First Class Makes a Comeback

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.  Emirates offers high-tech entertainment in its first class cabin

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 hotel stays.

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 New York.

Singapore has the largest seats, at 35 inches wide

Naturally, all of this comfort comes at a price. Travel Agent researched the cost of first-class roundtrip tickets from New York's JohnF.KennedyInternationalAirport to destinations like London and Dubai on such carriers as British Airways and Singapore, uncovering a minimum 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 Peru, the Galapagos and Thailand 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 comfortable workstation."

United's seats give clients room to relax

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 have."

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 Americas 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.

Dining onboard a British Airways flight

How They Stack Up

At 35 inches wide, Singapore claims its seats 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 Americas, said at the time.

As part of its recently launched New York initiative, American Airlines 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 meetings onboard.

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 feedback.

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 airports.

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 porter.

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."