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Wooing the first class traveller

A first class berth on a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental airliner. Airlines are investing in first class, taking fine dining to the skies and tailoring every detail to suit the luxury traveller. PHOTO | FILE | AFP
A first class berth on a Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental airliner. Airlines are investing in first class, taking fine dining to the skies and tailoring every detail to suit the luxury traveller. PHOTO | FILE | AFP 

From vintage champagnes and cocktails, on-board climate control, Porsche airport transfers to being served caviar, the battle for the luxury air traveller is moving past maximum leg room, no queues and seat comfort.

Airlines are investing in first class, taking fine dining to the skies and tailoring every detail to suit the luxury traveller.

And the detail is in having a butler, fine Italian Poltrona Frau leather sofa, two dining tables onboard and— better yet—a personal chef to whip up whatever you fancy.

In 1927, British Airways’ predecessor, Imperial Airways, removed two seats from the Argosy aircraft it operated on the London-Paris route to allow a steward to serve food on board. 

Being served sandwiches or biscuits, beef, tea and a choice of beer, whisky or mineral water in an aircraft was seen as the height of luxury.

British Airways has since to upgraded over the years and now expect to sip on Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle champagne, eat the finest cheese and chocolate onboard.

The airline was ranked number 26 last year with the first place going to Emirates, according to World Travel Awards.

In best first class lounge dining, British Airways was ranked ninth with Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France being among the top. In Africa, Kenya Airways won the leading airline in business class 2016.

Kevin Leung, the British Airways commercial manager for Kenya and Ghana said in an interview that airlines have been forced to adapt to travellers’ needs and modern aircraft.

Bland food

“Eighty eight years ago, altitude was not a problem as aircraft flew relatively low and were not pressurised. A modern aircraft cruises at around 35,000 feet and the cabin is pressurised to 8,000 feet. Under these conditions, most people lose about 30 per cent of their ability to taste, so food can seem bland or insipid,” he said during an interview in Nairobi.

It is impossible to make a piping hot cup of tea or coffee because at the reduced atmospheric pressure water boils at 91 degrees Celsius rather than 100 degrees Celsius. Boiling it longer will only create more steam and not make the water any hotter.

‘‘With this in mind, it is no surprise that catering forms part of British Airways’ five year £5 billion (Sh653 billion) investment in products and customer services,’’ he said.

He said British Airways serves a tasty height cuisine and the chefs use ingredients which are high in umami, a savoury flavour known as the ‘fifth taste’, which occurs naturally in foods such as seaweed, tomatoes, mackerel and parmesan cheese and works particularly well in catering at altitude.

First class travellers have an option of eating what they want, or choosing from a choice of a formal meal service or informal a la carte snack. There is also the bistro selection for customers who prefer something a bit different or lighter. You can even dine with a colleague.

For Kenya Airways, the airline is betting on its business class lounge area and comfortable Dreamliners to woo the picky travellers who demand sophistication.

The lounge allows the business guests to enjoy a comfortable space before travel with relaxation and dining areas. It also has a well-stocked self-service bar, a room to take a nap, showers and work stations.



A section of the Kenya Airways Pride lounge at Terminal 1A of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). FILE PHOTO | SALATON NJAU
A section of the Kenya Airways Pride lounge at Terminal 1A of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). FILE PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

Wanjiku Mugo, the corporate communications manager at Kenya Airways, said the national carrier is constantly improving its product offering for passengers.

‘‘We change menus and wines every other month, we improve the inflight entertainment offering as well as ensuring our lounges meet international standards,” she said, adding that for the fourth time, the business class product won the World Travel Awards for the best Business Class Airline in Africa last year.

‘‘Our lounges were voted the second best in the world (after Taipei) by the Sky Team passengers. This shows we are doing something right,” she said.

KQ also says it serves travellers a variety of wine, whiskies, vodkas, gins and champagne.

Ms Mugo said despite the harsh economic times that has seen some corporates cut executives budgets, the airline still sees some passengers who continue to travel business class.

‘‘Luxury travel is not only for business travellers, also leisure travellers do travel in this cabin. For many, once they go business class, it becomes difficult to travel economy,’’ she said.

Seat massage

Swiss International Air Lines recently launched a new first class in their brand new Boeing 777s, which offers more privacy. ‘‘First class clients choose from menus designed by celebrity chefs,’’ said Peter Schilter, the general manager in charge of SWISS Kenya seats.

Mr Schilter said the airline bases its upgrades on customer feedback which allow it to keep up with the current trends in luxury flying.

‘‘Our seats have a massage function and the softness of the seat cushion can be regulated,’’ he said. The meals are designed by chefs from famous Swiss restaurants and they also cater to special dietary needs like gluten-free or halal meals.

The airline includes food specialties from Canton Grisons, creations of renowned top chef Sven Wassmer who works at the 7132 Silver restaurant of the 7132 Hotel in Vals.

‘‘At first class for starters until March, we have a meal of crab meat with ponzu sauce, black garlic purée and seaweed salad, and a choice of two main courses that include braised veal cheek with truffle sauce, smoked potatoes and kale purée,’’ he said.

SWISS business travellers get to enjoy Sbrinz cheese, served with baked polenta and caramelised parsnips.
‘‘They can follow that with a vanilla and amaretto panna cotta with dried pear jelly and dulce de leche,’’ Mr Schilter said.

The meals, in both classes, are paired with selected Grisons cheeses and wines such as 2015 Maienfeld Pinot Blanc, 2015 Malans Bothmargut Pinot Noir, a 2015 Riesling-Sylvaner and a Davaz Fläsch Pinot Noir.  

“We change the menu every two months. New menus are planned up to six months in advance, then tested by our catering experts. Sometimes we invite customers for their valuable input. Once everything is perfect, the meals are cleared for route service,” he said.

A report released late last year on air travel showed that 84 per cent of travellers are willing to spend money on extras. Kenyans are willing to spend more on inflight Wi-Fi, extra checked luggage, inflight entertainment and travel insurance.

‘‘To ensure travellers choose your airline – invest in technology, service and comfort for travellers, and help them find your lowest prices,’’ the Sabre report noted.

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