Business class in flights opens to masses as affordable refuge from Covid-19

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NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – Business class was that silent and spacious sanctuary for the well-heeled, at least until the pandemic destroyed global aviation. But as flights creep back, this once-exclusive haven is being invaded, by the masses.

Flush with cash and a record number of air miles after a year on the ground, leisure travellers are splurging on premium seats for their first trips back. They are not just after the plated food, champagne and little cosmetics that typically come with the higher fares. Rather, they are trying to minimise the risk of catching Covid-19 in the cheek-to-cheek jostle of economy class.

The popularity of these lucrative seats – especially among passengers who had usually shoehorn into economy – is an unexpected boon for airlines weathering a crisis that is forecast to have cost them a staggering US$174 billion (S$231 billion) in losses by the end of 2021.

As vaccinations roll out at pace in the Middle East, the United Kingdom and the United States, free-spending vacationers are emerging as a new market to exploit for carriers desperate to claw back revenue.

New York resident Jennifer Arnold, an avid scuba diver, is flying to the Maldives via Doha on Qatar Airways in May. Though vaccinated, Ms Arnold, who is retired, said securing a business-class seat was essential.

“It was strictly to try to sit in an area with fewer people,” said Ms Arnold, who used points for the outbound leg and paid for her return flight. “I wouldn’t have taken this trip if I had to fly in (economy) while the virus is still raging in so much of the world.”

There is every chance that these people will become permanent residents up the pointy end. Carriers from Deutsche Lufthansa to Virgin Atlantic Airways are now starting to question whether business travel as the world once knew it will ever return to pre-crisis levels. That means for the next few years at least, there will be a steady supply of premium-class seats priced to sell to the general public – for cash, loyalty points