Airlines are adding frills to attract executives, when only reliability is needed. Sara Pennington reports.
A chauffeur-driven limousine to take you to the airport, an in-flight massage to help you unwind and, to avoid the traffic jams at your destination, a helicopter to transport you into the city centre - all provided courtesy of the airline?
This scenario is no longer just a dream for the beleaguered business traveller, dogged by the problems of overbooking and frequent delays. These additional services are a reality for executives on some transatlantic trips. They are the latest benefits to be added to the big bag of perks targeted at the travelling executive. They join an impressive array of free gifts, discounts, upgrades and reward schemes which, it is hoped, will go some way towards compensating for the deterioration in so many other aspects of business travel.
For instance, an Upper Class transatlantic ticket with Virgin Atlantic not only comes with a chauffeur-drive to Gatwick airport, the alternative of a free first class rail ticket or two days' car hire, and a 10-minute-long helicopter transfer from New York's Newark or JFK airports into Manhattan, but a complimentary economy class ticket is thrown in too. Meanwhile the Australian flag carrier Qantas hands out subsidised hotel rooms along with a courtesy limousine service to entice business passengers. Alternatively, as members of the Hilton Honours programme, frequent stayers earn free weekend getaways at a variety of exotic locations. In fact most airlines, hotel groups, car hire companies and credit card firms now operate schemes which reward customers for their loyalty.
But why try so hard to impress travel-hardened executives? Locking a business man or woman into a points programme or corporate club must evidently be well worth all of the trouble.
Worldwide business travel was valued at $300 billion in 1986 and is expected to exceed $400 billion by 1995, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. And American Express estimates that £22 billion is spent on travel and entertainment by UK companies alone. The value of the business market lies not only in its high margin revenues but also in its reliable frequency and strong brand loyalty. Moreover, business travel is more resilient to changing economic conditions. Even in times of recession executives still need to travel - unlike holidaymakers, who tend to go only when and where they can afford.
As companies fight for a slice of this lucrative market, business travellers are the beneficiaries of some generous deals. Free airline tickets are one substantial bonus. Following Virgin Atlantic's example, Emirates Air offered an extra economy ticket to business class passengers on its London-Dubai route. Similar promotions - such as MGM Grand Air's offer of a free companion ticket for full-fare passengers flying the US luxury airline earlier this year - come and go.
Other airlines concentrate on luring executives by giving out cheap hotel rooms. Qantas recently introduced a Business Connections card to be used in tandem with its three Bonus Books. These entitle the holder to discounts on accommodation, restaurants, shopping and entertainment in Australia, Asia and New Zealand. Selected Regent International, Sheraton or Mandarin Oriental Hotels give cardholders free limousine transfer, room upgrades, use of fitness centres and the welcome gifts of champagne, chocolates, fruit or flowers. Stopover packages, such as Thai Airways' "Royal Orchid Refresher" programme in Bangkok and Cathay Pacific's "Hong Kong Shopover", can have the effect of cutting hotel bills by as much as half.
But frequent flyer programmes are, perhaps, the most obvious perk and certainly dominate the US market. Schemes reward loyal passengers with mileage credits, which can be redeemed for free travel, upgrades and gifts. Continental Airlines' OnePass, which is affiliated to nine international airlines including Alitalia, Aer Lingus and Air France, gives a free round trip within the States with 20,000 mileage credits. Qantas, however, has a two-tier programme with a reward catalogue for the most loyal customers containing gifts as diverse as jet skis and glassware. Virgin Atlantic, though, claims to give more frequent flyer mileage awards than any other business class, crediting members of America West Airlines' "Flight Fund" with 150% of the actual mileage flown plus a 2,500-mile bonus.
Although British Airways passengers can join American Airlines', United's and Air Canada's schemes to clock up their Air Miles, the UK flag carrier does not operate its own programme. Instead, special treatment is reserved for regular customers. After four transatlantic business trips, or equivalent flight points, travellers qualify for free membership of its Executive Club. Benefits include discounts on hotels, car hire, valet parking and immunisations, commission-free travellers' cheques, access to exclusive lounges, travel insurance and worldwide assistance. Likewise, the privileges of Singapore Airlines' Priority Passenger Service, which gives extra baggage allowance, automatic reconfirmation, priority waiting list and discounts on car rental, is solely for passengers travelling over 60,000km.