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Korean Air First class. (Korean Air)

Korean Air First class. (Korean Air)

You've just received the quote for your First class ticket on a scheduled airline. Because there are no direct flights, it requires connections.

Perhaps the layovers are long and there's a night in a hotel en route.

That's more expense on top of a hefty airline ticket, along with more valuable time spent travelling and less spent in the boardroom. Perhaps there's another solution?

Private air charter is becoming increasingly sought-after in Africa, as corporate travellers recognise the cost and time efficiencies realised when you call the shots.

And while you won't always find in-flight showers or the latest Hollywood blockbuster on board, depending on the length of your trip and the size of your budget, private charters can provide a supremely comfortable flight with plenty of perks.

"The customer experience will be on par with — but mostly exceed — that of the in-flight Business or First class experience, with specific reference to long-haul aircraft such as the Global Express or Gulfstream aircraft," says Philip du Preez, fixed wing charter manager for National Airways Corporation in South Africa.

Tailor-made catering
"Clients enjoy a tailor-made catering and bar service, with every other specific request catered for, whether it be a specific selection of reading material or maintaining a specific cabin temperature."

Those individual preferences can include the wines you'd like to enjoy onboard, what you'd prefer to eat, the style of in-flight service and even how the plane is laid out.

"Most long-haul aircraft, although they can seat 14 passengers, can comfortably convert seats into lie-flat beds for passengers. Should the client require an aircraft with sleeping facilities, the number of passengers needs to be lowered in order to accommodate passengers that need lie-flat beds," notes Du Preez.

"With a modern charter aircraft fleet, the in-flight entertainment will again be customised as per the client's request."

The premium experience begins down on terra firma with private airport terminals. Charter companies usually provide comfortable lounge facilities, but "most travellers using charter just want to get going", says Chris Frost, business development manager: flight operations South Africa for ExecuJet Aviation Group.

ExecuJet operates a fleet of 60 aircraft out of hubs in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Lagos.

Private lounges
"Private lounges are offered at the reputable private terminals and offer all the amenities you would need prior to leaving on your flight or on return," says Frost.

"Demand varies dependant on the nature of the flight. A group of business folk may be arriving from different locations or at differing times, and require a central meeting point. In general, the lounges are not expected to host travellers for hours at a time."

The ability to hold confidential meetings and get down to work in-flight are major benefits of chartering, but executives hoping to access the internet during the journey will find themselves either disappointed or paying a hefty bill.

"The high cost of satellite communication and relatively slow speed of data transfer mean limited wider use of this feature," says Frost. "This is an area in which business aircraft manufacturers are investing significant effort.

"Several of ExecuJet's fleet are fitted for internet access, but there is a high cost of between $7 and $10 per minute for satellite time, which is usually not included in your air charter price."

Du Preez says: "From a research survey conducted amongst our clients, the access to a satellite phone was prioritised over in-flight internet access," but adds: "This will certainly change in the years to come."

Buying flexibility
What private charter really buys you is flexibility — something that even a full-fare First class ticket on a scheduled carrier never will.

By and large the flight revolves entirely around you and your business requirements.

"The main point of private business travel is the time flexibility and related advantages," says Frost.

"Travelling First class on an airline doesn't offer any more flexibility than Economy class — if you're late for your flight you will be left behind. A chartered aircraft is unlikely to leave you behind whatever ground delays you experience."

Flexibility "is the one major differentiating factor to airline travel", agrees Du Preez.

"Once you charter, we operate according to the client's schedule. As long as we adhere to flight and duty rest time for the crew, we can fly whenever a meeting has been concluded. Charter affords the flexibility that an airline schedule cannot compete with."

Of course, a tailored travel experience won't come cheap, but packages "can be designed to suit the client" and are "very flexible in that differently priced aircraft options are offered to suit a budget", says Frost, who adds that while the actual cost of charter may be higher than scheduled services, there are "a host of intangible benefits".

"Saving time at all stages of travel, creating an image, safety and security, protection of company intelligence and no lost luggage all play a role in making corporate travel efficient and effective. This is an area we see as becoming more important than the amenities on board."

The ‘Goldilocks' option grows
Corporate travel is often about finding a balance — respecting the Chinese tradition of toasting around the dinner table, but still being able to string a sentence together at the end of the meal; spending as much time in the Lagos office as you can, but not leaving so late you miss your flight.

Balance the numbers to ensure the trip pays off in the long run; spend a little more on your ticket so you can work en route, arrive refreshed and make the most out of your trip.

That last option is just one of the reasons behind the growth in premium economy cabins on many of the world's leading airlines.

Occupying a space — both physically and cost-wise — between economy class and business class, premium economy cabins offer an attractive mix of more personal space than economy, but without all the frills of business.

Perhaps the most important sacrifice you'll make is the lie-flat bed, but if the flight is short or you're adept at sleeping upright, it's often a sacrifice worth making.

"Premium economy is an enhanced end-to-end passenger experience from economy class and has been well received by various long-haul markets," says Frosti Lau, country manager: South Africa and Indian Ocean for Cathay Pacific Airways.

Larger baggage allowance
The airline introduced premium economy in 2012, offering a larger baggage allowance, dedicated check-in counter and priority boarding, a separate cabin of 26 to 34 seats, bespoke amenity kit and noise-cancelling headset, in addition to an upgraded meal service.

"Since the launch of the product on the Johannesburg-Hong Kong route, we have seen satisfactory loads in the cabin," says Lau.

"We witnessed that frequent travellers, particularly small and medium-enterprise corporate customers, who used to travel in economy class, are willing to pay extra to make their business trip a more comfortable one."

"Premium economy has proved to be very popular for companies looking to work within smaller budgets," agrees Lauren Egger, sales and marketing executive for Qantas, which has done away with first class on many long-haul routes to increase its premium economy and business offerings.

Oneworld alliance partner British Airways was one of the early-adopters of premium economy, offering its World Traveller Plus cabins on selected long-haul routes, while Star Alliance stalwart Lufthansa is planning to introduce a premium economy cabin from mid-2014.

Virgin Atlantic recently upgraded its premium economy cabins to offer stylish leather seats with a 38-inch pitch, and offers dedicated check-in lanes on the ground.

Spacious seats
Back in 2009, Air France introduced its premium voyageur cabin, which is available on nearly all of the airline's long-haul services.

It was the first European airline to offer hard-shell seats outside of the business and first class cabins, with spacious seats, a 123° recline and wide leather armrests.

Premium voyageur passengers also enjoy business class (known as affaires) amenities that include a travel kit, noise-reducing headphones, a feather pillow and a pure new wool blanket.

Aside from these additional cabin comforts, passengers accrue 25% more flying blue loyalty miles than on an economy ticket, and are allowed two items of baggage up to 23 kilograms each.

For flying across the Atlantic, Delta Air Lines has recently introduced a premium economy offering on certain routes into Africa.

"Customers flying in Economy Comfort benefit from up to four additional inches of legroom, 35 inches of seat pitch, and 50% more recline than Delta's standard Economy class seat," says Margaret Copeland, sales manager: South Africa for Delta Air Lines.

Premium Economy is increasingly making perfect sense for both airlines and travellers.

Executives with sufficient travel budgets will still fork out for the lie-flat luxuries of Business class, but travellers with an eye on the bottom line can now buy slightly more comfort without breaking the bank.

According to CNN's airline and aviation correspondent Richard Quest, Premium Economy poses no threat to the high-yielding Business class cabins: "Premium Economy doesn't cannibalise your Business class passenger — actually, people trade up from Economy to Premium economy."

This article first appeared in the October issue of Business Traveller Africa magazine, a division of Future Group. It has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G's supplements editorial team



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