x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Gulf airlines should show some class and adopt the Tommy

We live in uncertain economic times – every time you think there is a recovery, things just get worse – but the Gulf region's airlines act as if they are in a parallel universe.

Online airline booking is nothing short of a blessing. I check in via the internet and choose my preferred seat and in-flight meal. And I don't have abandon my friends to trek to the travel agency.

As I was surfing on my preferred national airline's website to book a ticket for my recent visit to London, my friends urged me to stop flying business class with any of the Gulf-based airlines.

"You can use the extra money to indulge in some Harrods shopping," said one. "Not worth Dh18,000 [US$4,900] plus for a Europe destination," added a second. "You can fly for a much lower rate if you travelled with other airways," said a third.

I told them I know the drill: do not travel on weekends, book a few weeks ahead of your trip, and accept strict ticket conditions to get the best price.

But even after doing all that, my friends still had a point about the price of travelling in style.

Given that it was not peak season, a business-class seat on this particular trip averaged more than Dh19,000.

I have to say I was surprised. I was not flying during the summer season, nor Eid, nor during the Christmas and the new year period.

About a year ago, travelling by business class during the same non-peak period, to New York - a greater distance than London - cost less than Dh15,000 on my preferred national airline, so you can probably understand my shock at the ticket price this year.

We live in uncertain economic times - every time you think there is a recovery, things just get worse - but the Gulf region's airlines act as if they are in a parallel universe.

They have outraged many of their target customers, Gulf nationals who constantly complain about overpriced tickets and bad service.

A simple web surf on popular online forums reveals many Gulf residents are shocked at how their national airlines are behaving.

Here are a couple of examples: "Flights serve westerners better than Gulf residents," and "Is it reasonable to pay Dh60,000 plus just for business airline tickets when travelling with family?".

A well-connected friend of mine does not travel on business class. "It is not about the money, but a matter of principle. I can afford Dh25,000 plus for a first-class seat, but why would I waste that kind of money on leg space when I can enjoy the same comfort if I booked a ticket for a seat on economy class?" he says.

Fatima Ali, a 26-year-old Gulf citizen, agrees with my friend, and believes it is a waste of money to pay for a business-class seat on any of the GCC airlines, especially when travelling within the Middle East.

A frequent flier, she opts for a budget airline when travelling within the GCC to visit members of her family, and she treats herself to a first-class seat that in most cases costs less than an economy seat with the leading Gulf airlines.

After listening to many complaints as well as suggestions from various airlines on what are the "best-value, business-class seats", I asked my friends if they could change how our national airlines operate, what would they want? And what would stop them complaining?

Topping their wish list were affordable upgrades to first class, friendlier staff, and more baggage weight for students travelling abroad to study.

But the one thing they all agreed upon is for business-class comfort at a slightly higher price than an economy-class fare.

Based on their feedback, I conducted my research, and found that what they desired - "affordable business-class luxury" does exist, but in Europe and the US.

Known in some cases as Tommy class, many airlines dedicate the first few rows of the economy cabin to this class, where instead of one seat, passengers get two - added width comfort, more legroom, and business-class meals.

What's the cost of this? In most cases it is just 50 per cent more than the price of a standard economy-class seat. A reasonable deal if you ask me.

Other minor alterations can also greatly improve passenger comfort. The American carrier, Delta Air Lines, experimented by adding extra legroom in an option called "economy comfort" that proved so effective on international flights, it has prompted the airline to consider offering the service on domestic flights.

Data collected by the late travel researcher Stanley Plog revealed that an empty middle seat improved passengers' flight experience. Those who enjoyed this experience said they also perceived the flight attendants to be friendlier.

I think it is time for UAE national airlines to take the Tommy class initiative.

We have all witnessed the huge impact that the 2008 global economic crisis had on our economy and on airline businesses even though many of us were not directly affected.

Why wait for an economic depression to occur before being persuaded to offer good deals?

Domestic and GCC airlines have access to a population of more than 30 million in the GCC area and many of these are loyal, or potentially loyal, customers.

We must not forget that many international passengers also opt for our national airlines. They are aware of the Tommy class option, so why not also target this niche market, promote our own airlines and make good profits?

Most flights have a few empty seats and it is time to put them to good use.

Manar Al Hinai, an Emirati, is a fashion designer and writer based in Abu Dhabi. She was recently named an Arab Woman of the Year.