Best first-class cabins

By | September 15th, 2003

The closest most air travelers will ever come to a first-class seat is the humiliating “perp walk” to the economy-class section during boarding.

No, we aren’t criminals, but we sure feel like second-class citizens when we shuffle past the already boarded elite passengers, who glare at us between sips of their mimosas as if we’re no better than cargo. Squeezing our frames into the tiny steerage seats is arguably the final insult.

Yet a fortunate few – by luck or through the miracle of frequent-flier miles – will one day ascend to the coveted front of the cabin.

According to a recent survey by the Orlando marketing firm YPB&R, that’s where everyone wants to sit. One in 10 business travelers craves lots of legroom, nearly two-thirds say they value the extra-spacious overhead compartments and almost half would die for the full meals served to first-class passengers.

“It isn’t just the comfort and service of first class that’s appealing,” says Joel Widzer, author of the book, “The Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel: The Art of Cultivating Preferred Customer Status.” “If you want to arrive at your destination well-rested and ready to get to work, you need that upgrade.”

The question is, if you’re going to go first class, which airline should you fly? The conventional wisdom says the domestic airlines have lost their touch when it comes to the big seats. (Indeed, three of the top five airlines in Travel + Leisure magazine’s 2003 list of the best domestic airlines operate a one-class configuration.)

In order to come up with my list of the five best first-class sections, I took a look at several recent surveys, including those conducted by Travel + Leisure, British pollsters Skytrax Research, Zagat’s, and, of course, J.D. Power and Associates. As always, I compared the numbers against your experiences and my own (even though, to be completely honest, I can count the number of times I’ve been upgraded on one hand).

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Singapore Airlines. It’s difficult to find a survey of the best first-class sections without a mention of Singapore’s front-of-the-cabin service. On long-distance flights, the seats turn into lie-down-flat beds, complete with a down-filled mattress, duvet and a large pillow. You’re also issued a pair of designer pajamas and a toiletry kit with body lotion, lip balm and towels. The service is beyond attentive, according to passengers I’ve spoken with. And the food? Decadent. Caviar, Dom Perignon and gourmet, cooked-to-order meals are on the menus. “All in all,” says Jeff Tucker, a technology consultant in Kalaheo, Hawaii, “Singapore Airlines is the best there is.”

Virgin Atlantic Airways. Limousine service to the airport. On-board masseuses. An in-flight bar. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they’d turned the clock back 40 years to the golden age of flying, when first class really was a first-class experience. Virgin, which is constantly trying to outdo archrival British Airways, recently introduced a new first-class cabin called the Upper Class Suite, with seats that are nearly 80 inches long and 33 inches wide. You certainly won’t get any complaints about seat room in this first-class section. (Technically, Virgin’s first class is considered a business-class service, with its “premium economy” subbing for business class. But that’s just semantics – Upper Class is a real first-class product.)

Cathay Pacific Airways. Talk about being pampered. If you’re flying from Hong Kong, your experience starts at a special lounge called The Wing, where you can watch a movie, catch up on work in your own personal space or grab a bite to eat at its in-lounge noodle bar. On long-haul flights, Cathay pulls out all the stops, with luxurious sleeper seats which feature luxury duvets and pillows, toiletry kits designed by La Prairie and gourmet, cooked-to-order cuisine. Cathay also waives some of its rules for folks sitting up front, permitting a special checked-baggage allowance of two pieces that weigh up to 70 pounds each. So you can travel in style and take along the kitchen sink – almost literally.

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British Airways. Flying can be stressful, which is why British Airways operates a spa out of its London first-class lounge. That, and perhaps a little competition with Virgin (which, after all, has an on-board masseuse), have driven this carrier to offer a range of treatments and massages “designed to relieve the stresses of the journey and prepare you for a relaxed and comfortable flight.” The first-class section is impressive, too. Each individual seat is called a “demi cabin” because it converts not only into a bed, but an office of sorts with a separate seat where another passenger (presumably also from first class) can “visit” with you. British Airways also has a reputation for having an excellent on-board “cellar” with a selection of wines, champagnes and spirits – but alas, no bar.

Thai International Airways. The last thing Thai wants its Royal First Class customers to be on those tedious transcontinental flights is bored. Which is why you’re issued a personal Video Walkman when you sit down. There’s a library with first-run movies, classic films, a ballet or music videos, to pass the time. And, of course, there’s luxury – and lots of it. Sleeper seats. Food served on china with silverware (nothing plastic here). Cuv’e des Roys champagne. Plus, the service is said to be second-to-none, with cabin attendants constantly patrolling the aisles to make sure every passenger is happy. Needless to say, it would be very difficult to have a bad flight on Thai.

Don’t forget business class

Not all airlines offer a first-class cabin. In fact, some of the best premium airline services don’t even carry a “first-class” label. This is done mainly because so many companies have policies forbidding their employees from flying first class. So the airlines wisely renamed their top-of-the-line product “business class.”

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A good example is Austrian Airlines’ “Grand Class,” which showed up on several of the surveys, despite being a business-class product. Austrian Airlines is a sentimental favorite of mine because I grew up in Austria and still have family there, who I visit frequently. I admit it, I shamelessly beg for an upgrade to Grand Class every time I fly on Austrian, and I’ve actually gotten an upgrade on two occasions. It’s worth the groveling.

“It’s the best business class around,” raves Alf Wirth, a financial adviser who is a frequent traveler to Vienna, Austria. “In fact, except for the seats only reclining to 160 degrees, it would win even against any other first class.” Wirth likes the food, service and ambience – and even though my friends who handle public relations for Austrian Airlines cringe whenever I call, I wholeheartedly agree.

Before booking that ticket, though, I’d like offer a reality check. A New York-to-Vienna ticket in Grand Class will set you back about $5,022. Want to fly from Los Angeles to Singapore on Singapore Airlines? Get ready to part with $9,368. That’s big bucks.

If you can’t afford to do that, or just think that the money would be better spent on something like oh, say your mortgage, then you can always do the “perp walk” and follow the rest of the livestock to the back of the plane.

I’ll see you there. Unless, that is, I can talk myself into an upgrade.

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