Air travel has improved a lot over the past decade — though anyone who has recently suffered through a multi-hour flight in economy class probably won't agree. The food is still almost universally terrible and the leg room ever-shrinking, but personal seat-back video screens, USB ports and Wi-Fi have made it much easier for passengers to distract themselves during lengthy flights.
The real improvements to the flier experience have been made in the premium classes. Business and first-class passengers have always enjoyed extra services like pre-takeoff cocktails and fresh-made meals, but now there are extra comforts like lie-flat seats.
Now a few airlines are making first-class look more like a luxury hotel than a commercial plane.
A recent trend in long-haul travel is to outfit the first-class cabins of newer aircraft, like the Airbus A380, with private suites that offer a new level of privacy and comfort for commercial flights.
Singapore Airlines and Emirates Airlines have outfitted the first-class sections of their new A380s with mini suites. Singapore offers individual rooms that are akin to the kind of sleeper compartments seen on classic trains. Sliding doors and window blinds make it possible for passengers to have complete privacy in the air if they so choose.
Singapore has also taken note of the success of seats that allow people to lie down inflight. The Asian carrier claims to be the first airline to offer stand-alone beds as part of its suites. Each compartment contains both a seat and a bed.
Dubai-based Emirates does not have stand-alone beds on its A380 suites. Instead, seats fold down to a 180-degree angle. Sliding doors provide privacy, and each compartment has a makeup table/work desk, entertainment options and a mini bar. There are even fresh-cut flowers to greet passengers at boarding. The biggest perk for Emirates' first-class fliers? Private showers and spa services are offered inflight.
Suites on Etihad Airways include sitting rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms. (Photo: Etihad Airways)
Etihad Airways, owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, is taking the trend of luxury flying to new heights. The carrier is installing a three-room suite in the premium-class section of its new A380s. None of these flying hotel rooms are in the air yet, but the first is slated to take off before the end of 2014. The three-room suite, called the "Residence" by Etihad, will have a sitting room with two sofas and an entertainment system, a bedroom with a double bed, and a bathroom with a private shower. Passengers in the suite even have a personal flight attendant (a person the airline calls a "butler").
Etihad claims there is a market for this type of service, even though the cost of a one-way ticket on an average flight will be about $20,000.
Emirates and Etihad, both from the UAE, are often competing for the same fliers' business. Even if the three-room suite sits empty on most flights, it is a marketing tool that upstart Etihad, the younger of the two airlines, can use to solidify its image as a quality carrier.
These over-the-top luxuries are sure to lure moneyed fliers and execs with generous expense accounts, but ultra-luxury is actually a smaller and smaller part of most airlines' plans. Many carriers are in the process of shrinking the size of their first-class cabins. Air France-KLM was one of the first airlines to offer lie-flat seats in business class. This feature brought a spike in ticket sales. Lufthansa, Qantas and American are among the airlines that are revamping some of their aircraft, taking out or shirking the first-class section in favor of additional business-class seats. Virgin Atlantic did away with the three-class layout decades ago, instead opting for a two-class setup.
So while there will continue to be over-the-top luxury, the focus is squarely on more-practical comfort.
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