Plane sailing experiences

As the global airline industry puts a stronger emphasis on the passenger experience, TTG Asia looks at how major carriers in Asia-Pacific are reinventing their products and services at every step of the air travel journey

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Rising passenger expectations and competition are driving airlines to innovate and experiment with passenger comfort experience, making the experience of flying a bit less stressful and more relaxed.

The airline industry as a whole is now placing a stronger focus on the passenger experience and the individualisation of services for passengers, noted Joe Leader, CEO, Airline Passenger Experience Association at the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg earlier this year.

Below, a look at how major airlines in Asia-Pacific are pushing the envelop in air passenger experience.

Qantas First Lounge at Sydney International Airport

Wellness on the ground
Australia’s flagship carrier aims to set itself apart by offering comfort to travellers prior to boarding through its Qantas First lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.

“Construction is underway on our new First Lounge in Singapore and new premium lounges are also operating in London and Perth to complement our non-stop services between Australia and the UK,” said Qantas head of customer product and service delivery, Phil Capps.

Unique design elements of the lounge include retro-inspired aviation touches like a huge engine cowling-inspired light above the entrance escalator, old-style flapper flight screen boards custom-made and imported from Italy, and large air vents modelled from a 1950s’ Lockheed constellation lining the roof of the lounge. As well, Qantas’ Perth International Lounge now offers a dedicated yoga class.

In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific has recently launched The Sanctuary by Pure Yoga in The Pier Business Class Lounge in Hong Kong. The 65m2 dedicated yoga and meditation space is open to oneworld first and business class passengers, as well as oneworld Emerald and Sapphire members.

“Wellness is becoming increasingly important to our customers,” said Cathay Pacific’s general manager for customer experience and design, Vivian Lo.

Reimaging economy
To ease passenger discomfort during longhaul travel, Air New Zealand in 2011 introduced the Economy Skycouch – a row of three Economy seats that convert into a flat, flexible surface that allows customers to stretch out in Economy cabin Skycouch – to appeal to couples or parents travelling with kids, said Jenni Martin, Air New Zealand’s head of South and South-east Asia.

More recently in 2018, the airline further enhanced the Skycouch product with an infant harness, belt and pod, making it even more family-friendly to provide additional comfort and protection for infants and peace of mind for parents, Martin told TTG Asia.

As air travel becomes commonplace and first class travel dwindles in popularity, premium economy becomes another way that airlines are rolling out differentiated products and services to stand out in a competitive market.

Said Martin: “Air New Zealand recently began operating the new configuration B787-9 Dreamliner on the Singapore-Auckland route (see review on page 12), which has more Business Premier and Premium Economy seats to serve this growing demand. This December, we will commence a new service between Singapore and Christchurch using the same aircraft.”

Cathay Pacific’s The Sanctuary at The Pier Business Class lounge

Elevated meal options

Culinary partnerships with chefs have become a popular way for airlines to step up the quality of their dining offerings mid air.

In April, Air France launched a year-long partnership with Julien Royer, two-Michelin-star chef and co-owner of Odette, the newly crowned champion of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 awards.

Under this partnership, which runs until March 31, 2020, La Première and business class passengers on the Singapore-Paris route can enjoy signature dishes specially created by chef Royer. Each cabin will enjoy six dishes rotating every six months.

Nicolas Ricard, Singapore country manager for Air France, told TTG Asia: “People tend to perceive inflight dining in general as being quite standard or unimpressive, but we hope this collaboration will turn this on its head.”

As part of its Signature Chefs series, Air France previously worked with other Michelin-star French chefs including the late Joël Robuchon, and is currently working with other culinary names such as Ann-Sophie Pic, Michel Roth, Régis Marcon, and Guy Martin to create their own signature dishes.

Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) premium class passengers will soon be presented with a more extensive selection of artisanal wine labels. The airline says it will offer the widest selection of Burgundy wines in the skies, with 47 labels planned for rotation over a period of 18 months – a six-fold increase from 2018.

“By expanding the range of labels that SIA offers on board, we are able to ensure a well-planned rotation of wines to keep the palates of our frequent flyers continually excited. Customers can soon look forward to a new and exciting label delivered on board every two months,” said SIA’s divisional vice president inflight services and design, Betty Wong.

“During our wine consultants’ visits to the vineyards, we also actively sought out smaller maisons and domaines to bring them into the SIA family, thus allowing us to expand the depth and range of our offerings, and satisfy the rising demand for more exclusive Burgundy labels.”

In addition, SIA has signed an MoU with wellness brand Como Shambhala. Under the initial phase of this partnership, commencing in 2H2019, Como Shambhala’s award-winning wellness cuisine will be served on selected SIA flights. The menu will be introduced across all classes, while co-developed dishes will progressively be made available in SIA’s Book the Cook service.

This comes as travellers “are paying more attention to their health and well-being whenever they travel, (including considerations) such as their menu choices or how they spend their time on board”, said SIA’s senior vice president customer experience, Yeoh Phee Teik.

Sake offerings from ANA

Others like All Nippon Airways (ANA) is keen to immerse passengers in the Japanese drinking culture as the reputation and popularity of sake rice wine has taken off globally in recent years.

“ANA considers itself to be an unofficial ambassador for Japanese culture, which is part of the reason that we aspire to set the standard for comfort and convenience in air travel,” said Yutaka Ito, executive vice president with responsibility for cabin service and developing new products for passengers.

The airline in February updated the sakes that it serves on board aircraft and in its lounges, calling on the knowledge of renowned sake sommelier Yasuyuki Kitahara to select 36 new sakes and to bring the total it now serves up to 44.

“The selection has been carefully curated to appeal to avid sake lovers as well as those who may be trying sake for the first time,” said Ito.

ANA intends to continue to encourage passengers to enjoy Japan’s washoku culture and will revise its inflight menu and drinks list in the future, Ito added.

Branded experience
It’s natural that legacy carriers leverage their ‘flag carrier’ status to showcase their national heritage and for passengers to experience a touch of local culture on board.

“Sophisticated travellers also expect a touch of Nordic hospitality in the service delivery and onboard experiences, and this is a key factor when deciding on implementing new onboard innovations in Finnair,” shared Maarit Keränen, category head, longhaul flights at Finnair.

Finnair’s Airbus A350 aircraft from Asia to Helsinki features “dynamic ambient mood LED lighting” with 24 light settings aligned with different stages of the longhaul flight, according to Keränen. “As the plane approaches Helsinki, the cabin is filled with blue hues resembling the Northern Lights.”

Furthermore, Finnair also recently created soundscapes – deemed an essential part of the overall unique Nordic experience – to create better brand awareness of the airline and about Finland for Asian passengers.

Keränen said: “Hear the Taste is our solution to the challenge of serving delicious food, marred by the background noise of the aircraft engines which in turn, affects how we perceive taste. The low background noise decreases sweet and salty flavours, whereas bitter and umami flavours are enhanced with it.”

The soundscapes are available on the inflight entertainment system and passengers can listen to it while eating. Keränen said: “It has a bit of meditative impact, and the pleasant, somewhat ambient soundscapes encourages one to focus on the meal and really enjoy the flavours while paying attention to the food, as opposed to just eating while watching an inflight movie.”

Finnair A350 business class cabin with mood lighting

Immersive inflight entertainment
To enhance passenger flight experience, Garuda Indonesia is rolling out inflight entertainment technology with the launch of an inflight virtual reality (VR) experience system in first and business class.

According to commerce director Pikri Ilham Kurniansyah, Garuda Indonesia is the first and currently the only airline in Asia-Pacific to have received safety regulations approval to offer such VR experience as inflight entertainment.

Through this VR facility, passengers can watch a variety of box office films on a wide-angle screen, spanning 180-360 degrees. The service has been introduced on Garuda’s Jakarta-Haneda (Tokyo) route since March 28.

The Indonesian flag carrier is keen to integrate cabin announcement feature into the VR entertainment system to enable passengers to be seamlessly connected, Pikri told TTG Asia.

Furthermore, Garuda is also exploring online streaming features on the VR facility and plans to be the world’s first airline to provide seat massage facilities on board. All these, said Pikri, are part of the airline’s efforts to offer “more personalised services” for its passengers.

Others like Philippine Airlines is already offering free high-speed Wi-Fi for all passengers on longhaul flights to the US, Canada, the UK and Australia operated on Boeing 777, Airbus A350 and Airbus A321neo aircraft.

Garuda Indonesia’s VR experience system

Targeted customisation
Malaysia Airlines’ Amal service is aimed at growing the pilgrimage business and enriching the experience of umrah and haj passengers from Malaysia and South-east Asia, offering both chartered and scheduled services to Jeddah and Madinah from Kuala Lumpur using Airbus A380 and A330 aircraft.

“We believe we are the first in the world to offer dedicated pilgrim-centric service,” shared Amal CEO Hazman Hilmi Sallahuddin. “The establishment of Amal is aimed at alleviating the overall quality of services in the pilgrimage market which is often associated with non-premium services.

“The market has responded favourably to the service. Small agents are able to purchase blocked seats directly from Amal if they don’t have the capacity to charter an entire aircraft. We are commencing charter flights to Jeddah and Medina for the upcoming Umrah season (September 2019 to June 2020).

“Within the next three years, we hope to get about 60 per cent of the Malaysian market share, 10 per cent from Indonesia and 50 per cent of the market share from Southern Thailand,” he continued. “Besides Indonesia and Thailand, our business plan also targets Umrah traffic in other countries in the region via feeder services and/or wet-lease arrangements.”

Amal’s onboard experiences include the invocation of inflight Talbiyah prayers, announcement of prayer times, the call to prayer (Azan), a brief tazkirah (Islamic sermon), special meals, as well as amenity kits specifically curated for pilgrims. The inflight entertainment system includes an interactive Quran, Islamic movies and TV series portraying good values and religious music.

S Puvaneswary, Pamela Chow, Tiara Maharani, Rachel AJ Lee, Julian Ryall, Prudence Lui, Adelaine Ng and Rosa Ocampo contributed to this report

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