Features | From Pivot Magazine

Castles in the sky 

A new cadre of ritzy first-class cabins isn’t wooing just affluent flyers. The air of luxury is attracting average travellers, too.

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Michelin-starred chefs, bottomless vintage champagne, in-flight showers, even moisturizing pyjamas—the perks of first-class air travel have never been more opulent. And while some airlines are phasing out first class—United, Delta and Qatar airways are all removing theirs in favour of a more premium business-class product—others are doubling down, raising the level of pampering to dizzying heights and transforming the upper end of luxury travel.

photo of large bed inside first-class cabins Etihad’s 125-square-foot behemoth, The Residence, comes with a leather double sofa in the living room, double bed and private shower. (Courtesy of Etihad Airways) 

According to the most recent numbers from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), premium-class passengers—that’s anyone above economy—accounted for just 5.4 per cent of traffic in the first quarter of 2018, a number that remains unchanged from 2017, but produced more than 30 per cent of revenues. 

When business class is removed from that calculation, however, the picture appears quite different. Because of the added space and level of service required for premium seating—and because fewer passengers fly in this category—first class contributes only a single-digit share of total revenue according to the CAPA Centre for Aviation. Essentially, first class is a marketing play that confers luxury status on an airline, even if its passengers are crammed in the back, awaiting their pretzels.

“First class absolutely has a halo effect,” says Brian Sumers, aviation business editor for the travel intelligence media company Skift. “There are plenty of people out there that could never afford to sit in first class, but they see Etihad in Abu Dhabi or they see Singapore Airlines and they have these wonderful, opulent first-class cabins and there’s so much space, so they just assume, if you get a whole compartment in first class, their business class must be great as well. And in most cases their business classes are good, but probably not that much better than any airline.”

For these lucky flyers, the pampering begins long before the plane takes off and, in some cases, even before they’ve arrived at the airport. Emirates airlines picks people up in a chauffeur-driven BMW. Etihad Airways, through its partnership with Mercedes, will deliver business- or first-class guests to the airport from anywhere in the UAE. Fly Brussels Airlines on a ticket valued at more than $2,200 and they’ll drive you to your terminal from just about anywhere in the Benelux countries, into parts of France and as far as Germany. 

Once first-class flyers have arrived at the airport, there’s nothing so plebeian as queues. After a curbside welcome, personal escorts through security and a trolley ride through the terminal (schlepping luggage is for mortals), it’s time to settle into the lounge.

couple being served food and drinks in first-class cabinsSavoy Academy-trained personal butler is included for passengers of Etihad’s The Residence. (Courtesy of Etihad Airways)

A honed green onyx hallway lined in plush carpet leads visitors to Cathay Pacific’s The Pier first-class lounge in Hong Kong. There is, as one would expect, a full-service dining room and bar, but also fully private walnut-wrapped day suites overlooking the tarmac. Across the terminal, its other lounge, The Wing, includes cabanas with rainforest showers, full bathtubs, plush robes and slippers. A first-class round-trip flight between Toronto and Hong Kong starts at $19,000.

Not to be outdone, Thai Airways Royal First Class Lounge in Bangkok offers passengers an hour-long full body massage, so guests can board the plane in a state of gelatinous bliss. Have a long layover in Zurich? Swiss’s E Lounge offers guests access to day rooms that are essentially full hotel suites complete with double beds, ensuite bathrooms and balconies overlooking the runway. That’s in addition to the two restaurants, 1,000-bottle wine humidor and whisky bar with a selection of more than 120 of the world’s best. 

Rubbed, scrubbed and maybe just a little bit buzzed, it’s time to board the plane. If it’s a good night’s sleep you want, the best beds in the sky right now are thought to be those in Air France’s La Premiere suites. They’re extra wide and long (30 inches by six and a half feet), and the mattress, pillows and bedding are from the French luxury hotel chain Sofitel. Cathay Pacific’s beds, in addition to the requisite 500-thread-count linens, feature a built-in massage function.

If you’re flying in one of Emirates’s Boeing 777 aircraft, you’ll be shown to your private suite, 40 square feet of Mercedes-Benz S-Class-designed space complete with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, a 32-inch television screen and individual climate control. Centre suites have “virtual window” LCD screens that display in ultra hi-def what’s going on outside the aircraft. A seven-hour flight from Dubai to Geneva in one of these seats costs almost $11,000.

For the ultra-rich, it isn’t a bad deal compared to a flight aboard a private jet. Hiring a mid-sized eight-seater Citation XLS to take you on the same trip costs about $65,000 each way, just slightly less per person than the first-class ticket on Emirates, but requires a fuel stop in between and the amenities—discrete room service through a “service window,” those moisturizing pyjamas, a fully reclining bed—don’t come close.

person controlling television with game controller in first-class cabinEach cabin in Etihad’s The Residence comes with a chaise longue, 23-inch TV and separate bed. (Courtesy of Etihad Airways)

Last winter, as part of a billion-dollar fleet upgrade, Singapore Airlines unveiled its signature suite. Each cabin, designed by French luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste, comes with a chaise longue, 23-inch TV and separate bed. Suites in the middle can be joined together and a double bed can be formed. 

And while that sounds like peak luxury, it isn’t. Etihad recently revealed its 125-square-foot behemoth, The Residence. The three-room suite comes complete with a leather double sofa in the living room, double bed, private shower and a Savoy Academy-trained personal butler. Flights from Abu Dhabi to New York cost on average $30,000. 

It’s all enough to make a traveller wonder where we can possibly go from here. And yet, perhaps not surprisingly, Airbus has a notion: it recently released a concept for the future of flying that included holographic touch screens to replace the current entertainment systems, an onboard golf simulator and a seating area surrounded by a transparent membrane that would offer unparalleled views of the surroundings. Until then, most of us will have to be happy with the bag of pretzels.