Last updated: 04:54 PM ET, Tue December 01 2015

The New First Class

A new era of luxury air travel

Vacation Agent | Features & Advice | Rich Thomaselli

The New First Class

PHOTO: Fliers often rate Singapore Airlines’ first-class suites the best.

“First class… It used to be a better meal. Now it’s a better life,” said Dorothy Boyd in the film “Jerry Maguire.” Maybe not a better life, but certainly a better lifestyle.

In the ongoing competition for the discretionary dollar among the uber-rich, airlines have been upping the ante in the amenities offered in their respective first-class cabins.

Except these aren’t first-class cabins as you know them. Dorothy might have been able to sneak a peek past that curtain and peer into first class in the movie in 1997, but today it’s a whole new era. Airlines — mostly international — have been trying to outdo each other in opulence and luxury to the point where using the phrase “first-class cabin” seems almost charmingly anachronistic.

No, these aren’t first-class cabins. These are flying hotel suites, literally — airlines have used the term liberally when they are able to provide fully enclosed, private cubicles or pods. In fact, Etihad Airways now offers something called “The Residence.”

More on that in a moment. The bottom line is that airlines are playing this game of one-upmanship because passengers are willing to pay for it — thousands of dollars one-way to be sure, and $20,000 at the high end for the most lavish of these tickets.

For now, many domestic U.S. airlines have significantly upgraded their first-class offerings with swivel seats and lie-flat beds, but none have yet approached what some of the international airlines have done.

Here is a look at several of the most elite first-class cabins and suites:

“The Residence” on the Etihad Airways A380 is a 125-square-foot space that has a living room/sitting area with a 32-inch television, a bedroom with a bed big enough for two, and a private bathroom. It has à la carte dining — order what you want, and they’ll make it — and comes with a butler. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Etihad sent 13 flight attendants, all trained as chefs or food and beverage managers, for three weeks of training in London by Savoy Hotel butlers. Before a flight they call or visit a passenger or his or her assistant to find out preferences like favorite drinks before takeoff, favorite colors, foods, magazines, newspapers and toiletries.”

The Residence is currently available on flights from Abu Dhabi to London, though Etihad has plans to roll out the service on flights from Abu Dhabi to Sydney in May and to New York by the end of the year. Ticket price for a one-way flight is $20,000 but, hey, with this level of luxury it’s the same price if you bring a spouse or companion. What a bargain!

Air France is investing $57 million into a new first-sclass cabin called “La Première” for long-haul flights. The cabin has four seats able to convert into lie-flat beds, although only a curtain separates you from your neighbor. French wines, champagne and cheeses are complimentary as hors d’ouevres prior to a specially cooked, placed-to-order meal. Air France, like British Airways and Lufthansa, is heavily engaged in competition with the likes of Etihad, Emirates and Qatar airlines for business travel between the Middle East and London, Paris and Munich and Berlin.

If you don’t think it’s luxurious and decadent enough to be flying to exotic Singapore, doing it in Singapore Airlines’ first-class cabin will certainly get you thinking that way. Singapore Airlines is consistently rated among fliers as having one of the best, if not the best, first-class cabins on its A-380s. It should come as no surprise — Singapore was among the first airlines to convert space on the aircraft into private suites. Suite doors can be closed and offer not just a seat that turns into a bed, but a seat and a bed created by the famous French yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste. First-class seats are configured in a 1-2-1 style so that all seats have direct access to the aisles.

Qantas has a unique first-class setup. Its first-class cabins were built along the perimeters of the fuselage, essentially giving everybody a window seat — and an enclosed one at that. When everybody emerges from their respective suites, there is a central area just outside the doors featuring chairs and sofas that allow for something akin to a social area. A flying bar/restaurant, if you will. Tickets on Qantas’ long-haul flights start at $13,000 for the first-class cabins.

Lufthansa is another airline that offers both a seat and a bed in your own private space. The seats are tricked-out with the latest amenities for all your personal electronics so that doing business is a breeze. Lufthansa was also the first airline to utilize automated air humidifiers with moisturized, filtered oxygen flowing through the first-class cabins. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, ask anybody who’s ever had dry-mouth — or, worse, gotten sick — on a long-haul flight from the normally dry air wafting through the cabin of an airplane.

PHOTO: Emirates offers some of the most luxurious private suites.

Emirates Airlines runs neck-and-neck with Etihad for the most luxurious first-class private suites. According to Emirates, each suite comes fully equipped with a sliding door, a personal minibar, adjustable ambient lighting, and its own vanity table, mirror and wardrobe. The seat and the bed are one in the same — not separate — and you need to raise the privacy divider to enjoy some me time. But how can you quibble when dinner comes? Stir-fried lobster in black bean sauce, or glazed duck breast, or any one of a number of available-on-demand culinary delights. Not to mention they are served on Royal Doulton fine bone china with exclusive Robert Welch cutlery. Finally, Emirates offers something quite unique — two onboard Shower Spas. No, we’re not kidding. You don’t have to wait to get to the hotel, or even head to the airport’s lounge/private club to grab a shower if you’re going straight to that important business meeting or simply want to wake up and stay fresh. Passengers get about 20 minutes in the shower, during which time a gauge tells you about how much water is left. So make sure you don’t get caught all soapy.


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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the March 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.