First-class fliers already enjoy super-wide seats that turn into beds, multi-course meals designed by celebrity chefs and plush airport lounges where they can get massages and manicures.
Can it get any better?
Oh yes, say industry experts. They predict that while first-class will disappear entirely at some carriers, others will reinvent it on a level of extravagance far beyond what's available now.
"Business-class has been upgraded to first-class standards at some airlines, and it’s encroaching on first-class," says Edward Plaisted, chief executive of Skytrax, a U.K.-based airline and airport quality ranking company that assesses quality of first-class long haul flights. "First-class is at the stage where the section is filled by upgrades and frequent fliers."
As a result, he predicts that some airlines will eliminate their first-class altogether. Skytrax research shows that around 35 airlines currently provide first-class service globally. This number doesn’t include smaller airlines that may offer first-class on domestic routes. Plaisted estimates that in the next five years, only 20 or 25 airlines will maintain the service.
And on those that do, first-class, says Plaisted, "is going to be elevated to the level of a five-star hotel."
Top of the tops
Fly Singapore Airlines in the coming years and that's what you'll find.
The carrier, regarded as having one of the best first-class services in the industry, has invested in 19 Airbus 380 planes. These offer 50 percent more cabin space than the Boeing 747-400, currently in use by most major carriers. The extra space gives airlines a chance to create extraordinary first-class services.
Though the company is keeping mum on specifics, James Boyd, the spokesman for Singapore Airlines in North America, says to expect "a complete departure from anything out there on commercial aircrafts."
Lufthansa has also ordered a fleet of A380s and, like Singapore Airlines, plans to raise the first-class ante in-cabin and out.
Martin Riecken, spokesman for Lufthansa for the Americas, says that the airline has plans to invest $137 million dollars in its lounges worldwide with much of the money going toward creating similar luxury for first-class passengers in more airports.
Other airlines will be examining how they can customize their passengers' first-class experience, says Plaisted, who predicts the parade of endless courses of food will be replaced by giving customers more control of what and when they want to eat.
Also on the forefront: bathrooms that are two and half times larger than their current size and beefed up entertainment systems with bigger screens.
Comfort levels are also expected to rise.
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Aram Gesar, editor of New York-based AirGuide magazine and AirGuideonline.com, publications for frequent travelers, says "there will be more square footage and more cabin attendants but fewer seats." What’s more, seats will be more like mini-suites with sliding doors so fliers can be left alone to sleep, dine or hold business meetings. Emirates already offers this for first-class fliers.
But if you want in on all this luxury, better plan to ocean hop.
Stateside, the prospects for domestic first-class look bleak because of the growing competition from personal-use jets.
"Private jets will become more competitively priced in the future and will prevail over time," says Gesar. What's more, business travelers, the main clientele for first-class domestic travel, will opt for the private jet route because of the time savings. "You don’t have the hassle of checking in and you decide when you want to fly," Gesar says. “When you land, you literally walk right out of the airport.”
While it’s hard to predict exactly what the future holds for first-class travel, it doesn’t look like there is much to look forward to with domestic first-class flying. Internationally, some first-classes will cease to exist. The ones left, however, promise to exhibit a level of lavishness that will surprise even the most jaded travelers.
© 2012 Forbes.com