Are the days of business class luxury over?

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The Independent Travel

There has been a severe drop in the number of people flying premium, business or first, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), prompting some to ask whether the days of champagne and free toiletries are behind us.

For most travelers, reclining into a leather seat and sipping champagne at 35,000 ft is the epitome of frequent flyer sophistication. From the introduction of "premium economy", to the advent of the fully flat bed, to the new Emirates on board shower, it seems that there's something we just can't resist about luxury in the skies.

But a new report from IATA suggests that post-recession, this may not be an option for much longer. Overall, premium traffic fell by 15.8 percent during 2009. It showed a 1.7 percent recovery in December, but was outstripped by a 5 percent jump in economy numbers - which is what is worrying IATA.

The industry body says that it believes that that an upturn in economy travel may be down to the downgrading of business travelers. Its reasoning is that travel for leisure is closely connected to consumer confidence, which has remained flat throughout the recovery in economy-class bookings. Therefore, it believes that business passengers are filling economy seats.

Without business travelers, premium travel classes are likely to struggle. Airlines make a significant proportion of their income from first and business travelers, but the cabins are currently flying nearly 20 percent emptier than they were at the height of 2008, despite costing more to run.

Some airlines have already embraced the idea; Australian media reported in January that flag-carrier Qantas plans to remove two thirds of its First Class seating to make room for more economy seats. In 2009, British Airways chief Willie Walsh confirmed that none of the long haul airlines delivered to the company in 2009 would feature a first class cabin.

A budget future isn't a foregone conclusion though. Business class cabins are more luxurious than ever, and airlines are still investing to stay competitive (despite Walsh's 2009 comments, BA unveiled a £100m (€115m) revamp of First class on February 10 this year). Whether this will continue remains to be seen, but for luxury-loving passengers there is at least one up side; IATA says that average premium fares are still 20% lower than they were in the second quarter of 2008.