry range from the Samsung tablets that American Airlines offers premium passengers on some flights to Southwest retooling its frequent flier program last year and Delta renovating several of its Sky Clubs.
Passengers Do Notice Perks
Business fliers say amenities and upgrades do grab their attention.
"Spending as much time in the air as I do, these benefits will separate one airline from another,'' says Mike Ammann, a sales director in Urbandale, Iowa, who has flown over 2 million miles with Delta. "Being 6' 3" tall … the extra three or so inches of legroom differentiates a comfortable flight from an uncomfortable one that I am counting down the minutes until we land. "
The extra space in coach is also particularly appealing now that the days of flying in first class on the company is a memory for many business travelers.
"Extra leg-room does matter … since most companies don't allow anything but coach for 'normal' road warriors," says Philip Peake, a computing consultant in Newberg, Ore.
But Sharon Kirkwood, who works in consumer sales and lives in Farmington Hills, Mich., is not so impressed by such perks, at least on domestic flights.
"The ultimate deciding factors are still schedule and price,'' she says. As a business traveler, she says, "we have to be where we have to be regardless of the type of plane, the seat size or other amenities."