AIRLINES hit by high fuel costs and a vicious price war will focus on executive passengers to restore their profit margins, aviation experts predict. Flight International' s Asian editor, Paul Lewis, said the industry's downturn would benefit businessmen as companies battled to improve services. 'The seat yield in economy has been cut to the bone in recent years so companies know they can make a good return by selling business class,' he said. 'Business-class passengers have already paid a premium to sit in that position in the aircraft. They worry less about cost than about extras - do they have a personal TV, how far does the seat lean back, can they plug their laptop into the seat?' The emphasis on attracting corporate passengers will result in one-upmanship as each airline attempts to claim its service is the best. 'The process has already begun,' Mr Lewis said. He was speaking on a recent visit to Hong Kong from Singapore, where the aviation magazine is based. 'For example, Malaysia Airlines is going to have a business centre on the plane like at a hotel. 'Airlines already boast about the size of the TV screens. The pin-sized ones of yesterday have gone - now many are more than 6.5 inches.' He added: 'In addition, some airlines have introduced fully reclined seats in which you can pull up dividers to get a bit of privacy when you are snoring. These are gimmicks to attract the business flyer.' Mr Lewis predicted that business class-only aircraft may soon appear. 'The new ultra-long haul aircraft expected in the next few years will seat only around 250-290 people but will travel long distances non-stop. 'To meet seat-mile costs, economy class may be excluded and a two-class business system introduced,' Mr Lewis said. Hong Kong Travel Industry Council chairman Harold Wu Tan agreed that airlines were competing to win a larger share of the business-class pie. 'The strategy is paying off,' he said. 'Travel agents report more and more people are flying business class, especially in Southeast Asia.' He pointed to the rapidly expanding executive travel sector on routes to China as an area where airlines were reaping big returns. However, Mr Wu warned that if airlines continued to offer an ever-expanding range of services, it could result in higher ticket prices. 'The airlines cannot provide everything. Flying is a competitive business and companies must be careful not to price themselves out of the market.' In 1996, International Air Transport Association figures showed 25 per cent was knocked off the profits of major airlines - triggering the struggle for business passengers. The association's 254 members recorded a net profit of US$4 billion, compared to $5.2 billion the previous year. The fall is attributed to a 10 per cent increase in the price of fuel - which added more than $1 billion to airline fuel bills - and a tariff war which intensified with the opening up of air traffic to competition, especially in Europe. This caused a 10 per cent growth in aircraft capacity, resulting in airlines getting a lower return for their seats as they cut prices to fill seats.