Airlines fighting for upscale travelers

Airlines are stepping up competition for full-fare passengers between New York and Los Angeles, with lie-flat seats, pricey French wines, and valets to whisk travelers from curb to gate without wasting time in lines.

The latest dogfight over first- and business-class fliers involves five carriers on the most lucrative US route. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and United ­Airlines are expanding space for high-end customers and offering goodies once reserved for international trips, such as mini-suites.

Joined by JetBlue Airways and Virgin America, they’re chasing bankers, ­celebrities, and others who buy tickets that can top $6,500. That market, a ­minority of passengers on any given trip, produces an estimated 75 percent of the revenue on cross-country flights — a payoff for airlines’ investment in plusher cabins and four-course meals.


‘‘I like my space, my ­privacy, so the comfort level of the seat is really important,’’ said Hal Biagas, general counsel at Excel Sports Management, which represents golfer Tiger Woods and the New York Yankees’ star Derek Jeter. ‘‘What I do tends to draw interest, and I can’t have someone ­looking over my shoulder and seeing a name on a ­presentation or contract.’’

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For those able to afford the fare, the pampering is worthwhile on a trip that spans 2,500 miles and lasts six hours going westbound because of headwinds. That’s only about 90 minutes less than flying to New York from London’s Heathrow Airport.

‘‘Unlike other domestic US routes, there is significant demand from customers who are willing to pay full price to sit in the first-class cabin,’’ said American’s chief commercial officer, Virasb Vahidi.

At AMR Corp.’s American, the transcontinental-only perks include ­concierge employees who greet elite passengers at curbside and whisk them to a dedicated check-in room and a private elevator that skips to the front of the ­security lines. Those fliers then go to the Flagship Lounge, a private facility within American’s Admirals Club lounges.

New York-Los Angeles is both the busiest long-haul US route, at about 3.2 million passengers a year, and the richest, at $1.43 billion in annual sales, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. First-class fares on that trip may be 10 times as much as in coach, based on prices on airline websites.


‘‘Pandering to business traffic is a lot more important than getting volume,’’ said Michael Boyd, president of consultant Boyd Group International in Evergreen, Colo. He estimates that premium seats typically generate three-fourths of the revenue on a cross-country flight.

The airlines’ focus on the most-profitable flying breaks with their old habit of trying to grab passengers even if flights lost money.

American, reorganizing in bankruptcy and poised to merge with US Airways, accounts for 32 percent of revenue on the New York-Los Angeles route, according to Boyd.

By his estimates, Virgin America has 21 percent, Delta has 19 percent, United Continental Holdings’s United is at 16 percent, and JetBlue has 11 percent.