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The new first class

This year, the friendly skies will get a whole lot friendlier for those who can afford it.
Only a decade after first introducing the "lie-flat" concept to the industry, British Airways is already redesigning their business- and first-class cabins with new seats, and more of them.
Only a decade after first introducing the "lie-flat" concept to the industry, British Airways is already redesigning their business- and first-class cabins with new seats, and more of them.British Airways
/ Source: Forbes

Glancing up at the starry sky, you decide that it's time to take a break from the first-run Hollywood movie you're watching. You hit the touchscreen remote next to your massage-enabled recliner and it silently converts from a bucket seat to a fully flat bed. You slip off your noise-canceling headphones and press another button — two wood-paneled screens whoosh together, turning your bed into a cocoon-like private space. When you wake up, you'll be greeted with a gourmet meal of caviar and truffled eggs, cooked to order by an expert chef. Welcome to the world of first-class long-haul travel.

It sounds like a dream, especially to anyone who has endured a long flight in coach, where a mere six extra inches of legroom can bring paroxysms of joy akin to winning a multistate lottery. Of course, despite the refinement at the front of the plane, we haven't really traveled all that far from Henry Pullman's pioneering railroad "palace cars" (Bunks! Food! Porters!) to the pinnacle of $10,000-a-seat airline cabins.

The ideas aren't new: Make the long hours of getting from point A to point B a little more bearable by offering the trappings of civilized relaxation — a comfortable seat, a place for uninterrupted sleep, some privacy, some attentiveness, choice of entertainment, gourmet food prepared to order, quality beverages and a friendly environment in which to enjoy them, and maybe a pleasant surprise now and again.

That said, the last decade has seen aggressive competition in amenities launched both at the top end of the spectrum and trickling down into business class and even lowly coach. While small details do contribute to the overall impression, the most desperate desire for any long-distance traveler is enough personal space to catch some useful sleep. Wider seats that, in turn, become wider beds, which lay flat and offer breathable cushioning, are the number-one concern of the frequent long-haul traveler.

Artur Bergman, manager of operations for a San Francisco technology company, spends hundred of hours in the air each year and he's experienced his share of business- and first-class amenities. "The most important feature is the bed," Bergman says. "You want it as long and as wide as possible. The best one is Virgin's. Their seat flips over to become a bed, which is a really nice design."

Amazingly, the lie-flat bed in first class is a relatively new innovation. Introduced in 1996 by British Airways and seat manufacturer Contour Premium Aircraft Seating, the lie-flat bed's appeal is predicated on the fact that, while many of us fall asleep in our La-Z-Boys from time to time, it's not very refreshing to spend 7 or 8 hours reclining rather than laying supine. A radical idea in 1996, perhaps, but now most long-haul carriers have seats that flip, swivel and unfold like leather-swaddled origami sculptures into plush beds that can actually provide restful slumber at 37,000 feet.

In fact, British Airways' head start on the competition may have even become a liability as newer, wider, comfier seats arrived on the scene in the past decade. Of course, BA hasn't taken things lying down. Not only did they win the 2006 World Airline Award from the customer-survey site Skytrax, but British Airways recently unveiled plans to expand the business-class sections of its entire fleet, and in more ways than one: They're adding more seats, making them 25 percent wider, and each one will convert into, yes, a lie-flat bed.

Of course, it's not all about being unconscious. You can't sleep through an entire 14-hour flight. Second on Bergman's list of amenities that make an impression is the promise of good food and wine, coupled with the ability to improvise. Bergman consistently enjoys Virgin Atlantic's in-flight bar, networking and noshing away on flights from Europe to L.A. However, the memory of an impromptu mid-flight snack of two fresh scrambled eggs on a long Singapore Airlines flight still brings a gleam of pleasure to the veteran traveler's eye.

And by all reports, Singapore Airlines is the carrier to beat for superlative service. They've just announced the imminent arrival of brand-new appointments in their first-class cabins, offering a mind-numbing 35-inch, loveseat-like, mahogany-clad lounge for its well-heeled customers to loll about in while they gaze into their 23-inch LCD personal entertainment monitors.

Passengers will also have access to keyboards, USB ports (for flash storage) and preloaded software for document and presentation editing. And, oh yes, the bed linens and pillows are designed by Givenchy. It's a testament to Singapore Airline's track record of excellence that the very idea of these upgrades have sent excited murmurs across the travel landscape.

Other notable carriers include All Nippon Airlines — with the widest current seat, soon to be eclipsed by Singapore. Lufthansa's menu is refreshed every two months by a powerhouse roster of star chefs, including the likes of Paul Bocuse, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller.

Emirates, based in Dubai, is the only airline to offer the private "suites" mentioned at the top of this article, as well as the sky-simulating cabin ceiling that gradually shifts from day to dusk to starlight as the trip progresses. Emirates is also hoping to add showers to some of its first-class cabins — perhaps when the new Airbus A380 arrives for service, or perhaps even sooner.

And the future is really where the world of luxury travel gets exciting. There's no limit to the possibilities that unfold when new jets are introduced. Both the Airbus A380 and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner are mega-jumbo jets that will be literally decked out with exotic features — or so say the scale mockups. Airbus's upcoming A380s, which are running just a wee late, can be configured to include business centers, boutiques, billiard rooms, bars and whatever else enterprising cabin outfitters can dream up.