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March 13, 2013

The Sound of Silence

By Chris Boyle

Lufthansa First Class

Full fare First Class tickets on long-haul intercontinental flights can easily range from $10,000 to over $25,000 roundtrip.

So it’s no surprise that leading airlines that want to attract these high paying elite travelers are always trying to come up with new ways to impress you.

It is standard to employ wine consultants who create cellars in the sky. They figure out what wines will still be enjoyable at 35,000 feet. And then there are the celebrity chefs who are asked to recreate Michelin star meals prepared in the confines of a tiny airplane galley. There are the increasingly grand suites, some with doors that can be opened and closed.  And don’t forget Emirates offering an in-flight shower on its Airbus A380 fleet.

In the past decade, lounges have gone from a place with couches and peanuts to include spas (Lufthansa in Frankfurt, Thai Airways in Bangkok, Qantas in Sydney and Melbourne, British Airways in London and New York), gourmet dining (Alain Ducasse creates the menu for Air France in Paris), pool tables (Turkish Airlines in Istanbul), cigar lounges (Lufthansa in Frankfurt), buggies to whisk you to your plane (Thai International in Bangkok) or Porsche and Mercedes sedans (Lufthansa in Frankfurt and Munich, Air France in Paris and Swiss in Zurich and Geneva).

Dayrooms for connecting passengers to freshen up and catch some sleep are popular amenities (Lufthansa in Frankfurt, British Airways in Heathrow, Turkish Airlines in Istanbul and Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong). Showers are now are a standard amenity, while Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa offer full bathtubs. Lufthansa even provides a signature rubber duck. And it doesn’t stop there: Lufthansa and Qatar Airways have gone so far as to build separate terminals for First Class passengers (Frankfurt and Doha) with their own Duty Free stores.

But do you really want all this stuff? Recently Lufthansa pulled back the curtain on what you tell them and invited the media to hear.

Interestingly, what First Class passengers want most is…complete silence, be it when you are sleeping, relaxing or working. To that end, Lufthansa’s new First Class has layers of carpet designed to muffle the sounds of walking in the cabin. Dorothea Von Boxberg – who coordinated the airline’s new offerings – noted that while flight attendants need to be in the cabin refilling those wine and water glasses, passengers want to see them, but not hear them. The new fangled carpets, she said, make footsteps “inaudible”.

Lufthansa Technik is the group’s aviation design subsidiary perhaps better known for designing and installing custom private jet interiors. The airline called on the Technik team to come up with “soundproof curtains” that prevent galley noise from entering the First Class cabin.

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If that’s not enough, on the airline’s new 380s there is extra insulation in the walls of the aircraft cabin to block exterior noise. In an industry widely known for being unprofitable (all together all airlines have lost money since the Wright Brothers took off 110 years ago) and hence saving money by taking olives out of salads (American Airlines) and trying to charge for water (USAirways briefly), it was perhaps surprising to hear Von Boxberg say that in First Class investments don’t have to pass the same stringent ROI standards that virtually everything else does.

What else do elite travelers want?  “The highest comfort,” according to Lufthansa surveys meaning seat for work or sleep and bigger bathrooms. Customers also want to customize their privacy. Lufthansa offers both, having put in oversize bathrooms in its new First Class cabins and designing its suites so the walls can be raised or lowered. In the center cabin there are also seats side by side for customers traveling together. Of course you can still raise the walls if you wish.

Since Lufthansa doesn’t offer showers onboard, it’s no surprise that research showed customers didn’t favor this amenity. The main challenge of course is most passengers, she says, want to shower right before landing hence Lufthansa instead focusing on showers and bathtubs on the ground. Feedback has been positive with 96% of customers saying the oversize bathrooms are a highlight of the enhanced experience.

Needless to say, staying in touch in-flight is becoming a requirement. To that end, the airline’s FlyNet service which allows internet access even crossing oceans is now on 80 planes. Coming is the ability to SMS and MMS. However telephone call ability will be disabled. 58% of those surveyed oppose the freedom to make phone calls (the noise thing), though this percentage is declining.

Von Boxberg noted that while Lufthansa spends a lot of time and effort on customer research, the airline also carries out strict tests on its facilities. All new seats have to pass a Final Exam of sorts – be it for First Class, Business Class or even Economy Class. Board members come and sleep overnight in test seats on the ground before the seats qualify for passenger use in the sky. While Simon and Garfunkel in The Sound of Silence sing “I’ve come to talk with you again,” if Lufthansa passenger feedback is correct, you should do it quietly, at least in First Class.

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