On Monday, 6 October 2014 Swiss International Air Lines gave a press conference to announce some ‘major product enhancements’. The carrier will be introducing a new meal concept on European flights and squeezing yet more seats into its short-haul fleet by reducing galley size in the back of the bus and by using a new type of seat.
Of course all of this is not really quite as earth shattering as SWISS will have us believe. Probably the more important announcement that was made at the press conference regards the introduction of what SWISS refers to as its ‘Next Generation of Switzerland’ strategy, which foresees the introduction of 22 new routes starting with the summer schedule of 2015. According to the press release, the new strategy and routes will supplement the carrier’s traditional hub concept.
22 New destinations is quite substantial, particularly given that SWISS has been gradually downsizing capacity on its short-haul network by taking out of service some of the Airbus A 319s and replacing them, partly, with smaller aircraft. So in the sum of all things, the carrier’s new point-to-point strategy may not necessarily supplement but eventually replace the hub concept.
Is this a smart move? Admittedly, there’s hardly any money to be made with connecting passengers these days. Particularly for a carrier like Swiss International Air Lines, which only has a very limited long-haul network. On the other hand, in the long run it is highly questionable if SWISS will be able to fill its wide-bodies with passengers travelling to and from Zürich only.
On Thursday, 2 October 2014 Lufthansa presented its new Premium Economy Class cabin to the Swiss public. The carrier had a cabin mock-up placed at Zürich’s main railway station and the public was invited to take a seat and try out the new product.
According to Lufthansa, the new product can be purchased for a fare difference of CHF700.- (one way) on the regular Economy Class fare, although I’m not sure if this applies to any Economy Class fare or if only certain fares are eligible for the upgrade.
The introduction of this new, fourth cabin class by the German carrier coincides with the removal of the First Class cabin and product from some of its long-haul aircraft. One of the first routes to no longer offer a First Class is Bangkok.
All in all, this is not a bad move. Lufthansa is a very large company that usually takes a while to shift and adapt to changes in the market. And indeed, the market has undergone major changes over the last few years, with a significant and steady decline in demand for the Premium Class product.
The only concern of course, is that instead of upselling customers from regular Economy Class to Premium Economy, many passengers who currently fly Business Class may opt to downgrade to the new cabin class. And quite frankly, given the rather unattractive and uncomfortable new Business Class product Lufthansa is currently introducing across its long-haul fleets, that may very well happen.
There was a news item on Lufthansa’s new cabin class on the Swiss national evening news. The piece features a very short interview with me, which is only available in German though.
I have a meeting to attend at the ICAO Regional Office in Paris. Originally the plan had been for me to fly with HOP! from Basel to Orly and then to return with KLM via Amsterdam. Eventually though, this proved too expensive because the airport of Basel is de iure on French territory. As a result, the flight from Basel to Orly is operated as a domestic service. As far as the fare is concerned, to combine that flight with a return on KLM would have meant a combination of a domestic oneway with an international oneway, which made the ticket very expensive. So eventually I had no other choice but to get myself a ticket from Zürich to Paris Roissy with a return on KLM via Amsterdam for less than half the price and which then qualifies as an international round trip.
No sooner had I booked the ticket, the Air France pilots decided to go on strike over management’s intention to strengthen Transavia in Europe. And so my original flight to Paris at 16:40 was eventually cancelled and I was reprotected on to the later flight at 18:00. In the sum of all things, I think Air France handled the situation very well. Given the amount of strikes the carrier’s staff has staged over the years though, that is hardly surprising…
Getting to the Airport
I leave Basel on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Probably this is going to be one of the last nice days before autumn sets in. I take the 15:07 ICE to Zürich, which is surprisingly punctual today. German trains are notoriously late. The journey to Zürich main station takes fifty minutes. At the main station I cross the platform and board the airport train. The journey to the airport only takes eight minutes.
Terminal: Check-in 2 Row: 4 Counters: Dedicated SkyTeam check-in counters. There is a separate queue for SkyPriority passengers
I drop my bag at check-in and collect my boarding pass. I’ve already checked in using the KLM app but the Add to Passbook functionality is not working – again. The airport is pretty busy in the retail area above the railway station, while the check-in area is fairly quiet.
Type of Lounge: Air France branded lounge Facilities: Small area for work and two work stations with computers, the toilets are outside Wifi: Available for free on request at reception Catering: A small selection of cold snacks and drinks, the only hot item is a tomato soup which looks as though it has been there all day
Security is easy. Here too there is a dedicated queue for First Class and Business Class passengers and Priority card holders. The security check point will eject you straight into the duty free shopping area. To reach the Air France lounge walk through the shopping area and turn left. Keep walking past the Swiss restaurant and then do a sharp left turn. Go up the stairs and you arrive at the combined reception area of the Air France and OneWorld lounges, both of which are operated by the same company.
My flight is boarding from gate A05, in one of the oldest parts of what used to be Terminal A. This is a bus gate, so I should be able to take some decent pictures of my chariot to Paris this evening.
The gate agent scans my boarding pass and informs me that I have been upgraded to Premium Economy Class. And so has my colleague M. I do not get a chance to check out the back of the bus, so I am not sure if the flight was really that full – presumably because of the strike – or if this is simply a sign of goodwill on Air France’s side to apologize for the strike.
Our bus pulls up next to the aircraft. The A 318 really is a strange bird. Somehow the proportions just do not seem right. Obviously it has the overall dimensions of the other Airbus narrow bodies. But it is just so short!
Seating: 3 + 3 with the middle seat left empty Pitch: 32 inches With: 17.5 inches Facilities: none
There are four rows of Economy Premium, although initially the seating seems a bit strange. There is one person sitting on either side of row one. Rows two and three are empty and then on row four there is a couple sitting on the left side and three of us sitting in the right side. I am not sure if perhaps the gentleman at the window should have been on row three instead. But it does not really matter. The flight is on fifty-five minutes.
There are three cabin crew on today’s flight. The purser is a middle aged gentleman who has obviously decided not to let the strike dampen his spirits. He is actually quite funny and interacts easily with the passengers.
As I enter the plane, there are refreshing towels laid out by the entrance for passengers to take. Even so, once the doors close one of the crew passes through the cabin offering larger, better quality towels to passengers sitting in Premium Economy. No offence BA, but those flimsy little things you offer in First Class as towels are really no match for these rather substantial things Air France provides in European Economy!
Type of meal: snack Choices: none Meal:
savoury maccaron filled with salmon mouse
something with olives, fennel and aniseed
roll of cream cheese
fresh fruit salad
bottle of mineral water
sweets bag from Fauchon
I have never bothered so far to try Premium Economy Class in Europe on Air France. So perhaps that is why I am all the more surprised when shortly after take-off the service begins and one of the crew places a tray with food on it in front of me. Goodness!
What’s more, the food is rather tasty. Of course it is only a small snack, but on a flight of less than an hour I was not really expecting any much other than perhaps a cup of water and a forced smile.
I am just about finishing my coffee when the cockpit crew announce that we have started out descent.
Schengen flights operated by the mainline fleet arrive and depart from Terminal 2F. The airport and terminal are surprisingly deserted this evening, and I can only imagine it having something to do with the strike.
Getting into Town
Mode of Transport: suburban train Fare: EUR20 for a return ticket Journey time: 30 minutes to Châtelet Les Halles
There are various options to reach the city from Charles de Gaulle. The cheapest way and probably the quickest is the RER train. Not all the trains stop at all stations on their way into the city. Fortunately, tonight I am in luck and the next train will only be making a brief stop at Terminal 1 before going direct to Les Halles.
There I change to the Metro, from where it is another eleven stops to my hotel in Neuilly. The good thing about the Paris metro is that the stations are very close to each other. So even though there are eleven stops, the journey does in fact not take that long.
All in all, this was another good experience with Air France – despite the strike. The service was very good and I think the way the airline handled my booking was very good and proactive. Even so, a strike is always inconvenient and leaves a bad impression. What good are nice service and good food to me if I cannot even rely on the airline to operate the flight I have booked? I can appreciate that the pilot’s union may be a tad unhappy about the way things are going. But the moment your passengers start getting the full brunt of it, I think you are on a slippery slope.