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First-Class Perk: Airlines Shield Wealthy Fliers From the Masses

On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy a Mesclun salad with king crab or a grilled USDA prime beef tenderloin, stretch out in a 3-foot-wide seat that converts to a bed and wash it all down with a pre-slumber Krug "Grande Cuvee" Brut Champagne.

Yet some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else.

Many top-paying international passengers, having put down roughly $15,000 for a ticket, now check-in at secluded facilities and are driven in luxury cars directly to planes. Others can savor the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent flier miles for a trip of a lifetime.

"First class has become a way for a traveler to have an almost private jet-like experience," says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Hudson Crossing. Airlines "will do everything but sing a lullaby."

There's a lot of money on the line. At big carriers like American Airlines, about 70 percent of revenue comes from the top 20 percent of its customers.

The special treatment now starts at check-in. American and United Airlines have both developed private rooms, located in discrete corners of their terminals in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, that allow for a speedy check-in. Lufthansa offers first-class passengers a separate terminal in Frankfurt and London's Heathrow has private suites for immigration and security screening, complete with hors d'oeuvres and Champagne.

"That sort of exclusivity plays to the ego of people who are in a position to spend that much money on airline flight," says Tim Winship, publisher of travel advice site FrequentFlier.com.

— The Associated Press