At the touch of a button, the venetian blinds slide down with hardly a sound, as I peruse the hundreds of movies and music choices available on the 15-inch touch screen in front of me. The main course of lamb tagine arrives right on schedule as I flip through the 10-page wine list searching for the perfect choice. After polishing off a glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Champagne, I change into the complimentary cotton pajamas in the oversize lavatory while the flight attendant lays out the mattress and duvet on my seat. Soon, the privacy shade is pulled up, and I am in deep slumber for a solid eight hours as this behemoth British Airways Airbus A380 soars to Los Angeles.
Over the past decade, a renaissance has been taking place toward the pointy end of the plane. If you’ve ever wondered what those pick-your-jaw-off-the-floor first-class prices ($10,000–$20,000) provide, then get ready for an eye-opening journey. That is, if you can afford it.
So who’s up there?
Lest you think first class is the domain of Hollywood stars only, think again. Business executives (investment bankers, corporate lawyers, consultants), diplomats and wealthy flyers often negotiate discounted contracts directly with the airline to secure these deluxe seats based upon volume of travel. Airlines are targeting these flyers with gold-lined wallets.
Paid first- and business-class travelers often account for only a small portion of an airline’s passenger mix but are responsible for a significant amount of revenue. It is not unusual for an extremely discounted, restricted economy-class airfare to be subsidized by an expensive, fully flexible premium fare.
That is why many airlines put the most extravagant planes on specifically targeted routes that can fill expensive first-class seats. It is no coincidence that British Airways opted to make Heathrow to Los Angeles its first route for the blinged-out Airbus A380. In fact, the airline dubs the flight “the red carpet route” for the number of Hollywood types who fly between the two cities on a regular basis.
Photograph by Rubberball/Corbis; Courtesy of British Airways
Blurring of first and business classes
Premium-class seats began to get fancy a couple of decades ago. British Airways and Singapore Airlines were among the trailblazers rolling out fully flat beds in first class in the 1990s; United and American followed suit with a first-class “suite” product in 1999. At the time, these were revolutionary. No doors or personal minibars, just a completely flat bed with plentiful space, large worktables and doting service.
The original concept with first class was to create an exclusive space to attract corporate and premium business. Flat beds were the primary differentiator between first and business class. Offering an experience similar to what you’d find on a private plane, the airlines could tap into a market that wanted more than business class.
Over time, many airlines (including Delta, Turkish, South African and Finnair) have shifted away from three classes of service, choosing instead to combine first and business class into one flat-bed-seating product. Even Air Tahiti Nui has unveiled a flat bed in business class, indicating that leisure travelers want the ultimate in comfort, too.
With amenities that were once the domain of first class now in business-class cabins, the lines are beginning to blur for the traveling public. Today, Air China provides pajamas to business class (once an exclusive amenity for the privileged few in first), and there are now stand-up bars aboard Emirates, Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic and Arik Air of Nigeria. White-capped chefs now appear on board Austrian and Turkish Airlines business-class flights.
These business-class upgrades provide significant competition to first-class products, challenging the high fares that many airlines charge for their most exclusive product.
Upgrading first class
Airlines that have held onto first class are really making an effort to differentiate their offerings. Expensive amenity kits, Champagne flutes and caviar carts are standard first-class accoutrements. Turndown service brings duvets, cushioned seat covers and even nightcaps.
Aboard many Lufthansa Boeing 747-400s, a first-class ticket entitles travelers to two seats of their own: a cushioned reclining seat and an adjacent, duvet-lined bed by the window. Other unique first-class features found on Lufthansa aircraft include men’s urinals in the lavatory, in-seat flower vases for red roses and personal closets with take-home garment bags.
ANA (All Nippon Airways) offers a unique air-mattress seat cover that disperses body pressure, an ergonomic pillow and a cashmere blanket for long-haul first-class passengers.
In 2008, Emirates made headlines for its in-flight shower experience on its Airbus A380s, providing five minutes of drenching water pressure plus a spa-like bathroom with thick towels and lavish toiletries.
Singapore Airlines offers one of the widest first-class seats in the sky; its latest design clocks in at a whopping 35 inches with an ergonomic cushion. James Boyd, Singapore’s director of communications for North America, explains how even the seat’s light fixtures were analyzed: “In-depth research was carried out to develop not only a stylish reading light, but one ideal for reading or working.”
This spring, Etihad Airways made a news splash with the introduction of its 125-square-foot, three-room “residence” suite that includes a private bathroom with shower, double bed and 32-inch LCD screen.
Science behind the seat
Learning the nuances between products can be tricky. Some airlines (including Etihad, Emirates and Singapore Airlines) offer a “suite” with doors that close for total seclusion. The doors block out disturbances from people moving around, but couples may prefer a more open seating arrangement.
Other carriers opt for a pod-style concept with no walls. These cushioned seats still maintain their privacy when drawn into a bed configuration, but feature a more open feel, as seen aboard American, Lufthansa, Qatar, Swiss International, Thai and United.
In the design phase, seat manufacturers must maximize the spaciousness for the passenger while minimizing the weight and space the seat takes aboard the aircraft. This delicate balance is not something that comes easily, considering the audiovisual equipment and motors that recline seats or provide massage functions, all of which are necessary to compete with other airlines.
“The development evolves through a continuous improvement process, taking onboard feedback from customers, crew and engineering, and is approached within the context of a competitive premium travel environment,” says Gaynor Castle, British Airways manager of aircraft product. British Airways worked closely with B/E Aerospace, of Tucson, Ariz., to fine-tune the first-class seating on its new A380, which resulted in “30 percent more real estate” for the passenger compared to its Boeing 777-300 aircraft.
Flying up front on the cheap
Airlines must work hard to recoup their investments, but many still rely on last-minute frequent-flyer redemptions to fill empty seats. After all, once a plane leaves the gate, the opportunity to produce revenue on a given flight is lost.
While airlines price their first-class award redemptions quite high (United announced a recent hike from 160,000 to 280,000 miles for first class from the U.S. to the Middle East on its partners), there are still some good deals out there.
According to Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com, “I flew one way on Emirates first class for 90,000 Alaska Airlines miles and $90 in taxes. Airlines tend to release most of their award seats at the last minute in an effort to sell as many seats as possible before they let people redeem miles for them.”
The patient and wise can fly up front without mortgaging their home, but it takes frequent-flyer-mile savvy to score a $10,000 seat at such a bargain. Many airlines are catching on to that and revising the number of first-class seats made available per route. Lufthansa executives have publicly stated that they don’t want their first-class product to be a mileage-redemption experience. They prefer to sell it to those willing to pay the fare, and with the luxurious amenities provided, who can blame them?
Is it sustainable?
As businesses take a harder look at their spending, some airlines are analyzing exactly which aircraft on which routes can support such a lavish first-class product. In the case of British Airways, it saw a clear winner with L.A. to London. Airlines in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region typically see more people paying for long-haul first class than elsewhere, although demand is weakening as business class improves.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the estimated profit margin for airlines in 2013 was 1.7 percent. This slim window means that there is little room for error, and airlines must maximize the opportunity for revenue whenever possible.
Lufthansa has announced that it is phasing out first class from one-third of its long-haul fleet. The space aboard the aircraft is extremely valuable, and if fewer passengers are paying full fare for first class, it is better to utilize the space for other revenue opportunities like business class and, with some airlines, premium economy seating.
Cost-conscious companies are sending more of their travelers in business class and premium economy these days. And if business class provides an equally flat bed, elegant meals and sophisticated entertainment, why cough up for first?
Still, there is a market segment willing to pay for silk pajamas, showers at 35,000 feet and private minibars in an enclosed, flat-bed suite.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, says, “Many business-class seats are either too narrow or too firm to provide a restful night’s sleep. You can actually get a good night’s rest in most first-class lie-flat beds.”
And savvy travelers, especially those who have negotiated contracts with airlines, are not keen on giving that up just yet. Whether you fly on your own dime, your company’s expense card or with your frequent-flyer miles, there has never been a better time to experience true luxury in the air.
Some airlines pull out all the stops
Etihad Airways made waves when it announced The Residence package aboard its Airbus A380 aircraft, which is as close as it gets to a private jet experience on a commercial aircraft. Part of the three-room suite package is a personal butler trained at the Savoy Butler Academy in London.
For most, this service is priced to hit below the belt, but routes where this will be offered (starting with Abu Dhabi–London in December 2014) are known to carry dignitaries and celebrities quite often. This is the first time a commercial airline would be competing effectively with a private jet.
At press time, Etihad was tight-lipped on what exactly the butler’s role would be onboard. While many will view this as a marketing gimmick, it is certain that those willing to pay for The Residence will find a way to test the butler’s skills and knowledge.