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First Class Makes a ComebackApril 9, 2007 By: Jennifer Merritt Travel Agent
Airlines are competing to provide the most luxurious in-flight experiences
Upon entering your suite, you change from shoes into slippers, lie down on the bed and begin flipping through the plethora of on-demand TV and video channels. You settle on a movie and decide to order a meal, maybe even a glass of wine. Just then, the flight captain comes over the loud speaker, updating you on the current time, weather and temperature of your destination as you cross the Atlantic at 37,000 feet.
Ever since 1996, when British Airways debuted the first
lie-flat bed in first class, competition soared among airlines. Carriers from
American Airlines to Singapore Airlines vied to outdo each other in engineering
first-class long-haul flight experiences that could easily be compared with
In 2004, Emirates unveiled its new first-class cabin
featuring the amenities described above, setting the current precedent for many
first-class offerings. Emirates may soon even eclipse itself, as next year it
plans to implement Airbus's super-jumbo A380, an aircraft complete with a
master suite and private bathroom. Late last month, the A380 completed its
maiden voyage with Lufthansa on a flight from Frankfurt to
Naturally, all of this comfort comes at a price. Travel Agent researched the cost of first-class roundtrip tickets from
to destinations like
on such carriers as British Airways and
ticket price of $7,100, exclusive of taxes and fees and with a 90-day advance
purchase window. Further research showed that one could book an Abercrombie
& Kent tour to exotic locales like
the Galapagos and
for about the same price (excluding airfare, of course). Which begs the
question: Who is flying first class these days?
Many airlines report that mostly executive-level business
travelers, who have the added luxury of having his or her company foot the
bill, are filling their first-class cabins. "From the depressed era we had
a few years ago, it's really starting to turn around," says Mike VanDyck,
an agent booking mainly business travel for Atlantic-Pacific Travel, a Carlson
Wagonlit Travel affiliate. "What is driving it is nothing more than
creature comforts. Companies don't want their people arriving beat up or
dysfunctional, so they're willing to pay for a good night's sleep and a
However, not all higher-ups get to fly first class on the
company's dime all the time, as most corporations require a minimum flight time
of between six and eight hours in order to book a first-class ticket. "The
privilege of flying first class is that you'll be comfortable and productive
and be able to conduct business when you hit the ground," VanDyck says.
That said, VanDyck notes that he does have some clients of
both the business and leisure variety willing to pay the price for the
first-class cabin. "It's productive or quiet time," he says. "Most
are buying the lower class and upgrading to the next. There's only so many
seats available, so the further out you book, the better chance you'll
Though some amenities, such as power outlets, may seem
geared toward business travelers, airlines say that they design first-class
cabins with all types of travelers in mind. "The majority of first and
business class are customers traveling on business, but we get wealthy people
who travel for leisure as well," says Nigel Page, senior vice president of
commercial operations of the
for Emirates. "Everyone wants the same standard of comfort and most of the
facilities we offer."
Those facilities include gourmet meals, seat massage systems
and high-quality personal entertainment systems, but Page says the most
important amenity for Emirates' first-class passengers is privacy. "The
challenge for all airlines is that—given the improvements in business class—how
to differentiate first class from business class," he says. "Our
solution has been to give privacy." Indeed, Emirates suites come with
doors that can be opened or closed at a passenger's discretion. Passengers also
can turn on a "Do Not Disturb" sign outside of the suite.
How They Stack Up
At 35 inches wide,
are the largest. In January, the carrier unveiled amenities that include a
lie-flat bed, 23-inch LCD monitor with surround sound, a vanity mirror and a
drawer. The airline also offers hotel-like bedding complete with pillow, duvet
and turndown service.
British Airways also offers a turndown service
in its first-class cabins on flights departing after 7:30 p.m. and those lasting
for more than 10 hours. Its first-class revamp rolled out last month, and might
particularly appeal to those who value their beauty sleep. British Airways'
amenity kit, the BAg, contains Kiehl's Since 1851 products, as well as socks,
eyeshades, a toothbrush, Elgydium toothpaste and mouthwash. Accessories
designer Anya Hindmarch created the kit's brown velvet bag.
In late February, the airline that pioneered the lie-flat
bed showed off its new business class Club World bed, which is six feet long
(25 percent wider) and offers electronic privacy screens and a laptop locker.
"Our premium cabins are our most profitable segment and we are
reconfiguring our aircraft to increase Club World capacity by eight percent,
moving from 38 to 52 seats on some of our Boeing 747 aircraft," Robin
Hayes, the carrier's executive vice president of the
As part of its recently launched
throughout April is featuring wines from the region to premium class customers
on transcontinental flights. A spokesperson for the airline notes this is the
first step of a larger plan for American's premium passengers that will be
unveiled in the coming months. Too, American will have its new first-class seat
installed on its New York fleet by the end of May, which includes swivel
seating, an amenity the carrier says allows for easier face-to-face business
United Airlines' customers got a look at its
new First Suite last December, which will be introduced on its fleet in the
fourth quarter of this year. The $165 million upgrade includes lie-flat beds,
on-demand movies, TV programs and video games, an iPod docking station,
noise-canceling headphones and a 110-volt universal plug.
"We're responding to a number of different
customers," says Jeff Kovick, a spokesperson with the airline. "We
try to cater to a number of different areas and one of those is the idea of
personal space on flights. The new space was designed to be the ultimate space
to sleep, work and relax." Kovick adds that United decided what amenities
were must-haves by talking to customers, through both unsolicited and proactive
Given that some first-class amenities —like lie-flat beds,
gourmet meals, on-demand TV and video—overlap, one wonders what the next step
will be in differentiating top-notch air services. Many carriers already have
taken the quest to be the best in first-class to airports and lounges.
"We understand that, particularly in international
travel, our premium customers are really expecting a premium travel experience
from check-in to arrival," United's Kovick says. "We're really
focusing not just on the enhancements that we're making to our fleet, but also
to our travel experience overall." And so, United offers premium-boarding
lanes and is currently enhancing parts of its first-class lobbies at some
At British Airways lounges, customers can have treatments at
the Molton Brown spa, work in the business center or order pre-flight dining.
Emirates offers similar services, as well as chauffeured service and a curbside
First-class travel may not be an option for every client,
but for those who can afford it or for those willing to spend more to make a
honeymoon or family vacation more memorable, booking first-class seats is
perhaps the best way to ensure a trip begins and ends smoothly. With all the
amenities available today, Renée Zellweger's words in 1996's Jerry Maguire
seem to sum it up best: "[First class] used to be a better meal; now it's
a better life."