Things don't look too promising about the (immediate) future of business class
It's been about two months since most of America has been under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus pandemic. With so few people traveling, the airline industry has been one of the toughest hit.
Earnings season revealed just how much cash carriers are burning through. It's no surprise, then, that airlines are taking their route networks and fleet strategy back to the drawing board. To save money, many carriers have paused cabin retrofit projects and are greatly scaling back other capital expenditures.
Before the pandemic halted travel, carriers worldwide, and particularly those in America, were doubling down on premium cabin retrofits. Delta was going full steam ahead on the introduction of Delta One Suites and United was just beginning to install Polaris and Premium Plus in much of its Dreamliner fleet. And then it stopped abruptly.
Though these product redevelopment projects are on pause to save cash, the coronavirus may kill many key elements of the "soft product" in the name of public health. Most notably, we'll likely no longer see inflight pillows and blankets for a while.
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Just like the seat themselves, there was a revolution in inflight bedding over the past few years. American, Delta and United all got cozy with upscale brands and brought high-quality bedding to the sky. On some routes, you might've been offered Casper body pillows or Saks-branded mattress pads.
Unfortunately, that's about to change. Henry Harteveldt, president at Atmosphere Research Group, told TPG that he believes "airlines won’t provision complimentary pillows and blankets except, perhaps, for their longest flights."
In premium cabins, passengers typically receive washed and individually wrapped pillows and blankets. In long-haul coach, the pillow is usually placed at each seat with an individually wrapped blanket.
But now that travelers are going to be more germ-conscious, airlines may remove these amenities — at least for the short term. Herteveldt reasoned that many of these changes are likely just temporary "until we have vaccines or 'herd immunity.'" Even then, he cautioned, pillows and blankets may never return for coach passengers.
Related: The best neck pillows on the market
But whether or not these changes last two months or two years, business and first class as we know it is going to be changed, at least for the time being.
When people slowly (and safely) start traveling again, it won't just be the comforter or mattress pad that they'll miss. Though single-use amenity kits are here to stay, there's a good chance that we'll see many of the name-brand headphones replaced with disposable ones. (This is net positive for American Airlines flyers since the carrier typically collects its Bang & Olufsen headsets about an hour before landing).
Likewise, we've already seen drastic changes to the meal service that could remain post-pandemic. I can't imagine the return of the create-your-own ice cream sundae cart any time soon (as much as it pains me to write that). Similarly, the bread basket and table-side salad preparation could become a relic of the past.
Going forward, premium cabins may look the same as before, but the experience is definitely going to change — at least in the short term. As airlines look to craft new service protocols, it's more important than ever, according to Harteveldt, to be transparent with passengers about the changes, and set expectations early if their flight may be different than previous journeys with the carrier.
Related: The best premium cabins for onboard social distancing
Some passengers may not even be bothered by the limited amenities. In order to maximize social distancing, some people may choose to sit in premium cabins to reduce their contact with others. It's possible that the temporary value proposition of sitting up front is the ability to avoid other people in your personal pod.
But nonetheless, we're living in unprecendented times. Even when people start flying again, we're definitely headed towards a (temporary) "new" normal with many fewer inflight amenities on planes that might not've yet been retrofitted with cutting-edge products.