Inside The First-Class Air Travel Boom

The airlines taking First Class to a new level

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It’s the big divide. When you board that long-haul flight do you turn left or right? Do you enter the living hell of economy or the promised land of business, even first class?

These days more of us will do the latter. Despite efforts by holiday companies to drive down travel costs post 2008, first-class air travel is enjoying a boom: it has doubled worldwide since 2005 and there are more than 86m first-class seats, up from 57.5m in 2005.

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To capture this growing market, airlines are investing in new first-class cabins, seats and other amenities. Emirates has two fully equipped spas in its first-class cabin and is one of a number of airlines to offer passengers their own private suites with minibars and 2,000 TV channels. You also get pyjamas, use of a limousine, caviar and Dom Pérignon champagne. Last year, Air France unveiled its new La Première cabin, which has four exclusive individual suites.

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Each guest has a personal 24in HD touchscreen TV, one of the largest ever seen on board. Contrasted with the technology are natural fabrics such as leather and suede. The bed is an impressive 2m x 1m across and there’s a large table and ottoman to accommodate guests in your cabin. Qatar Airways, meanwhile, offers a menu created by Michelin starred-chefs including Tom Aikens and Nobu Matsuhisa.

Singapore Airlines Suites recently topped a Flightfox survey of the 24 best first-class cabins: a position they reached only after adjudicators had considered seat configuration, aisle access, suite privacy, whether pyjamas were provided and how the caviar was plated. Their best-priced first-class flight ticket is £2,215 (from Singapore to Mumbai) but for that you get a double bed option, an armchair hand-stitched by Italian craftsmen, Givenchy table-wear and Dom Pérignon, though this time from 2004: a vintage acclaimed for its great length and robust acidity.

When they come into service later this year, British Airways’ futuristic new Boeing 787-900 Dreamliners will have what the airline describes as a “next generation” first-class cabin, with more space and comfier seats. Guests can also make use of the Concorde Room at Heathrow Terminal 5 and New York JFK, with the kind of luxurious furniture, chandeliers and artwork more usually found in five-star hotels.

But none of the above can match the heights of luxury reached by Etihad’s The Residence, which launched in December. Designed for couples travelling together, it has been created by “leading interior designers and hospitality experts” and offers a three-room, fully staffed suite, a chauffeur to a private check-in and lounge, an on-board butler, a fine Italian Poltrona Frau leather sofa, two dinner tables plus a in-flight personal chef and a 59in widescreen TV.

“CEOs, celebrities and footballers have always gone first class but now we’re seeing more people choosing it for a special occasion such as 25th wedding anniversaries or 50th birthdays,” says Laurie Berryman, vice president of Emirates UK. “We’ve added first to our Manchester and Glasgow services and they’ve been very successful.”

As first becomes even more luxurious it presents a whole new problem — that awful business of returning to real life.