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The very best in first class

What airline offers the very best first-class service? weighs in with its annual rankings.
“Cathay Pacific is the undisputed emperor of first-class carriers,” according to
“Cathay Pacific is the undisputed emperor of first-class carriers,” according to
/ Source: Forbes

On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville Wright made the first successful flight in a heavier-than-air flying machine. Needless to say, there were no on-demand movies or adjustable sleeper seats.

Although the early days of aviation were pretty Spartan, as commercial air travel began to take off in the 1920s the airline industry began to understand that one of the best inducements to get passengers to risk their lives in their new, expensive and extremely dangerous mode of transportation was to pamper them with luxury amenities.

By the 1930s, because the average price of a ticket was so high, practically every seat was what would be considered by modern standards to be first-class. Airliners, such as the Curtiss Condor biplane, and later the revolutionary DC-3, not only offered passengers in-flight meals but also sleeping berths, even separate dressing rooms for men and women, a dining salon that could be turned into a lounge and a well-stocked bar.

Today, for many first-class passengers, air travel can be just as comfortable. And once again, has set out to identify those airlines that do first class best.

Modern first-class passengers can order a ten-course meal (starting with chocolate and ending with caviar, if you want). They can slumber peacefully, sheltered in a private flat-bed pod, swathed in designer pajamas and moisturized with Bulgari lotion. Or, while savoring a Grand Cru, they can flip through 500 channels on a personal 15-inch television screen while simultaneously calling home on a loaner cell phone. And the pampering doesn't stop when you leave the plane. Many airlines offer not only comfortable airport lounges reserved for first-class passengers, but they even offer ground transport, sometimes even discounts on hotels.

Of course, such treatment seems hardly outrageous given the high price of the average first-class ticket. Premium fares on major intercontinental routes can easily reach five-figures: $6,000 from New York to London on British Airways, $10,000 from New York to Dubai on Gulf Air, $15,000 from New York to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific.

Not surprisingly, with prices like these, the numbers of first-class passengers are shrinking. In 2004, even though the airline industry transported 1.8 billion passengers, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association of America, only a small fraction of those passengers flew first class. François Dormoi,an analyst with Airclaims, a London-based company that provides risk assessment, liability claims and consulting advice to airlines, estimates that less than 5 percent to 8 percent of international passengers fly first class every year, although the percentage might be higher on long haul flights.

Moreover, many of those first-class seats are filled with people who didn't pay full fare, such as sky marshals, off-duty pilots, and people who have been given complimentary upgrades or redeemed frequent flier points to fly in luxury.

In fact, Delta has eliminated its first-class service and replaced it with a less expensive BusinessFirst section. "For the past five years or so, business class has been taking the place of first class," says Ray Neidl, airline analyst for Calyon Corporate & Investment Bank in New York. "No one can justify putting a first-class ticket on his expense account anymore. No one's willing to pay that much of a premium."

So why even have a first class? Specific figures don't exist, but "generally speaking, you wouldn't have first class unless it improved your overall network profitability," says John Heimlich, chief economist with the Air Transport Association. "While it is more expensive to provide first-class service, the idea of having it is to cater to the business traveler, differentiate the cabin and charge a premium. The longer the trip, the more the consumer cares about the food, seat comfort and additional options."

So how does a prospective first-class passenger make sense of all those options? Skytrax, a London-based company that monitors international airline and airport quality levels, has released their annual first-class rankings and has fleshed out their list with a little more detailed information. Skytrax ranked the first-class service of 31 international long-haul airlines and graded them across a spectrum of criteria, including everything from service efficiency upon check-in to entrée temperature while in the air.

"We carry out this competitive performance barometer for the airline industry each year," says Peter Miller, who administered the study. "The airline industry wanted a benchmark about the best quality of service and product available." To compile the data for the survey, Skytrax sent their staff of 26 auditors out to fly an average of 130 hours a week for four months.

Sound grueling? Bet after reading our slide show of the ten best first-class services out there, you'll want their job.