One of the biggest, longest-standing grumbles of travel managers has been the challenge of comparing like with like. Comparing fares is far from straightforward when the same class on one carrier includes seat selection and the ability to check a bag but doesn't on another. That's when total trip cost, which takes account of extras such as ancillaries, becomes a more realistic metric.
Short-haul economy where carriers now typically offer different fare packages has been an especial challenge but in the past year the expansion of fare classes has spread to long-haul economy where some airlines now offer a "hand baggage only" option.
These have introduced challenges for corporates with economy policies.
But the bigger apple cart now looks like it's about to be upset. Emirates has just introduced "Special" fares in, errr, business class. And Lufthansa plans to introduce a "business class plus" when their new 777-9s go into active service, according to Australian Business Traveller.
Emirates is not offering 'Special' on all flights but it is clearly on booking screens next to the existing Flex Plus, Flex and Saver categories on some routes. If a buyer opts for this fare, they will find that the product in the air is the same except for restricted access to seat selection but that refund and change fees are restricted or much higher and upgrades, chauffeur transfers and lounge access are not allowed — although those that are eligible because of their own frequent flyer access would have lounge access.
Lufthansa is apparently planning to charge more for some business class seats than others.
On one level this might not be a corporate travel issue because it's feasible that those that do opt for this fare might negotiate some extras or negotiate the Saver fare down to Special levels but not every corporate programme has negotiated fares on every carrier it uses.
For those Lufthansa and Emirates' customers who do not have sufficiently high volumes or give their arrangers or travellers freedom of choice, challenges such as clarifying reimbursement policy in cases of changing itineraries or traveller expectations at the loss of lounge access emerge but there's an even bigger picture.
Don't expect one or two carriers to test a new pricing concept and it remain only with that limited segment.
Some carriers were slow to introduce premium economy because of fear of business class customers downgrading rather than economy class customers upgrading. In the event most carriers have adopted the class and Emirates itself is planning to introduce a premium economy cabin next year. British Airways in fact is planning on expanding the proportion of seats dedicated to premium economy when it launches its A350 fleet.
Personalisation is supposed to increase traveller choice but those personalised choices will now include business classes with an "in air" only product, ie seat, from Emirates and an all-the-bells-and-whistles with a less desirable seat product from Lufthansa.
New models are being tested and complexity and inconsistency among carriers' products and fares are probably on the way. In fact, if some airlines have their way, we will have a world where every fare is uniquely personalised and, by definition, unable to be compared to others' personalised fares.
But if cheaper option business class seats become the new normal, there could also be new opportunities for corporates in their negotiations.