MIAMI — Star Alliance partners Lufthansa and United Airlines recently unveiled a series of upgrades designed to enhance the passenger experience.  An industry experts applauds the efforts for both carriers, but has concern on their executions of it.

Lufthansa said its changes, based on feedback from customers, will include a new modern cabin design across its fleet and new inflight service concepts designed to target business and leisure travelers. Starting in the third quarter, the German flag carrier has announced plans to add what it calls state-of-the-art seats across all cabins in its long-haul aircraft. The carrier is also upgrading its inflight Wi-Fi by adding FlyNet broadband internet service on all long-haul flights.

A big part of the cabin upgrade is the installation of premium economy class, which Lufthansa launched on its Boeing 747-8i fleet in December 2014. The carrier says it will install nearly 3,600 seats on 106 long-haul aircraft. The product is currently available on 30 aircraft.

Lufthansa’s premium economy cabin. (Credits: Lufthansa)
Lufthansa’s premium economy cabin. (Credits: Lufthansa)

Back in December, Carsten Spohr, chairman and CEO of Lufthansa’s executive board said the carrier was making major changes in the front of the aircraft to become the first Western airline with a five-star airline rating by offering a Business Class with more individualized service.  After testing the product, giving passengers the feel of being in a top restaurant, the concept is being rolled out.

Business class on Lufthansa’s Boeing 747-8i. (Credits: Lufthansa)
Business class on Lufthansa’s Boeing 747-8i. (Credits: Lufthansa)

Lufthansa’s new Business Class Restaurant Service, which will be featured on long-haul flights starting this summer, will have the feel of being served in a high-class restaurant. Tables will be set individually, and meals and drinks will be brought from the galley to passengers individually, with each flight attendant having a set number of passengers to serve. The carrier is also adding 7,000 full lie-flat seats on its fleet of long-haul aircraft.

Henry Harteveldt is the founder and travel industry analyst and advisor for the Atmosphere Research Group. “I’m always concerned when an airline  says it will have state-of-the-art seats. That means seats that are thinner and less comfortable,” he said. “Lufthansa’s premium economy seat seems to be a nice hard product, and I’m hearing good things about it.”

Improving Wi-Fi is important, said Harteveldt. “It’s so critical now to business travelers who want to remain connected,” he said. “Travelers are increasingly expecting this as an amenity, regardless of cabin class.”

Lufthansa’s restaurant-style service is a great idea if it can deliver it in the right way, said Harteveldt. “United tried an on-demand meal service and the flight attendants didn’t like it,” he said.

Doing away with trolleys and offering a more personal service is something that passengers will appreciate, providing the meals match the service, said Harteveldt. “Delta and American roll carts down the aisle, and it really does demean the experience because it’s not pleasant or refined,” he said. “The challenge for Lufthansa with this restaurant experience is having the right number of cabin crew available so if a flight attendant gets a request they can do it without forcing passengers to wait an unreasonable amount of time.”

United Clubs Prepare for Upgrade

Meanwhile, United Airlines has launched a major upgrade of its United Clubs, including food changes, extensive renovations and a focus on hospitality. The airline will launch an all-new free food menu in its 49 United Clubs, ranging from a Greek yogurt bar and hot oatmeal station to hummus with pretzel crisps and peppers.

Food from the upgraded offerings at the United Club. (Credits: United)
Food from the upgraded offerings at the United Club. (Credits: United Airlines)

The changes will start at United’s flagship club at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The new items will be available at United Clubs in Houston, Denver, Newark, Los  Angeles, San Francisco and Washington Dulles by the end of summer, and all clubs will feature the new food by the end of the year.

In 2015, United will renovate all clubs in Chicago O’Hare, Washington Reagan, Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita airports, and will build new clubs in Atlanta and San Francisco, along with major changes in Los Angeles.

The United Club at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. (Credits: United Airlines)
The United Club at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. (Credits: United Airlines)

The new and upgraded clubs will feature a modern style with upgraded amenities that are already showcased in the airline’s Chicago O’Hare, Boston, London Heathrow, San Diego and Seattle United Clubs. The new design is a mix of United’s aviation history and modern-day aviation in action, along with more and diverse seating arrangements.

And to ensure the passenger experience matches the upgraded facilities, the airline will retrain its United Club agents under a new customer service program during the year. Agents will focus on learning the tricks of the trade in the hotel and hospitality industry to better match club members’ expectations.

While Harteveldt applauds United for its efforts, he noted that the airline is playing catch-up. “The club refresh campaign was announced a few years ago, but I’m disappointed that it’s gone so slowly,” he said. “But it’s definitely needed and will be appreciated by both United’s premium passengers and those who buy day passes.”

It’s definitely a step in the right direction, said Harteveldt. “The economy is strong and the airlines are raising fares and limiting discount fares sold in all cabins,” he said. “As profits improve, it’s good to see airlines investing in their product from nose to tail.”

Lufthansa and United are not alone in their efforts, said Harteveldt. “SAS recently upgraded its long-haul meal service, and we’ve seen stories on how British Airways may be investing in its premium long-haul service,” he said. “Asia carriers are not far behind and of course, the Big Three Gulf carriers are always improving.”

“Any U.S. carrier that doesn’t think they need to invest in their product is deluding itself,” said Harteveldt. “None of the U.S. airlines can been seen as industry-leading when compared to foreign carriers on long-haul routes.”

Look at how JetBlue entered with its Mint product and how it may expand, said Harteveldt. “The Big Three network carriers can’t afford to be complacent and greedy.”