Business class bargains put bums on seats

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The Independent Online
TOURISTS looking for a touch of luxury are snapping up discounted business-class seats on flights to the Far East, with prices a third less than last year's and often nearing the old economy-price fare.

With this year's crash in Far Eastern markets hitting business travel, airlines have had to slash prices; tickets can now be bought from pounds 750. And while Singapore Airlines has just introduced a third daily flight from the UK to Singapore, other airlines are cutting back.

British Airways, for example, stopped flights to Seoul at the height of South Korea's financial crisis, and may put on hold extra services to Osaka in Japan. Philippine Airlines has cut UK flights entirely.

Agencies specialising in cheap round-the-world deals for backpackers have taken advantage of the trend for business-class travel, despite having to sell twice as many tickets to keep profits rolling in. Phil Howarth, reservations manager at Airline Network, said: "We are doing extremely well and selling a lot of our business-class fares to leisure travellers. It's very buoyant at the moment."

He said cheap accommodation and a strong pound meant holiday-makers were considering holidays in countries once regarded as far-flung and exotic, such as Thailand and Malaysia. "You can stay in five-star hotels in Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia for pounds 15 or pounds 25 per night. It really is a bargain."

A spokeswoman for Thomas Cook confirmed: "People are getting a long-haul holiday for the price of a short-haul one. There really are some brilliant prices around."

Ironically, the quality of business class to the Far East has never been higher. In-flight Research Services gave Asia-Pacific airlines 10 of the 20 top places in its 1998 survey.

Jerry Bridge, who set up London-based travel agency Bridge the World 10 years ago, said airlines were having to find new ways to meet passenger expectations. Some have introduced a deluxe economy class while others have scrapped first class. Quality of food and availability of alcohol mattered less than added extras, such as personal video screens, he said, adding: "Leg room and seat pitch are most important."

Those flying business class in the same aeroplane will pay anything across a spectrum of fares, he said. "An airline like Garuda, which flies from Gatwick, represents extremely good value, but stops three times on the way to Jakarta. You get what you pay for. Obviously, businessmen who over the years have flown business class probably feel the tone has gone down: you do get people much more casually dressed."

Discounted business-class seats are mostly taken by professionals on holiday or retired people, according to Mr Howarth. "It's those who can afford to pay that little bit extra and appreciate the comfort." But he dismissed the idea that the swarm of "gap-year" students set to bombard the Far East this autumn would opt for the upgrade. Jennifer Cox, of guidebook publishers Lonely Planet, agreed. "To save pounds 10 is a big deal when you're 18."

But she added: "To travel business class these days can be quite a surprise, and you do see people with shell-suits. For others, it's an occasion, and they dress up like for a night at the opera. People should enter into the spirit of it: I always wear my best linen jacket."