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updated 11/11/2004 1:21:42 PM ET 2004-11-11T18:21:42

Imagine the chief executive of a company in which you hold stock has to make a long overseas flight to attend a meeting that could have a major impact on the company's share price. Naturally, you would want the CEO to be at the top of his game, rested, refreshed, relaxed, ready. When millions of dollars hang in the balance, the price of a first-class airline ticket doesn't seem so expensive after all.

It's no secret that flying, especially on long-haul flights, can take a toll on the body — or the purse. For busy executives who have to rush off a plane after a long flight and head directly to a meeting to seal the deal — having a decent meal, a place to work and a good night's sleep can make all the difference.

A first-class ticket can cost triple or quadruple the price of one in economy. For example, on Qantas a round-trip — January 5th to 14th, 2005 — international economy ticket from Los Angeles to Sydney costs around $2,000, if booked directly through the airline. That same ticket costs around $7,000 in business class, while the first class ticket is a whopping $13,000. Flying British Airways from New York to London on those same dates would cost $423 in economy, $632 in world traveler plus, $8,254 in business class, and $12,476 in first class when booked from the airline's Web site.

The variety of classes — and wordplay involved when labeling them — brings up a key point: More and more airlines are dropping their first-class sections to focus on business class. Air New Zealand is phasing out its first class next year to create three new classes — premium class, a super economy class and a “refreshed” economy class. Continental Airlines has created a hybrid "BusinessFirst" class which it describes as being first-class service at business-class rates, but technically its still a business-class section. Air France, like other airlines, has reduced the number of first class seats on some planes from 12 to eight. While this has partly been done to create more legroom, it also signals a decline in demand.

“The demand for a true first class has dipped,” says Matthew Bennett, editor of FirstClassFlyer.com. “Many international airlines have cut back, and you see domestic airlines creating two classes,” he says. It all depends on the route however. There's more demand for first class on long haul flights like New York to Dubai rather than New York to Chicago.

Unlike many frequent flyers who upgrade to business class, Bennett says most passengers in first-class pay full fare, even though the average ticket costs between $10,000 and $12,000. “It is very hard to get a discount on a first-class ticket. Most of the two-for-one ticket deals are with business class, and some frequent flier programs cannot be used to get first-class upgrades.”

The likelier scenario, says Peter Miller, the marketing director for Skytrax, a London-based aviation research firm, is that full fare business-class ticket holders are being upgraded to first. It also depends on the route. “In the Middle East, first-class sections are still strong, and it is not unusual to have someone book the entire first-class cabin for their family,” he says.

Airlines that are pouring millions into their first-class sections are doing it only on select routes and aircraft, says Miller. For example, the new Emirates First-Class Suites are only available on Emirates' A340-500 aircraft, on the daily, non-stop New York to Dubai route as well as the Dubai to Sydney, Dubai to Melbourne and Dubai to Auckland route. “So if you want one of the newer suites, you really have to make sure you're getting the right craft,” he says.

According to an April 2003 report from the Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association, less than 5 percent of business travelers fly first and business class, while more than 70 percent fly in restricted economy. But this tiny group is contributing to the majority of the airline's revenue. “These premium seats can account for 40 percent to 60 percent of the revenue, while they're practically giving away seats in the back,” says Bennett. He sites the recent British Airways $99 each way sale from New York to London as an example.

So why pay $12,000 when you can fly for $99? While most people can suffer through economy on a two- to three-hour flight, being in first class makes a huge difference for frequent travelers, especially those on exhaustingly long flights. It comes down to space, service and convenience.

The first-class experience often starts before you arrive at the airport. Some airlines, such as Emirates, offer a limousine service to and from the airport. For passengers leaving from Paris or London, Malaysia Airlines offers helicopter service. First class passengers have a separate check-in line to eliminate the hassle, and are allowed to check in much later than the recommended two hours. This boils down to extra time at the office and being productive — and less time hanging around the airport. Passengers also have access to a first class lounge (or one that is shared with business class passengers) which translates into more time to return phone calls, check e-mail, grab a bite or, in some places, even get a shower or massage.

Most first-class sections have only eight or 12 seats, which ensure privacy and space. During the flight there are extra amenities like flat beds with mattresses, pillows, duvets, slippers and pajamas. Many of the first class suites have privacy screens which transform the seat into a “pod” for maximum privacy. First-class passengers also have more flexibility when it comes to ordering food, which can be preordered and served with an impressive wine list. For those who need to work in-flight, first-class seats are equipped with power outlets for laptops, and Lufthansa just took it one step further by offering broadband Internet on certain flights.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that some carriers are not on the list. Some failed to make the cut because their first-class service is not on a par with those that did. Others, such as Virgin Atlantic, are not here because, although excellent, its Upper Class is technically business class. And then there were some airlines that did not want to cooperate or return repeated telephone calls. (Although if they change their minds, we would be happy to consider them our 2005 list.) Nevertheless, we believe that no deserving airline was left off the list.

To determine the best first-class section, we used a variety of criteria and focused on airlines that offer international first class. One point was awarded for amenities like flat beds, privacy screens, on demand entertainment, branded toiletries and limousine service. Finally, we tallied up the points to determine the winners.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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