by Harold von Kursk
In the post-WWII era, long-haul flights and trans-Atlantic air travel captured the public imagination. Airlines prided themselves in treating passengers to the kind of relaxed and courteous service that made one feel like royalty (or at least like welcome guests). First Class cabins were conceived as elegant salons that could have served as sets on episodes of Mad Men where one could smoke a cigar, drink single malt Scotch, play Backgammon, read the International Herald Tribune, and chat with other similarly civilised and elegantly dressed passengers.
Sadly, that golden age of air travel would give way to the fierce competition and systematic cost-cutting of the 70s and 80s that saw many airlines (Pan Am, TWA, Swissair et al.) eventually go bankrupt while others suffered through government bailouts, painful restructuring, and sharply diminished service. The growing popularity of low-cost, no-frills air carriers such as EasyJet, Southwest, and the dreaded Ryanair forced the major airlines to cut back on costs and reduce cabin comfort to the point where passengers felt assaulted on all fronts. Add to that the post 9/11 era of increased security checks and it is clear that air travel was degenerating into an ordeal rather than a dashing journey.
But the Dark Age of air travel is at an end. Over the course of the last decade the airline industry has undergone a remarkable renaissance led by an elite group of Arab and Asian carriers that have restored the glamour and adventure of flying. Today, the term “cabin comfort” is no longer an oxymoron and most major airlines are applying forward thrusters in order to restore flying to its former graces.
Most notably, a revolution in First Class service is underway. Thanks to seven of the world’s top carriers – Emirates, Singapore, Etihad, Qatar, Air France, Cathay Pacific and Qantas – air travelers are now able to benefit from luxurious first class cabins that deliver the kind of comfort that Air Force One affords American presidents or what private corporate jets provide to their CEOs and top executives.
The world’s leading airlines are furiously racing to upgrade the quality of their First (and Business) Class cabins which are increasingly taking on the character of private chambers that maximise service, comfort, and sleep while minimising noise and the kind of aggravation that comes with typical cattle (i.e. economy) class chatter and flight attendants who previously served as prison guards.
No expense is being spared today in the top carriers’ hellbent pursuit of excellence and competition for high-end passenger traffic. Perks such as limousine pick-up and drop-off, First Class cabins featuring private suites with leather couches and private showers are now becoming the new standard of luxury air travel. Every effort is being made to ensure that you will arrive at your destination well-rested, well-fed, and blessed with the feeling of having been treated like royalty.
For the benefit of all those seeking to take advantage of this glorious new epoch in high-end air travel, we have identified seven airlines that have truly transformed First Class flight into a moveable feast.
Anointing a champion amongst the top carriers when it comes to First Class travel is an increasingly difficult process. For the past several years, Emirates has been ranked consistently at or near the top by many magazines and survey groups and we have no reason to dispute that finding.
Primus inter pares, Emirates comes out ahead in an overall ranking of cabin service, seating, fine dining, and general comfort. Owned by the Dubai government, Emirates is one of the world’s biggest international carriers (in terms of traffic, fleet size, and revenue) and boasts a spectacular hub/terminal at Dubai International airport (the busiest in the world, having surpassed Heathrow in 2014) on its European-Asian routes.
Emirates is the largest operator of the twin-deck Airbus A380 in the world with a fleet of 83 currently in operation as well as having the largest fleet of Boeing 777-300ERs with 122 in service and another 170-plus on order (including its new 777-8amd 777-9 iterations).
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
First Class cabins are ergonomically designed to give the passenger a self-enclosed living unit experience. Offering 14 suites on the upper deck of the A380 and 8 suites on the 777s, every effort has been made to ensure a very private and cozy flight. Except for Singapore Airlines, Emirates has probably the finest cuisine of our top seven and the menu offers a dizzying array of meals that rival the choices offered in most top restaurants. Cabin crews are immaculately outfitted and generally polite although not quite up to the standard set by Singapore and Etihad.
Another added bonus of flying First Class on the Emirates’ A380s is the unusually large overhead storage compartments which allow passengers to stow both trolleys as well as plenty of gift bags and other items which one wouldn’t think of bringing aboard other aircraft.
One of my favourite perks when it comes to flying Emirates is its deluxe complimentary Chauffeur-drive service available to First Class and Business class passengers. There’s nothing like the comfort of being picked up at your front door and driven in style to the airport not to mention the hassle-free benefit of having a chauffeur meet you at the gate upon landing and taking you to straight home or to your hotel, meeting, or golf course.
TOP PERK – ON-BOARD SHOWER SUITE
The single most attractive feature of Emirates’ First Class experience is its onboard shower suite. Etihad is the only other airline offering such a luxury perk albeit noticeably less spacious. (Although the airline would hardly recommend it, prospective mile-high club members might consider the Emirates’ shower suite as a perfect testing ground!)
2. SINGAPORE AIRLINES
A close overall second, Singapore Airlines is a pioneer in the field of First Class flying. Singapore is particularly renown for its singularly friendly and accommodating ground personnel as well as it First Class lounge staff and cabin crews. The level of politeness and dedication to service is unparalleled and immediately makes one feel as though you are being welcomed to a private members’ club where your every wish is Singapore Airlines’ command.
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
In 2008, it introduced its Suites Class service available on its flagship A380 Airbus fleet. These enclosed private cabins come equipped with sliding doors, soft leather armchairs, and – most famously – double-beds! These luxury trappings helped usher in the revolution in First Class flying and they have rarely been ranked outside of the top three in all major ratings of the world’s elite airlines.
Meanwhile, Singapore’s First Class is hardly less inviting. Seat width is a massive 34 inches and the new dark leather upholstery offers the best pure seating comfort of any airline in the world. Another notable technological upgrade comes in the form of the 24-inch TV monitors and Bose noise-cancelling headphones.
Upon boarding via your own fast-track corridor, First Class passengers are treated to Dom Pérignon champagne prior to feasting from a menu that reads like something ripped from a Michelin-starred chef’s private wish list. Caviar and scallop appetizers are followed by a variety of western and Asian-style main courses including Lobster Thermidor and sautéed beef strips.
The major quibble one has with the Suites concept is that it all too closely resembles the layout of passenger train compartments. This diminishes the inherent sense of spaciousness that is part of the attraction and raison d’etre of wide-bodied jets such as the A380 or the Boeing 777 or the 787 Dreamliner. But if virtual total isolation is one’s preference – especially if you need to finish a report or hate hearing in-flight chatter or snoring – then Singapore’s Suite space (pardon the pun) is just what the doctor ordered.
TOP PERK – THE PRIVATE ROOM (ELITE LOUNGE)
A superb ancillary complement to the actual in-flight experience, Singapore Airlines’ Private Room is an ultra-exclusive airport lounge offered exclusively to Suites Class passengers. Located inside the opulent First Class lounge, the Private Room is a spacious Zen-like setting that boasts a dazzling array of gastronomic delights – not to mention an expert mixologist. It’s one of the few times that you might actually wish for your flight to be delayed an hour or so as to continue savoring the exceptional amenities of this über-perk.
3. ETIHAD AIRWAYS
One of the region’s Big Three airlines along with those of Emirates and Qatar, Etihad Airways relies on the A380 Airbus as well as Boeing’s high-end 787 Dreamliner to lure customers.
Based out of Abu Dhabi, Etihad has been rapidly gaining in reputation amongst elite travelers for its outstanding quality of service, route structure, and stellar cabin interiors. As virtually every online review will confirm, Etihad not only offers the most spacious economy class seating in the world but also prides itself in treating economy and first class passengers with a similarly high level of service.
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
Of course, nothing in Economy can ever match the luxury accommodations of First Class cabin seating and Etihad is no exception. First Class passengers are ushered into four rows of eight side-by-side private compartments that are arguably the most attractive of our top seven carriers. Apart from the subjective complaint that such cabins can feel confining however luxuriously appointed, the compartments offer facing seats that are ideal when traveling with spouses or children.
Topping the First Class experience aboard its A380 fleet is Etihad’s revolutionary 3-room First Apartment (known as First Suite on 787 aircraft) cabins that come complete with living room, bedroom, bathroom and (smallish) shower. Adding to your comfort are the services of your own private butler (trained at the Savoy Butler Academy in London) that is part of Emirates’ VIP Travel Concierge service that also offers private chauffeur service to deliver you to and from the airport. Another welcome onboard amenity is the 36-inch flat screen TV coupled with a full-length sofa where you can laze about in maximum Pasha-like comfort.
The First Apartment Suites are equipped with 6 foot, ten inch long double beds, leather sofas, and custom carpeting. The suites are so spacious that it takes the experience of flying to a new level that previously available only to princes, pop stars, and billionaires flying on their private planes.
Aimed at high net worth individuals and top executives flying or needing a stopover from London, Paris, and New York to Abu Dhabi and beyond, Etihad’s First Class suites are highly competitive alternatives to similar accommodations offered by Emirates and Singapore Airlines.
Upping the ante in the luxury travel sweepstakes, however, Etihad delivers the most exhaustive and outstanding gastronomic experience of your top seven airlines. Braised duck, succulent steaks topped with a special sauce bearnaise, and are all part of Etihad’s seven-course tasting menu that leaves nothing more to be desired.
TOP PERK – FIRST APARTMENT/FIRST SUITE CABINS
As described above, these three-room, 11 square metre cabins with double beds and private butler service is about as pampered as you can get and Etihad’s competitors are now scrambling to catch up.
4. QATAR AIRWAYS
While not quite in the league of its fellow Middle Eastern luxury airlines, Qatar Airways offers a lower-priced but full value First Class experience. Matchless in terms of interior design and efficient use of space, Qatar First Class service features side by side seating arrangements that preserve the open plan concept of the traditional first class section.
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
Though you sacrifice the kind of maximum privacy offered by Emirates, Singapore, and Etihad’s suite configurations, Qatar’s individual cabin concept is very inviting and exceedingly comfortable nonetheless. Many experienced air travelers prefer this kind of old school seating layout, and if one isn’t desperate to get to sleep the entire flight (which tends to defeat the purpose of paying $20,000 or so to enjoy the comforts of First Class), Qatar’s First Class is a highly competitive means of flying between Europe, the Gulf states, or to Los Angeles, Boston, Sydney, Adelaide, Thailand, and the Seychelles.
Cabin service rivals that of Singapore Airlines’ staff, and you are served with a highly personal and attentive staff given that most Qatar First Class sections consist of only eight units.
TOP PERK – DELUXE LAVATORY
The Qatar First Class lavatory is one of the most beautifully designed airplane washrooms in the world. Its unique features include a leather bench and large sink that resembles luxury hotel washrooms.
5. AIR FRANCE
In recent years, Air France has gradually supplanted Lufthansa and British Airways as Europe’s top national air carrier. Its First Class (La Première) service is second to none in the EU and remains a solid choice for anyone flying to and from Europe. It boasts the best route structure of all major European airlines and offers highly competitive pricing to business and first class customers in particular.
Having absorbed KLM into its operations, Air France has broadened its horizons on several fronts and recent consumer surveys have ranked the French airline as one of the top five First Class carriers in the world in terms of cabin service, lounges, seating, and, of course, dining.
Upon arrival at the Airport, First Class passengers are given their boarding passes sealed in elegant red envelopes labeled “La Première,” Air France’s signature name for its service. A personal assistant then escorts you directly to the Premiere (First Class) lounge which is world class on every level complete with massage chairs and a French pastry fridge.
On its Paris outbound flights, Air France goes the extra mile when it comes to perks and privileges. When your flight is ready for boarding, you will be personally escorted past the queues. After clearing security, you will proceed directly into a waiting limousine on the tarmac which drives up to the plane whereupon you are escorted on board only to be greeted by the Captain himself. Magnifique, non?
This is the kind of personal touch that turns Air France’s First Class into a rarified experience. The French, as you might expect, take formalities very seriously and Air France has few peers in this regard.
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
In recent years, Air France has begun the process of retrofitting all its 777-300s (which will eventually replace the 747 on all long haul flights) with its ultra stylish La Première cabin consisting of four private suites. The colour scheme is gray and beige and no other airline offers a more ergonomic seating experience.
The seats are cloth (Air France should really switch to leather) and very cushiony, while the adjacent night table-style lamp makes for pleasant reading on night flights. The TV faces one directly installed into the cabin wall although the 22-inch screen size could be upgraded a few notches. A curtain can be closed at one’s convenience, ensuring maximum privacy.
The 34-inch wide seats extend outward into a 77-inch bed that includes a futon mattress and fabulous duvet comforter which is part of the overall cozy comfort afforded by the compartment.
The private suite concept as designed by Air France gives one the feeling of being in a futuristic boutique hotel room, and the quality of service by the cabin crew has improved markedly as the airline has seemingly overcome the labour relations strife and frequent strikes that caused many customers to shift their business to other carriers. But Air France is now back at the top of its game.
The gourmet dining experience is amplified by a selection of wines that is the best amongst all world airlines. Air France deserves credit for living up to the French reputation for Michelin-level gastronomic delights that will send its passengers to foodie heaven. (But apart from that, it’s also hard to beat being welcomed on board by the Captain himself!)
6. CATHAY PACIFIC
This Hong Kong-based airline is making powerful strides in an effort to capture a growing share of US.-Asia and UK-Asia First Classic traffic. Currently in the process of replacing its aging Boeing 747-400 and Airbus 340-300 fleets with all-new 777-300s and A350s, Cathay Pacific is preparing to challenge the top three carriers in providing high-end customers with superior luxury travel. It’s not quite there yet, but Cathay has a loyal clientele that has long championed its superior cabin service and outstanding cuisine. Cathay’s First Class lounges are also regularly rated as the best in the world.
The London Heathrow – Hong Kong and New York JFK – Hong Kong routes account for roughly 25% of Cathay’s flights, and the arrival of the 777s has radically improved Cathay’s image as it lagged behind other carriers in retiring its 747s. (Singapore retired its last 747 in 2012, for example.)
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
Cathay’s 777 cabin is limited to a mere six seats which help keep the atmosphere private and quiet. The high-tech interior design is one of the bright spots of Cathay’s First Class service. Cathay lags, however behind its competition with smallish 15 inch TV screens.
The most distinctive and advantageous aspect of Cathay’s First Class are the ergonomic features that come with each ultra-wide (40-inch) seat which gives Cathay passengers an ultimate seating experience. Each seat is easily converted into fully-flat bed positions, while the ever-attentive flight attendants offer a turndown service with extra pillow and comforter.
Although Cathay doesn’t offer sliding doors for added privacy as in the case of Emirates, Singapore, and Etihad First Class cabins, fewer passengers make for a relatively quiet ride. Lavatories are rather cramped however aboard the 777 while the grooming gift bag is not up to the standards of the top three.
Foodies would do well to choose Cathay’s First Class. Although highly subjective, many frequent flyers would attest to its exquisite cuisine, immaculate presentation, and top-notch service. A variety of outstanding fish dishes is part of a passenger’s spectacular culinary journey aboard Cathay with salmon, shrimp, and a variety of Asian chicken and duck dishes leading the way. The wine list is similarly excellent.
7. QANTAS AIRWAYS
Most people fell in love with Qantas Airways when it first launched its Koala Bear ad campaign in 1967 when a jealous marsupial would stare at you and mutter, “I hate Qantas.” The Australian flagship airline has always prided itself on bringing something of the Aussie spirit to air travel and Qantas has long served as a fabulous brand ambassador for the nation as a whole.
Dubbed “International First,” your First Class adventure with Qantas begins with the complimentary Chauffeur Drive service that collects you at your door and delivers you in style to the waiting smile of the First Host who greets you curbside at the airport and escorts you to its flagship International Lounges in the case of Sydney or Melbourne or to its affiliated Emirates First Class lounge (much preferred) or British Airways First Lounge at London Heathrow.
Another pleasant perk offered by Qantas is that First Class passengers are fast-tracked through customs and immigration which is particularly useful at Heathrow. On London to Sydney flights, for example, passengers will enjoy a refreshing stop in Dubai where one can also take advantage of Emirates’ sumptuous First Class lounge.
THE CABIN EXPERIENCE
The First Class cabin on Qantas A380s has 14 seats, 5 seats on both sides, and four in the centre. The decor is minimalist but sprightly and inviting, with cream coloured motifs and wooden finishings. The individual seating compartments are part of the Qantas open floor concept and do not provide the kind of privacy afforded by most of our top seven carriers.
Service, however, is typically good-natured and effusively friendly. Qantas stresses personalised treatment in its First Class compartment and you will never be kept waiting for that second vodka tonic or the extra slice of satay chicken that you request.
TOP PERK – FOOD & WINE
Perhaps the most surprising aspect to Qantas First Class service is the outstanding gourmet cuisine and unsurpassed wine list. Qantas has hired top chefs to prepare the best hot meals anywhere above 30,000 feet. Wine aficionados will also salivate at the prospect of impressive Wirra Wirra McLaren Vale Shiraz vintage or a Mount Mary Yarra Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
BEST LOW-COST AIRLINE
VUELING – Iberia’s sister airline offers a fabulous low-cost “Excellence” class option that costs a mere 60 Euros more per leg and allows you to have the whole half of your row to yourself and free meals and unlimited alcohol. The best deal of any airline anywhere.