Opening in late October 2014, The Loft is a showpiece of which Brussels Airlines appears to have every right to be proud. (I can attest this from a personal experience of visiting The Loft.)
Capable of hosting up to 300 passengers, The Loft has eight different areas for different human activities – connecting online, working (in an area with more than 150 electrical sockets for computers and other electronic devices), relaxing, dining (including a beer bar sponsored by giant Belgian brewer AB Inbev), taking naps between flights, showering, and using lavatory and washroom facilities.
But it also has much more. One walled-off, 20-square-meter area of The Loft, adorned with soothing art on its walls, is a special area only for top-tier members of the Miles & More frequent-flyer program of which Brussels Airlines is a member. (The airline is 45 per cent owned by Lufthansa Group, which holds an option until 2017 to buy the remaining 55 per cent stake.)
Brussels Airlines’ decision to innovate in The Loft has led it to put 10 of the lounge’s customer-service employees through butler training. This is so that they can be sensitive to every guest’s individual requirements, observant in seeing where a guest might benefit from assistance (technical or otherwise) and discreet in offering and providing assistance.
The Loft also is the first lounge in the world where Microsoft has partnered with an airline to offer guests free connectivity services. When a guest enters The Loft, he or she is offered (on short-duration loan) a Surface Pro 3 tablet-and-netbook for personal use while in the lounge.
Each tablet comes loaded with apps which include not only connectivity tools such as Skype, Hotmail and YouTube, but also Xbox games, weather forecasts, and news and destination-guide apps, along with new films and TV apps for entertainment.
As the ‘Microsoft Ambassadors’ (who are Microsoft employees) offering the Surface Pro 3 tablets will explain to any guest, each tablet also has an app which counts down the time to the passenger’s flight and alerts him or her to the need to move to the gate for boarding.
Other apps allow guests to book use of a shower room or a bed in the napping area. (Each bed is pod-shaped for privacy and has a clearly visible LED light which automatically changes from green to red when a person is occupying the nap pod.)
Brussels Airlines’ innovative spirit extends to its other key customer-service area too, the in-flight experience. Kergoat says that Brussels Airlines was the first carrier to adopt the improved version of the popular Vantage long-haul Business Class seat (made by Thompson Aero Seating in Northern Ireland).
The improved version offers a seat which reclines into a 79-inch full-flat bed. It does so within a 45-inch seat-pitch, staggered-row arrangement that allows Brussels Airlines to provide 30 Business Class seats without having to move any of its A330 galleys back or forward to accommodate the new seats.
Brussels Airlines’ improved Vantage seat also does more. A pneumatic system built into each seat and controlled by its ergonomically designed controls (which are located next to the passenger on the armrest) also lets each passenger select the desired softness or hardness of the seat and bed cushions. This can help passengers to sleep and make their sleep more comfortable.
Innovation has also extended to the look of the Business Class cabin in each of Brussels Airlines’ A330s. Kergoat says his airline was the first to use a new, high-class, automobile-dashboard design look for its Business Class cabins, mixing leather, aluminum and faux-wood finishes.
Brussels Airlines decided against the use of dividers between its long-haul Business Class seats, giving its passengers the choice of sitting alone or with someone else.
Eight of each cabin’s 30 Business Class seats are single seats with broad table surfaces on each side – the carrier calls them ‘king’ seats – and the other 22 are in pairs. Since some of these pairs are in the center of the cabin between the aisles, 24 of the 30 seats in each cabin have direct aisle access.
Kergoat is also proud that, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines having pioneered development of the new ‘Rave’ in-flight entertainment (IFE) system by Zodiac Aerospace U.S., Brussels Airlines was the next airline to adopt it. It began retrofitting its all-Airbus A330 long-haul fleet with the new IFE system in 2012, in a €35 million exercise.
‘Rave’ is a seatback-based IFE system in which the seatback screen isn’t just a monitor: it is a touch-screen tablet computer fixed in place by a solid fitting which prevents the passenger in the seat in front from feeling any annoying sensation when a passenger taps on the screen.
Using tablets instead of mere monitors as seatback screens offers several advantages, according to Kergoat. One is that each tablet stores all 150 hours of video and audio content uploaded to it via a small upload wire from the server, so there is no need for the much larger and heavier cables required for streaming content constantly from the on-board IFE server to each seatback. The only content streamed is the real-time map display of the aircraft’s position, speed, altitude and other information.
Although some other carriers have subsequently matched its initiative, the 15.3 diagonal screen dimension of Brussels Airlines’ Business Class seatback tablets was the largest Business Class seatback screen offered by any carrier when it first introduced the new Rave IFE system, according to Kergoat.
In addition to its new Business Class seats, Brussels Airlines has adopted new long-haul Economy seats too. Each seat also comes with a Rave seatback tablet screen, but at 8.9 inches diagonal dimension, the tablet is much smaller in the tablet at each Business Class seat.
The carrier doesn’t have Premium Economy seating, because, according to Kergoat, it feels its long-haul economy-class seats are “actually a very good alternative to premium economy” and much better than the economy seats that competitors offer on transatlantic routes.
“Our economy is positioned to be the best economy class in Europe and we’re tackling the premium economy seats of U.S. carriers,” says Kergoat.
Each Brussels Airlines long-haul economy seat has a seat pitch of at least 32 inches (some have 34-inch pitch) and offer 11 degrees of recline, compared with the 8 degrees the airline’s previous seats provided. But another factor in their design is perhaps even more important.
Because its Africa routes represent about 90 per cent of its entire long-haul network, Brussels Airlines carries a lot of passengers who are ethnically African. The bodies of ethnic Africans are naturally rather ‘Z’-shaped, according to Kergoat. Because of this, unfortunately, ethnic-African passengers “get a lot of back pain” on long flights when their seats do not provide any lumbar support.
Accordingly, Brussels Airlines has designed its long-haul economy seats with a forward-curved-back shape which supports each passenger’s lumbar region throughout the entirety of the flight, even when a passenger has reclined his or her seat for all seven hours of a night flight from Africa to Brussels.
The carrier is also trying hard to innovate in terms of its in-flight cabin service offering. Crews are given special training to be able to approach passengers sensitively if they sense the passenger might have a need for assistance.
Brussels Airlines’ long-haul specialty as a carrier mainly serving Africa means it must take the likes and dislikes of the continent’s residents into account in its in-flight service offering. The carrier provides “substantial” food portions, even in economy, and makes sure its in-flight menus on flights to and from Africa have lots of choices of African recipes, says Kergoat.
On flights from Kinshasa, its biggest African destination, Brussels Airlines offers a choice of four different main courses on its Business Class menu. Often one of them is Liboké de poisson, a dish of fish cooked in banana leaves and accompanied by a spicy sauce, which is popular throughout the Congo River area. (Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, lies on the Congo River.)
As many other airlines are now doing, Brussels Airlines is now offering on long-haul flights menus of dishes created by top Belgian chefs. The featured chefs change every six months and the menus change more frequently than that, to reflect Belgium’s extremely strong gastronomic culture, its many regional specialties and the varying ingredients of each different season.
The airline occasionally has Michelin-starred chefs provide guest appearances on board long-haul flights to cook for Business Class passengers. The first such chef the airline brought on board to prepare in-flight haute cuisine for passengers was no less a personage than a three-star chef (the ultimate Michelin accolade), from the best restaurant in the famous medieval city of Bruges.
Various other airlines have also adopted this practice. But much less common in the airline industry is Brussels Airlines’ new initiative to feature Belgium’s best regional beers on its menus on long-haul flights.
The carrier highlights one regional beer, which it changes every month, on a special page in the menu next to the airline’s featured wines. It also offers a selection of other Belgian regional and national beers in its general beverage offering at the back of the menu.
In a country which has well over 600 brewers – three of them are the only breweries run by Trappist monks: their beers are rightly famous – and which is known worldwide for the excellence (and alcoholic strength) of its top beers, this move is perhaps not surprising.
But it gives Brussels Airlines a particularly flavorsome option to add to its armory of service initiatives and innovations with which to meet competition head-on.