Travel adviser: Creature comforts

All of us know what first class is, some of us fly in business class and the vast majority sit in economy class.

El Al airplanes sit on the runway 370 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
El Al airplanes sit on the runway 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
‘You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
In this US presidential election year, the aforementioned quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, sums up exactly what El AL is trying to do with its much-touted “economy class plus” option.
All of us know what first class is, some of us fly in business class and the vast majority sit in economy class. These three designations have been used by airlines since planes took to the air. Aircrafts come in different sizes, and the three classes differ widely between various airlines but in principle, when you purchase a ticket in any of the classes, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect.
Over 20 years ago, privately owned Taiwan-based airline Eva Air created a fourth category, premium economy. Don’t trouble yourself trying to comprehend what that means. If you’ve experienced different types of economy classes, “economy plus” and “premium economy” vary even more significantly among airlines.
For example inside the United States, airlines such as United, Delta and Virgin America have an upgraded economy class, which differs only by the extra two to five inches of leg room. Of course no two airlines call it the same thing – some classify it as “economy plus,” “economy comfort” or “economy class plus” – and each entails different benefits.
Australian airline Qantasoffers a “premium economy” class that includes premium check-in, large customized seats, seat pitch up to 41 inches with 50 percent more recline, premium meals, a personal in-flight entertainment center and an amenity pouch containing items such as socks, sleep masks & ear plugs.
From Tel Aviv, British Airways has been one of the pioneers of premium economy, offering it on flights to and from London to great success, as well as across the Atlantic.
Passengers enjoy sitting in a completely separate cabin, marketed by BA as “World Traveler Plus.”
From Tel Aviv, only five airlines fly non-stop to North America: Air Canada flies to Toronto, US Air to Philadelphia, Delta to JFK, United to Newark and El AL flies to JFK, Newark and Toronto. The first two airlines have no first class; The offer only a superb business class and a comfortable economy class.
Delta Airlines was the first to introduce the “economy comfort” class, offering extra legroom in the first cabin of economy class on their refurbished 747. You can enjoy an extra four inches of leg room and 50% greater recline as well as complimentary liquor. You can drink to your heart’s content, with prices ranging from $150 to $200 more per seat.
It must be stated, though, that all members of their Diamond and Medallion frequent flier clubs get these seats for free. All who purchase a full-fare economy class ticket, which starts at $2,588, can also sit in these seats.
United Airlines, too, is rolling out economy plus seats on its twice-daily Boeing 777 flight to Newark. United’s elite frequent-flier members get the seats for free, and the general public can purchase them for similar rates that match Delta‘s.
El Al, though, has chosen a different path.
Leave it to top management at El AL, when offered a viable way to increase revenue, to offer a muddled product.
Tens of thousands of dollars have been earmarked for advertising in both print and television, heralding their dramatic news: El Al Economy Class Plus.
Using the tag line, “For you, there’s always more!” El Al states that you can now enjoy a more comfortable, pampering and pleasant flight experience. Comfortable seating in an ergonomic seat with a footrest, more personal space, and quick and easy check-in entice potential customers.
In fact, their press release states this new package, which is only available on Boeing 747-400 planes to and from JFK, Newark and London, include the following: Designated check-in counters; Individual entertainment system; More comfortable work and entertainment environment, including an electric outlet; Economy Class meals; Alcoholic beverages as served in Economy Class; Special comfort kit; Business Class pillow and blanket; And many more features for a richer flight experience.
It all sounds wonderful and, like most airlines, frequent fliers and anyone paying for a full-fare economy class ticket gets these perks for free.
I’ve been pushing El AL for over a year to create such a package and assured them there was a strong need for it. I shared with them how much market share they lost to British Airways on flights to London, as there was a wealth of customers willing to spend a bit more than the price for economy class.
El Al is asking an extra $150 for economy class plus seats on flights to long-range destinations and only $80 to shorter-range destinations like London.
Years ago, Tower Air saw just how successful this concept was. Passengers as well as the entire travel industry realized there was a need to open up this class.
Over the last two weeks, my office has been bombarded with clients willing to fork out their hard earned dough or having convinced their companies that they are worth the extra cost to fly in economy plus. I have no doubt that El AL has had countless requests for these seats as well.
Take the high holiday season for an example.
Flights are full, tempers will flare and it’s prime picking for these better seats. Want to guess how many seats El AL has sold since they initiated their campaign? ZERO!!! Yes, El Al has not sold a single seat for that period. Plenty of seats exist, plenty of people want to purchase them but not one has been sold. Are you wondering why not? Because El Al, in its infinite wisdom, exhaustive market research and hundreds of hours of consultation, elected to phrase their promotion as follows: “Would you like to treat yourself to a more pampering flight experience? Sign up now to be wait-listed for a seat in Economy Class Plus on your next flight and you will receive notification confirming your seat in the Class the day before the flight.”
Being seated in Economy Class Plus entails a fee. Call me stupid, but you’ve created a product for which there is a demand, you’ve been promoting it nonstop, it has value and yet you tell clients that they can’t purchase it but must simply register for it and if it’s available the day before the flight they can purchase it? Has El Al really lost its mind? Why invest so much time and money if you’re not even trying to sell the seats? When the facts came to light, I realized that El AL wasn’t actually trying to make money by selling these seats. They were simply trying to strengthen their bonds with their Gold & Platinum frequent fliers. The message was clear; don’t fly with Delta or United, avoid flying with BA or Lufthansa, stick with El AL and you can have these better seats for free – if you qualify.
I’m not opposed to that philosophy; I long ago stopped arguing with the logic of airline executives. If you want to improve the flying experience for your highest-level frequent fliers, I’m all for it.
Just don’t create a new class, market it incessantly and then make it so that only when one reads the small print or contacts their Travel Consultant or El Al, does the potential buyer realizes he’s being bamboozled.
When told that for only $2,588 they can get the seat for free, most clients are going to feel victimized.
El Al needs to comprehend – and quickly – that the vast majority of us are not fools.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.