When, in 1967, Lufthansa became the first airline to operate the Boeing 737, it was hardly a high-water mark for luxury travel. The aircraft was the product of mass-market economics; its advantage over the DC-9s and BAC 1-11s already in service lay in the prospect of squeezing six passengers abreast instead of five for short hops within Europe. Now, nearly four decades later, a Lufthansa-owned 737 represents one of the most exclusive experiences in commercial aviation.
This metamorphosis involved refitting the Boeing 737-700—an aircraft built to accommodate 149 economy-class passengers—with long-range fuel tanks and seating for only 48 travelers, each of whom is plied with wine and designer cuisine (Thomas Keller conceived some of the menu) during the transatlantic flight.
Indeed, the mood is buoyant as the passengers board a recent LH flight 413 bound for Munich from Newark Liberty International Airport. “Not a backpacker in the bunch,” notes a pharmaceuticals executive, as he plops into his seat and stretches his legs. He is referring not to tastes in recreation but to the absence of travelers struggling to stow bulky gear overhead or under seats. Instead, all passengers file briskly into the cabin, stow their laptops and carry-on gear with a practiced ease, and settle down with glasses of Champagne to await takeoff. Perhaps 15 minutes after the first passenger boards, the 737 assumes its place in the queue.
The concept for all-business-class flights such as this emerged in the wake of 9/11, when Lufthansa recognized that passenger loads in the back of its wide-bodies had declined dramatically, while demand for the seats in the front of the plane remained strong. The airline inaugurated the service on its Newark-to-Düsseldorf route three years ago (a refitted Airbus A319 now flies that route), and it proved so successful that Lufthansa soon added the Chicago-to-Düsseldorf (with an Airbus A319) and Newark-to-Munich routes. Privat Air, a Swiss carrier specializing in VIP service, operates the flights for Lufthansa.
Earlier this year, Swiss International Airline, which is in the process of being acquired by Lufthansa, launched a 56-seat Boeing Business Jet (737-800) flight between Newark and Zurich. Eurofly, the former charter arm of Alitalia, is planning to connect Newark and Milan with a 48-seat Airbus A319 beginning in January 2006.
If Lufthansa’s all-business-class flights lack the traditional amenities of its first-class service—the long-stemmed rose presented upon boarding, the seemingly limitless caviar, the vodka poured from a block of ice—no one on the flight to Munich seems to mind. “If not for this service I’d be flying first class,” claims a record company executive flying the route for the second time. “But I’d have the same hassles at the beginning and end of the flight as everyone else. You don’t have those problems when you’re flying a 48-passenger jet. It’s more like flying a chartered executive jet. Except it costs the same as a regular business-class ticket.”
As a physician bound for a medical conference points out, the service includes another perk, which to him at least might be priceless: “No crying babies.”