First class is often flying full these days, albeit largely with upgrades from business. Yet even without full revenue for these ultra-premium seats, airlines are placing considerable resources toward enhancing their front cabins as an investment in their best clients. Korean Air, for example, has put $200 million into "inflight creature comforts," such as the sumptuous new Kosmo Suites, which feature wide-screen TV monitors, meals served on Wedgwood china, and a wood finish that echoes nature.
Passengers in first class, whether full fare or upgrades, are often corporate road warriors who know precisely what they need on long-haul flights. Research from Cathay Pacific shows its first-class passengers are looking for greater control over their environment, the ambience of a five-star hotel room and privacy, says marketing & PR coordinator Nancy Tao, which is prompting Cathay and other leading airlines to create elegantly-appointed, enclosed suites in their forward cabins.
Cathay's design revolves around a multipurpose seat that transforms from a chaise lounge to an 81-inch bed or to an armchair and ottoman that can accommodate a visiting colleague. Cathay is also attentive to "all those other little factors that make up the ultimate travel experience," says Tao, such as atmospheric lighting, designer sleeper suits from Shanghai Tang, flexible work surfaces, and enough closet space to stow all carry-on baggage within the suite.
Lufthansa, which will further upgrade its first-class cabin in 2010, adds a few unexpected touches beyond the seven-course meals created by Michelin-star chefs like David Bouley, Paul Bocuse and Thomas Keller; designer bedding from JOOP!; pajamas from van Laack; and 11 different Berlitz World Traveler language courses. Those extra touches include a "surprising moments" program, which offers culinary treats like whiskey or vinegar tastings, Oktoberfest specialties, and mulled German Glühwein for the holidays.
Many airlines are adding hotel-style amenities, such as showers on the upper deck of Emirates' A380s; and Etihad's personal minibar, mirrored wardrobe and 23-inch wide-screen LCD TV in the new Diamond First suite on its Abu Dhabi–London route (anticipated to come to New York and Chicago in 2010). Singapore Airlines even offers resort-style turndown service on flights over seven hours, in which the crew transforms each SkySuite into a bedroom featuring an air mattress and fresh linens.
Since sleep is crucial to long-haul travel, several airlines are developing sophisticated mattresses for first class, such as SWISS International Air Lines' pneumatic air cushion, which allows the customer to adjust its firmness in any position, and body-molding Tempur-Pedic mattresses in the JAL Suite.
Airlines know food is as vital as sleep to executives on the move, and first-class galleys are evolving with the changing restaurant scene. When Qantas' research revealed its customers value healthful, premium ingredients, the airline's coordinator for flight catering, chef Neil Perry—celebrated for his "paddock to plate" philosophy—designed dishes with sustainable foods, like free-range Barossa Valley chicken and Rangers Valley dry-aged beef, which is grain fed without growth hormones or antibiotics.
American's Chefs' Conclave—which now includes Dean Fearing, whose Ritz-Carlton, Dallas restaurant was voted Zagat's number one U.S. hotel dining spot of 2009—is tailoring entrées to specific routes, like the chicken Thai curry on flights to Asia, and increasing portion size of several dishes, such as the center-cut beef filets and fruit platters. Even American's first-class wine glasses are getting larger this year.
Extravagance is the hallmark for airlines like Qatar, which presents a ten-course meal of caviar, lobster and authentic Arabic mezas, and Singapore Airlines' Book The Cook program, which allows passengers to order epicurean plates, such as lobster thermidor or roast guinea fowl stuffed with Stilton, a day in advance. Etihad is so focused on presenting a flawless culinary experience that they have added a food and beverage manager to the cabin crew.
JAL now offers both wellness and indulgence in first class. Along with a Western-style Healthy Menu Selection and shojin ryori, the simple, vegetarian cuisine served in Zen Buddhist temples, the airline also serves a multi-course kaiseki-ryori on tableware created by Japan's master craftspeople. JAL's sleek cedar chopsticks, whose narrow tops are functional even for infrequent users and the elderly, have even garnered a Good Design Award from the Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design.
Airlines do realize, however, that first-class passengers don't spend all their time dining and napping. American has put AirCell's Gogo on all transcontinental 767-200 aircraft (currently being installed on American's MD-80s and 737s), and Virgin America has seen an increased share of business travelers since installing Wi-Fi, which allows passengers to be productive inflight, and book daytime travel instead of the red-eye. (Virgin America's First Class fares can also be 40–50 percent less than business class on heritage carriers.)
Yet some of the most lavish embellishments to first-class travel are being installed outside the cabin, in the lounges and terminals where passengers spend an increasing amount of time. At the Qantas First Lounge in Sydney, which is laced by a 8,400-plant vertical garden, a design that complies with both classic and Flying Stars feng shui, fliers can indulge in gratis Payot Paris spa treatments, ranging from a men's hot towel facial to a 50-minute body massage, while the club's concierge books a restaurant in New York, show in London, or sends flowers for that forgotten occasion. As for check-in, for Qantas' First customers, those formalities are completed before passengers reach the airport.
Etihad's Diamond First Lounge in Abu Dhabi pampers its top-tier clients with massages at a Six Senses spa, a Champagne bar, cigar lounge, caviar service, and dedicated rooms for conferences, movie viewing, reading and sleeping. Lufthansa's separate First Class Terminal in Frankfurt has the air of a small luxury hotel, with 80 different brands of whiskey, a cigar lounge, and a personal assistant for each passenger.
In Munich, Lufthansa offers thoughtful extras, such as 43 vintage Armagnac brandies and a Wii Activity Room, while its New York JFK lounge serves a pre-boarding dinner to allow passengers more sleep inflight.
British Airways will soon completely revamp its first-class inflight service, and, according to Simon Talling-Smith, BA's executive vice president, the Americas, when the new service debuts, it will represent a "significant evolution" in the product with "more privacy for customers and "a larger, more comfortable bed."
In the meantime, BA has built six airport lounges in Heathrow's new Terminal 5, a £60-million complex collectively known as Galleries. On departure, first-class passengers can choose The Concorde Room, with its dedicated concierge and discreet boardroom, or the Galleries First Lounge, where The Gold Bar is covered in gold leaf, and the Wine Gallery runs tastings throughout the day. At the BA Arrivals Lounge, which is shared with Club World passengers and Gold Executive Club members, guests receive Elemis Travel Spa treatments created specifically for British Airways, such as facials to combat the dehydrating effects of air travel and Thai-style hand massages.
In Doha, Qatar Airways has created a sumptuous $90-million Premium Terminal, with over 100,000 square feet of atriums and fountains, where first-class passengers are cosseted with a nursery, 24-hour medical center, and complimentary massages at Elemis Spa, before being chauffeured to the plane in a BMW 7-Series.
And unless you're traveling in La Première, you won't hear much about Air France's enigmatic new lounge at Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG), where the revolving art show currently includes works by Keith Haring, food is by Alain Ducasse, cocktails are designed by the head bartender at Le Bar du Plaza Athénée, and each passenger has their own personal attendant. When it's time to board, La Première passengers are escorted to planeside, and introduced to a crew expressly trained in first-class service.
If airlines pride themselves on pulling out all the stops for their first-class clients, ANA accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of transporting passengers from Narita to downtown Tokyo—which often takes two hours by limo—in half an hour. A 15-minute sprint to Sakura Heliport, followed by an exhilarating 15-minute ride in a Maison Hermès-designed Eurocopter EC135 to ARK Hills Heliport in Akasaka, lands afternoon arrivals in their offices before the workday ends. The service is gratis to first-class, round-trip passengers from North America through March 31, 2010.
Helicopter transfers, spa treatments, and lavish amenities like Givenchy pajamas and Ferrari-style Poltrona Frau upholstery in cabins, recalling an ocean liner stateroom, may seem like opulent perks for this difficult economic era. However, spokesperson James Boyd of Singapore Airlines, which flies some of the world's longest routes, feels they may be less a frill than a necessity for time-starved executives: "For corporate travelers who spend a large chunk of their time on these planes," he maintains, "it preserves a little bit of the life they left on the ground."
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