On the ground and in the air, the major carriers are constantly upgrading their services to woo the premium passenger.
When Geoffrey Lipman arrives at New York's JFK airport, he ignores the long queues for immigration and goes instead to a dedicated channel where he is passed through within seconds. This enables him to pick up his luggage and head down town while most of his fellow travellers - including those who flew with him in business class - are still waiting in line.
Lipman's ease of entry into the US has nothing to do with his VIP status as executive president of the World Travel and Tourism Council, a grandiose body set up in the early 1990s by the world's leading airlines, hoteliers and travel-related companies to lobby governments for a higher profile for the travel industry. Instead, his rapid progress through the airport is a result of the FAST system - Future Automated Screening of Travellers - which involves computer recognition of a handprint at a special terminal to enable regular travellers to bypass conventional immigration queues. Getting switched on to FAST requires a preliminary screening by the US immigration authorities at JFK where a handprint is digitally scanned and encoded, along with passport and other details on a small plastic card. On arrival at the desk, travellers place their hands on a biometric scanner which checks against the digital handprint and, if authorised, issues an entry/exit document - all in about an average of 40 seconds. So far some 50,000 regular travellers to JFK have taken advantage of the system. But such a high-tech solution to the problem of interminable immigration queues for international business travellers has so far failed to inspire European airport authorities. A similar system at Amsterdam's Schipol airport was abandoned for technical reasons, while the scheme's implementation at Frankfurt has been delayed by political uncertainties surrounding the invasion of privacy in retaining the databank of palmprints. Yet speeding up the processing of business travellers through airports is one of the major developments being introduced to improve the lot of the executive on the move in the late 1990s. Airlines have belatedly woken up to the fact that the greatest frustration for the frequent business traveller comes not so much from air traffic control delays but from the sheer aggravation of getting to and from the airport, checking-in and passing through security and customs controls. Unfortunately, it is also the area of operations over which the airlines have least control.
Having finally persuaded the BAA, responsible for running London's airports, to introduce a Fast Track system to get business travellers through customs and security controls on the way out of the country, the airlines have now turned their attention to arriving travellers. Incoming Fast Track schemes are now in place at both Heathrow and Gatwick, although they are limited at present to premium-class passengers from North America.
The travelling executive, however, can expect further moves on the ground to reduce delays and hassle. As Richard Lovell, UK managing director of business travel agency Carlson Wagonlit, points out, the frequent flyer has three main objectives: minimum hassle, minimum ratio of waiting time to travelling time, and minimum amount of queuing.
'Unfortunately, these are the areas where most problems occur,' he says. 'If you take an ordinary 45-minute fight from London to Paris, the actual flight time is only half the time often spent waiting at the airport from the time you park your car. If you add on the time getting to the airport, then you might need to add another two hours to your journey time. It is no wonder people get frustrated.' It is also unsurprising that the Eurostar train service has captured a significant slice of the London-to-Paris business travel trade in spite of its much-publicised operational problems.
Richard Branson first recognised the potential in getting the business traveller to the airport in some comfort and style when his Virgin Atlantic airline began offering complimentary limousines for all 'upper class' passengers within a 60-mile radius of London. Now most of the minor international carriers - of which Virgin is still one - offer such a limousine service, although the key transatlantic carriers using Heathrow - BA, American and United - do not. With their greater number of services and premium passengers, offering a free transfer service by car would be too costly.
There is an alternative on the horizon for Heathrow-bound business travellers from central London: the Paddington to Heathrow overground rail link is due to be completed by late 1997. One of Gatwick's main strengths is its fast rail service; its problem, however, is persuading business travellers in the first place that it can provide the route network and schedules they need.
The journey to the airport need not be wasted for the really savvy business traveller. Telephone check-in is now available from several airlines and this means that the boarding card is waiting at the desk for collection, enabling a later check-in than usual.
Getting the plane to depart on time is another matter: hence the increasingly luxurious lounge facilities available at both main airports. The Virgin Clubhouse now offers model trains, high-tech games rooms, grooming and beauty therapy salons, and a rooftop conservatory. The other airlines offer a more traditional environment. BA's Lounge Pavilion complex is located on three floors: first class and Concorde lounge is meant to emulate an up-market luxury hotel while the Club World lounge tries to adopt a more informal atmosphere. Moreover, new lounges for both BA and American Airlines have been added at Heathrow over the past year to allow arriving passengers to spruce up before going on to a morning meeting. 'Our regular feedback sessions with our most travelled customers constantly revealed a demand for somewhere to freshen up, have breakfast and make a few phone calls after arriving on an overnight transatlantic flight,' points out Brandon O'Reilly, American's UK general sales manager.
Yet for all the attention paid to cosseting the business traveller on the ground, the real competition is still to be found in the air. It is here that business travellers in the early 1980s first realised the power they wielded by paying a premium price in return for the flexibility of deciding when they wanted to fly. By paying the full fare on the major carriers, they pay for the rest of the plane.
For those who pay the top price the airlines are constantly having to improve their in-flight services. Last month BA gave a new look to its first-and business-class sections, which included new seats (featuring an extending legrest) and upgraded meals and entertainment systems. The aim of the BA relaunch was twofold: to give travellers more control while in the air and to extend greater recognition to its most loyal customers.
BA has not been alone in making changes to its in-flight cabins. American has also fitted new seats to its entire fleet of 41 Boeing 767-300 aircraft, which predominantly fly the North Atlantic routes. These feature leather and sheepskin upholstery, with adjustable leather headrests. In first class, American claims its seats have the first four-way electronic lumbar support, developed by the company which designs back support for Lincoln-Continental and Cadillac cars in the US.
United Airlines has stolen a march on its rivals with the introduction last June of the new Boeing 777 jet on its international service; BA is not bringing the plane into service until next month. 'The battle for the business traveller across the North Atlantic has never been fiercer,' says Mark Schwab, United's UK general manager. 'We believe the new 777 has given us the edge, especially with an extra nine inches of seat pitch in connoisseur class - a 49-inch pitch is well ahead of the competition.' The aircraft's high-tech facility means that every seat is fitted with a video screen and handset incorporating telephone, control pad and credit card reader. The system not only allows passengers to choose from up to 20 video and 122 CD-quality audio channels but also play computer games, find out about their destination and make phone calls.
While improved business-class seats are a key weapon among the three major transatlantic carriers - BA, United and American - their smaller rivals are increasingly adopting the strategy first devised a decade ago by Branson's Virgin Atlantic and dropping first class in favour of providing significantly bigger seats at business-class prices. Virgin's 60-inch seat pitch is still the largest, though it is closely rivalled by Air Canada whose seat pitch in business class ranges from 55 to 58 inches, depending on the type of aircraft, Trans World Airlines with a 57-inch pitch and Continental with 55 inches.
While most of the efforts to woo the business traveller in-flight are concentrated on long-haul routes, in-flight services on short-haul European routes are also being improved. BA, for example, revamped its Club Europe in-flight service last autumn by taking one seat out of each row in business cabins and introducing new seats which, it says, give passengers an average of 15% more room. Yet not all business travellers are happy with what the airlines are offering. The trend towards airlines forming global alliances means many travellers have found that the airline which they booked on does not take them all the way, even though its designated 'code' in fact suggests that it does. This growing practice of sharing codes often leaves executives fuming after unexpected airline changes. And there is concern that the airlines are not doing enough for those having to travel economy class. John Chaplin, a senior vice president for marketing development with Visa in Europe, argues that 'a lot of people who downgraded to economy during the recession are being forced to stay there - and many aren't happy about it.' He believes that 'people are having to put up with lower service standards in what appears to be an attempt to drive them back to business class'.
There is another group of frequent business travellers who also increasingly resent one of the major changes being made by the airlines: the harassed executives who smoke to relieve tension. Virtually all transatlantic and short-haul carriers are now switching to predominantly no-smoking flights, leaving the habitual smoker to find other ways to minimise stress.
Perhaps Virgin Atlantic's in-flight neck massage service will be copied by other carriers to soothe their nicotine-addicted travellers, as there seems no end to the airlines' willingness to take whatever steps are necessary to woo the business traveller.