Steve Jones’ Say

In between watching Peter Rabbit and Paddington Bear on a trip back from the UK recently — I was in the mood for undemanding entertainment — I caught an interview with Tim Clark, the president of Emirates.

It was broadcast on the airline’s in-house radio station, so a softer interview you’d be hard pressed to find.

In it, Clark covered several issues. Emirates’ deepening relationship with Fly Dubai and the Qantas alliance among them. So strong is the bond between Emirates and Qantas that from March our flag carrier felt able to re-route its A380s through Singapore, he said by way of explaining why Qantas ditched Dubai on its London route.

Leaving that to one side, Clark — one of the most experienced and respected of airline executives — turned to a particular hobby horse of mine, the economy cabin.

Emirates, he told the interviewer, was not just about the premium end of town. Sure, it’s hugely important, but with 70% of its revenue derived from economy sales, it also needs to focus on the not-so-affluent traveller.

Maybe Clark was paying lip service to his captive audience. But it didn’t seem that way. Regardless, it was refreshing to actually hear a senior executive talk more about the importance of economy class than luxury.

Conversations about the bread and butter do not take place often enough. Airlines will disagree I’m sure, but their efforts are based almost exclusively around providing an ever more comfortable first and business product even though the overwhelming majority of us don’t ever have a prayer of experiencing it.

In fairness, the economy experience is unrecognisable from the days when the only entertainment was one movie shown on a large white screen at the front of the cabin. The meal was a choice of one dish and the quality somewhat hit and miss, with a heavy skew to the latter.

Now, almost every airline flying internationally has seat-back TVs, a choice of meals — of vastly superior quality — and a generally more convivial experience.

Yet I can’t help feeling airlines have been missing a trick with their almost obsessive quest to out-do each other to attract high-end, high-margin customers.

Notwithstanding configuration and space restrictions of an economy cabin, innovation of any real meaning has been lacking. I’ve always thought a bar was the most obvious addition to the experience. Yes, it would bring obvious challenges, but surely not insurmountable ones. How about onboard lectures? Pre-bookable massages? These additions needn’t cost a fortune.

But maybe we are beginning to see a shift. In addition to Clark at least addressing the issue of the economy passenger, Qantas, through their Project Sunrise, is exploring what the design of future aircraft may look like on ultra-long haul flights.

Bars, crches and exercise zones have all been mooted.

There’s a TV program I watch called “Amazing Spaces” that showcases the most extraordinary designs in the tiniest of areas on the smallest of budgets. Where there’s a will…