The airlines and their first-class options that make flying feel like a stay in a five star hotel
By: Dimitria Vitanova
Posted on: August 10, 2016
A sliding door opens to a den with cozy leather sofas that flank a square, white-clothed table, set with porcelain plates. Down a hallway, passing a roomy shower equipped with pampering ointments, is the bedroom, decked in designer linens. Private butlers buzz around, attending to every whim, while skilled mixologists fix drinks with the finest liquors in a near-by lounge.
Welcome aboard, where several premium airlines offer indulging luxury that rivals the crème-de-la-crème hospitality on the ground.
If fold-out beds in semi-enclosed cubicles, a restaurant-worthy menu and a wide range of TV entertainment usually denote first-class flying, then the revered likes of Etihad, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are soaring a notch higher. With their truly VIP experiential offers, which log five-digit price tags, the destination fades in the exclusivity of the journey.
The (air)craft of opulence
Sky-high luxury careens into some basics of massive proportions. The world’s largest commercial jet (238ft long, 79ft high with 261ft of wingspan), A380 overtakes Boeing 777 as airlines’ preferred hulk-in-the-clouds onto which to graft their opulent modules (Cathay Pacific is a notable exception, choosing Boeing over Airbus). First to operate A380 in October 2007, Singapore Airlines today boasts a fleet of 19, which take its top-tier Suites Class to Paris, Sydney and Tokyo among other cities. Nonetheless, the biggest squadron of A380s – 72 in service, 68 pending delivery as of Feburary 2016 – belongs to the Dubai-headquartered Emirates, the world’s best airline of 2016, according to review and rating consultancy Skytrax.
Similar to any edifice, A380 presents a husk that airlines pack with the interiors of leading designers. Etihad, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, alike, dissect the fuselage into separate lofts, furnished in leather and wood that invoke striking sophistication. The Emirate’s gold-splashed Private Suite often vies for the laurel of the poshest first-class cabin with the First Apartment on board the four A380s of Etihad, the United Arab Emirates’ national carrier.
Nothing, though, compares to Etihad’s The Residence – the first-ever three-room penthouse in the skies between New York, Sydney, London, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai and Melbourne. LCD screens of tween-digit inches, an onboard shower, smart stow-away compartments that double as Ferrari-leather upholstered ottomans and couches (that, in defiance to the industry’s more, do not stretch into cots) fill the space – big enough to accommodate a plush double-sized bed (the first in the air).
When it comes to vanity, Emirates and Singapore Airlines do not fall behind. Although the former is guilty of a luxury nay-nay with its flat-out cribs in Emirates First, it more than makes for that with its shower spa (on long-haul routes) with Bvlgari lotions and fragrances to tickle the senses. The latter has its own shortfall – its glaring lack of on-deck showers. Salvatore Ferragamo amenity kits, Givenchy pajamas and flight crew that cheerily makes its guests’ beds, however, cover that absence.
The rare fare
In fact, to badge any of these airlines’ cabin crews with the generic title of flight attendants would be an understatement. Call them butlers (Savoy-trained in Etihad’s case) who have mastered the craft of courteous – constant yet unobtrusive – attention. Yet, they only function at the fore of a tailored service that stretches to include Michelin-star chefs, ready to veer away from gourmet, a-la-carte menus to prepare bespoke meals. That variety of dining options often rests on locally sourced ingredients that flavor the cuisines of the carriers’ destinations.
While Singapore Airlines’ 8-strong team of internationally acclaimed cooks – its International Culinary Panel – are available to be booked 24 hours prior to a flight, Etihad brings a chef on board to cater to any dietary wishes, be they sophisticated meat platters or simple toasts. Emirates sprinkles its multicourse carte-du-jour with healthy, low-fat, oils-free specials.
At the same time, Cathay Pacific, which has recently teamed with celebrity chef, Daniel Green, takes on-board dining to another level. “In First Class, we were one of the first airlines to have rice cookers, toasters and skillets on board our aircraft, enabling our flight attendants to prepare freshly steamed rice to accompany our passenger’s meal,” a representative said.
To provide the perfect complement to any belly-bulging fare, airlines partner with sommeliers in the curation of extensive wine lists – often flaunting Dom Perignon and Krug. As if that is not enough, in-flight lounges – think Emirates’ A380 Onboard Lounge (which flaunts a mixologist behind a circular bar) and Etihad’s The Lobby on its A380s’ upper deck – create a relaxing ambience to socialize, cocktail in hand. Those in-the-air retreats bear the lavishness – albeit in tinier dimensions – of their on-ground counterparts, which whisk first-class travelers away from the clamor of airports and into the serenity of privilege, which often comes with chauffeurs and concierges.
Yet to arrive
The marriage between the exclusivity of private jets and the attainability of commercial airlines is just at its dawn. First-class flying is steadily ascending to above-the-clouds peaks – more over-the-top, and yet more conventionally stately. Both the Emirates and Singapore Airlines are to roll out their novel suites in 2017, which are anticipated to propel ritzy air voyages into the realms of the grandest ground experiences.
“[W]e’re talking fully enclosed rooms, with all the touches and amenities that you’d expect in hotel or a private bedroom on a luxury yacht, room service and so on,” said Emirates CEO Tim Clark, as quoted by Australian Business Traveller.
While the Emirates has styled its new-generation luxe cabins in-house, a number of independent design firms are taking it upon themselves to reimagine the near future of five-star flights. London-based company Seymourpowell is one of them, having recently unveiled a six-room lot, called “First Spaces.” Dubbed a “Boutique in the Skies,” the concept – outfitted with king-size beds, a 42in TV and smart controls – is still to be adopted by any airline. Yet, it exemplifies the high-end trend to sell spaces – not seats, and individual care – not general service.
Etihad seems to steer the very fore of that dynamic, now taking not only passengers but also their luxury vehicles on personalized rides from Abu Dhabi to several European hubs, including London, Berlin, Paris and Zurich. The carrier is slashing 20% off of cargo and ticket rates for first-class and business passengers who wish to lug along their car, as well.
Apart from upgrading its top-tier package, Etihad is also taking The Residence to Melbourne with the June launch of its twice-daily flights from Abu Dhabi to the Australian city. Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific is building up its fleet (having recently acquired its first A350) and Emirates is gliding new routes. Only this July, in a trial flight, Emirates piloted one of its A380 to Chicago’s O’Hare International airport, recently revamped to accommodate the monster of a jumbo. A full-operation expansion to Chicago, nevertheless, is still in the stage of careful consideration, with Emirates expressing doubts whether the US metropolis would entice enough economy-nixing fliers to justify such a move.
As the luxury segment of the industry takes off, one thing is certain. Premium air carriers are only beginning to redefine comfort, entertainment and excess in the skies.