Airlines are hiring celebrity chefs, putting designer skin-care items in bathroom kits and racing to redo seats in business and first class cabins to lie flat in an all-out push to attract premium passengers.
Carriers breathed a collective sigh of relief earlier this year when an international trade association released a report showing a double-digit falloff in business travel since 2008 is likely cyclical, rather than permanent.
"A robust rise in world trade seems to be driving the upturn in premium passengers, which is largely business travel," wrote economists for the International Air Transport Assn.
Based on this expected recovery, airlines should restore about a third of the capacity on international routes that they removed in the last two years, said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann Company Inc.
Business and first class travelers are airlines' bread and butter, and carriers are fiercely competing for their attention -- these passengers typically pay 30% more than those in economy - -by dangling all sorts of unusual goodies in front of them.
At Continental Airlines, business and first-class passengers on a Houston-to-Frankfurt flight can dine on broiled tenderloin steak accented with asagio cheese broth, brown butter gnocchi and marinated asparagus. On other routes, travelers are being offered tamale-filled chicken breast, roasted tomatoes and grilled yucca batons (whatever those are.)
The nation's fifth-biggest airline is also installing Direct TV for passengers on flights within the continental United States and making the service available for free for first- and business-class passengers, while their counterparts in economy will be charged a $6 access fee, said airline spokeswoman Mary Clark.
Premium passengers traveling on United Airlines can check the airlines' aptly named www.suitedreams.united.com to see if a wide-body, international flight offers beds that lie flat. The carrier also recently announced that it will offer upper-class passengers on international routes kits with Murad Skin Perfecting Lotion -- which retails at $33 for 1.7 ounces.
Foreign carriers are also upping their offerings for premium passengers, with Air France offering limousine service directly to the ramp at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport.
British Airways said recently it spent $151 million to create first-class offerings that provide "an exclusive experience based on classic design and understated opulence." It's up travelers to decide if the personal wardrobe, leather-top desk, mood lighting, and Anya Hindmarch-designed wash bag are worth the higher ticket price.
How much house can I afford
Home buying 101, evaluating one of your most important financial decisions.View Course »