In the Name of Fun, Virgin Atlantic Makes Waves in the Latest Seat Wars

The airline known for quirky perks is considering showers and hot tubs for those flying business class overseas.
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For the lucky ducks flying business class overseas, it just keeps getting better.

Major airlines are spending hundreds of millions of dollars rejiggering their business-class cabins and accompanying perks on overseas flights. On the ground are chauffeurs, concierge services and lounges designed to smell like the outdoors (newly mowed grass, for example). In flight, it's haute cuisine, fluffy duvets and entertainment units in the armrests of recliners that are akin to La-Z-Boy chairs. And it has come down to an argument of mere inches over which airline can top the others' legroom.

It's little wonder carriers are laying it on thick. The business-class market industrywide is seven times larger and growing four times faster than the first-class market, says Dan Lewis, spokesman for

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Report

. And in total, business travelers account for about 70% of airline revenues, says Brian Harris, an analyst with

Salomon Smith Barney

of New York.

But as airlines attempt to outdo each other with

Godiva

chocolates and vintage port wines, one is really jacking up the fun factor. On the drawing board at

Virgin Atlantic

: planes with double beds, exercise facilities, showers and -- grab the swimsuit and flip-flops -- a communal hot tub. "It sounds like a cruise," acknowledges Elvi Taveras, the Connecticut-based spokeswoman for Virgin.

Is all this even feasible? Apparently. Leaked

Boeing

(BA) - Get Report

documents, published Monday in

Aviation Week & Space Technology

, reveal plans for a new jumbo jet that could be outfitted with as many as 82 sleeper berths. Rival

Airbus Industrie

on Tuesday announced that it, too, is designing a Titanic-sized, two-story craft, one that could seat 650 and house shops, gyms and bedrooms.

Privately held Virgin Atlantic, run by business tycoon and balloonist

Richard Branson

, is becoming renowned for its quirky perks.

A ticket in Virgin's "Upper Class" business seating includes limousine service -- sedan or Range Rover -- to and from the airport. Or, for madcaps in London, there's the "LimoBike." Virgin travelers don helmets, gloves and windbreakers, then climb aboard Honda motorcycles driven by retired police officers for zippy commutes to and from the city (30 minutes each way). Virgin experimented last summer with a "LimoBoat" service, navigating its passengers in six-seat vessels from a port near London's Heathrow Airport down the Thames River and into town. (The company hasn't decided if the LimoBoats will be used this year.)

Business-class fliers departing from London, Newark, San Francisco and soon New York City's JFK can skip the hassle of luggage toting and ticket lines with Virgin's "Drive-Thru Check-In." Chauffeurs call airports en route, baggage tags are pre-printed and ready at the Drive-Thru facility, and fliers answer security questions as they lounge in the back seat of their limousine -- before being driven directly to a Virgin club room. Once onboard, flight attendants pass out "snoozesuits," heather-gray, two-piece pajamas, and in-flight massages and manicures are available on select flights from Virgin's flying "beauty therapists."

"That would be great," says Jane Sharp, an accountant from Toledo, Ohio, who often flies overseas. She says she's impressed by the demand for business-class tickets. "You can't get business-class overseas; it's always full."

The neck rubs and French tips surely please some passengers. But one wish tops most business travelers' lists. "Their biggest desire is a comfortable seat," says Shannon Stewart Ingram, vice president for

Professional Travel/Navigant International

, a Colorado-based corporate travel agency.

British Airways may have jump-started the seat wars when it unveiled its to-die-for "flying bed" for first-class passengers. The airline in 1996 turned to yacht designers to create its award-winning, patented compartment -- a partially enclosed cubicle that converts from an armchair with a table and spare seat to a flat twin bed. The privilege of flying in it today costs roughly $9,000 roundtrip between New York to London.

That first-class price would never fly on most people's expense accounts. By comparison, most airlines' roundtrip business-class flights between U.S. cities and London cost $5,000 to $6,000, or roughly 10 times higher than coach tickets. But many are willing to pay that much for the long hauls overseas.

Eyeing potential business-class revenue, several airlines, including Delta,

US Airways

(U)

and

TWA

(TWA)

, have scrapped the first class altogether on overseas flights and are making "business" the premiere cabin. To the victors belong the spoils.

Delta is pouring $314 million into business-class upgrades, including yanking old seats from its planes and replacing them with motorized reclining seats that Lewis claims offers the most personal space of any airline. Delta has even posted on its

Web site (look for "business elite" and "outclassing") an airline-by-airline comparison of space, in inches, to prove its point.

US Airways also has installed the roomier sleeper seats with personal video screens, revamped its menus and wine list with the guidance of LeBecFine, the restaurant in Philadelphia, and sent its flight attendants to the

Culinary Institute of Arts

for a crash course in food and etiquette, says airline spokesman Dave Castelveter.

TWA is spending millions of dollars a year upgrading its business-class cabins, says spokesman Jim Brown. Last month TWA rolled out its newest offering -- a video system where fliers select tapes from a library of first-run movies and then view them in their seats on individual monitors, stopping and starting them as they please.

Continental Airlines

(CAI.A)

is adding to its fleet new aircraft with wider sleeper seats, laptop power ports and personal video screens, says spokeswoman Catherine Stengel. At mealtime, appetizer carts are pushed down the aisles -- wines and cheeses vary by the destination city -- and gourmet meals, which Stengel says are designed by some of the nation's top chefs, are served.

On the ground, upper-class ticket holders also gain admission to airline lounges, which have become dens of amenities featuring concierge services, hair salons, shoe shines, massages, showers, phones, fax machines and breakfast buffets. British Airways earlier this year outfitted its Heathrow club with an aromatherapy system that pumps into the air either the smell of the ocean or freshly cut grass.

The airlines' exhaustive efforts to coddle business-class travelers on overseas trips is boggling. Yet none of the efforts top Virgin's funky idea for its flying cruise ship. The airline's product development team is working on that with aircraft-builder Airbus, Virgin's Taveras says.

Virgin has ordered 16 Airbus A340-600s for delivery beginning in 2002. Besides double beds, plans include converting some of the cargo space into bars, lounges, gymnasiums, showers and hot tubs.

Given the turbulent nature of aircrafts, aren't some activities better suited to the ground? What happens when, say, a Virgin Atlantic passenger caught mid-shower is asked to return to his seat? "We haven't figured that out yet," Taveras says. "It's all still a concept."

Susan C. Schena is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based freelance writer. She previously worked as an editor at the Albuquerque Tribune and as a reporter for the New Mexico Business Watch and the San Diego Business Journal. She can be reached at

scschena@mediaone.net.