Image: Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways
Passengers flying first-class on Qatar Airways get caviar service, full-size pillows, white linen mattresses, Australian wool blankets and Bulgari toiletry kits. The seats are 79 inches long, have 15-inch LCD screens and come with a 23-inch meal table that allows dining for two, just as in a restaurant.
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updated 8/13/2007 11:45:55 AM ET 2007-08-13T15:45:55

The only accouterment not offered to today's first-class fliers: harps of gold.

Every other kind luxury is being lavished on them: fine champagne, toiletry kits by Bulgari and Ferragamo, seven-course meals and, on the ground, special concierges to expedite their passage through check-in and security.

"Right now, first class is all about creating an over-the-top experience for passengers," says Edward Plaisted, chief executive of Skytrax, a London-based airline and airport-quality ranking firm. At a time when some carriers have eliminated first-class altogether (in order to focus on business class), 35 others have not only kept it, but kicked it up a gilded notch. The ones keeping it, says Plaisted, are striving for "that wow factor."

Singapore Airlines' first class, for example, gives its passengers a choice between Dom Perignon and Krug champagne, and while fliers change into their Givenchy sleep suits and slippers in the extra-large bathrooms, their seats are turned into actual beds with sheets, a down duvet and oversize pillows.

Emirates first-class seats are mini-suites with sliding doors offering passengers total privacy. Cathay Pacific actually has skillets and rice cookers on board for its top-tier fliers, which means that eggs are made to order and rice dishes are prepared fresh.

Industry experts say that airlines are hoping amenities like these will entice passengers to spend the hefty first-class fares, which are an average of $6,922 for a one-way ticket on a European airline (an increase of 16 percent from a year ago), and $7,377 on an Asian carrier, up 12 percent from a year ago, according to Harrell Associates, an airline consulting firm in New York City that tracks ticket prices. U.S. airlines don't figure into the mix because most have consolidated first and business into one class.

Despite the steep cost for a ticket, first class is more a marketing tool than it is a money-maker.

"It's not a major source of revenue for airlines to have a first class," says Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting group in Evergreen, Colo. "Nowadays, business class is at such a high standard that most travelers are happy with flying that, and a lot of first class is filled up by upgrades from frequent fliers." Most full-fare first-class fliers are traveling for pleasure, not business.

Out-of-this-world options
Of the roughly 35 airlines worldwide who do offer first class, fully flat beds, a three-to-one passenger-to-crew ratio (in business class, it is typically 10 or 15 passengers for one crew member), and sumptuous meals are par for the flight. However, a handful of carriers are trying to distinguish themselves by improving passengers' airport experience.

Image: Emirates Airlines
Emirates
Each of the roughly 18 seats in first-class on Emirates can be transformed into a mini-suite by the use of sliding doors. Other perks include soft pajamas, slippers, 600 channels of on-demand entertainment, chauffeur service from select airports, seven-course meals served on bone china and access to lounges that have wi-fi, an extensive dining buffet and are decked out in Italian marble.
"Passengers complain that going to the airport is becoming more hellish with longer security lines and more time wasted before the flight," says Plaisted, "so some airlines are focusing on making the ground experience pleasurable for first-class fliers."

Qatar Airways is an example. First-class passengers flying out of Doha have access to a new separate $90 million terminal that resembles a five-star hotel with marble floors and cascading waterfalls. Passengers are cosseted from the moment they arrive at the airport. An attendant takes their bags, checks them in and leads them to a lounge, which has several fine-dining restaurants, a medical center and a spa with a sauna and Jacuzzi.

The luxe factor continues on board when fliers get caviar service, full-size pillows, white linen mattresses, Australian wool blankets and Bulgari toiletry kits. Each seat also has a 23-inch meal table, which lets two people dine across from each other, like in a restaurant.

It's amenities like these that give Qatar the distinction of the best first-class airline in the world on Skytrax's annual survey, which lists the top 10 in this category. The survey was conducted from August 2006 to June 2007 and includes a variety of input sources, including online and e-mail passenger interviews, business research groups, travel panel interviews, corporate travel questionnaires and phone interviews. It takes into account nearly two dozen criteria, such as check-in, lounges, onboard amenities and staff service.

These are the areas in which carriers such as Thai Airways (No. 5 on Skytrax's list) are trying to set themselves apart.

First-class passengers are waited on hand and foot from the moment they arrive in a private section of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi's Airport. A personal concierge checks them in and escorts them through security to a lounge with Wi-fi, a sauna and a spa that offers Thai massages. When flying into Bangkok, a concierge fast-tracks them through immigration, customs and bag pick-up. The perks onboard aren't bad either: passengers receive Bulgari toiletry kits and have a choice of 22 entrées, which can be pre-ordered.

Australian carrier Qantas' first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne have a library, a fine-dining restaurant, a business center and a spa that offers massages. Seats onboard transform into beds 6.5 feet long, and entertainment is 400 video on-demand channels. Dining is an eight-course extravaganza, which can be paired with wines, and Payot products are stuffed into the designer silk toiletry kits (the men's by Akira Isogawa, the women's by Colette Dinnigan).

It may not be exactly like staying in a five-star hotel — after all, there are no king-size beds and Jacuzzis on board — but with all its lavish amenities, first-class flying comes pretty close.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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