Private Travel: Elevating First Class

  • Jack Smith

It is midnight somewhere high over Asia, and a few of us have moved from our seats to the forward bar of the plane’s upper deck. It is difficult to sleep; after all, seldom is one aboard a test flight of a new aircraft, much less the largest passenger plane ever built.
 
Taxiing into position at Frankfurt Airport, the Airbus A380 literally had overshadowed the nearby 747s, with its tail standing 16 feet taller than the Boeings’. Tonight’s flight is carrying about 500 guests—prospective buyers, politicians, celebrities, and media members—from Frankfurt to Hong Kong. With some minor reconfiguring, this same double-decker aircraft could accommodate as many as 853 passengers, and a stretch version would have a capacity of more than 1,000.
 

Photograph by Eric Gaillard/Corbis. (Click image to enlarge)

But the A380 is not intended to be just a larger plane. Airbus—the former multinational consortium that is now a single entity headquartered in Toulouse, France—also designed it to be a more comfortable, more enjoyable aircraft. Throughout the flight our biorhythms are being coddled by a lighting system that simulates the natural cycle of a day, thereby reducing, in theory, jet lag. The plane’s jet turbines eventually will lull us into repose while producing only half as much noise as those on the 747-400. Near the bar, seats have been molded into the forward wall to create a conversation area along the curvature of the fuselage. During takeoff and landing, a live TV camera provides the view you would have if you were clinging to the tail.

It was all very pleasant, although a little generic. The representatives from Lufthansa, which had provided the crew for this journey, kept reminding passengers that the plane belonged to Airbus and that the seats, overhead bins, and the overall configuration were not necessarily what the German carrier would choose. There was no hint, for instance, of where an airline might put the hot tub, sauna, and gym. This seemed to be a major oversight by Airbus, because once the manufacturer unveiled the A380 in January 2005, speculation followed that it would be the most indulgent craft ever to take wing. This airborne resort would include, in addition to the aforementioned amenities, a casino, nursery, beauty salon, duty-free shop, boutique, restaurant, cocktail lounge, spa, private suites, and even showers.
 

Fifteen airlines have ordered a total of 160 A380s. The plane has a wingspan of more than 260 feet and a price of about $300 million.

For its commercial customers—though as of this spring, not a single American carrier had ordered the plane—the new Airbus may rekindle the excitement of flying first class. More to the point, it might even entice fliers to pay for first class. “Nobody pays money to fly in domestic first class,” says Matt Daimler, founder of Seatguru.com, which monitors the size, space, and comforts of airline seats industry-wide. “People in domestic first class are either airline employees or frequent fliers who’ve cashed in their miles. There’s nothing ‘first-class’ about it.”

This was not always the case. In the early days of wide-bodies, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, first class was an event. National Airlines, which once infuriated feminists with its “I’m Cheryl. Fly me” ad campaign, used to have serving carts in first class with chafing dishes over open flames. Pan American 747s featured a restaurant on the upper deck, and the bubble behind a Lufthansa’s cockpit housed a cocktail lounge, where the aptly named jet set could smoke cigars and play cards or backgammon while crossing the ocean.
 
This version of first class was delightful while it lasted, but flying became a numbers game with the arrival of deregulation in 1978, when airlines began to stuff as many passengers as possible into their planes. In the 29 years since then, airfares in real dollars have fallen 50 percent—and so, some would contend, has service, as airlines have attempted to reduce their costs. Those flying restaurants and cocktail lounges have been replaced by seats, seats, and more seats.

The airlines have introduced other cost-cutting measures as well. In 1987, in one notable case, American Airlines discovered that it could save $100,000 a year by giving first-class passengers one less olive in their salads. In 2003, United Airlines did away with first-class meals on flights that did not fall within normal breakfast, lunch, or dinner hours. Two years later, the same airline removed the pillows for its first-class passengers on domestic flights. Nowadays, acknowledging that you fly first-class is tantamount to admitting that you do not have access to a private plane.
 

Airbus’ early mock-up of the A380 included retail shops (top) and a spacious first-class section (bottom).

But while some carriers treat first class as a vestige of a bygone age—an ossified ritual with no real meaning—others view it as an increasingly vital component of their business. Lufthansa, for instance, claims that its first-class sales have increased 20 percent each year over the past four years. But Lufthansa’s commitment to the premium market goes far beyond filling a cabin; its Technik division specializes in what it calls the VVIP market. After outfitting more than 30 narrow and wide-body jets over the past 40 years, Technik now is marketing a VVIP version of the A380. (See “Haute and Heavy” )
 

Airbus’ early mock-up of the A380 included flat-bed seating (top) and a bar (bottom).

Dubai’s Emirates Airline has ordered 45 commercial versions of the A380 from Airbus, which is more than any other carrier. No doubt Emirates’ first-class passengers can hardly wait to see how the airline will equip its new superjumbos, given that Emirates’ current first-class section might be the most sumptuous in the sky. As Seatguru.com’s Daimler explains, “Other airlines claim that they offer suites in first class, but the reality falls far short of the promise. To my way of thinking, a suite has to have a door. The only airline that offers that level of privacy is Emirates Airline.”

The suites, a feature of Emirates’ A340-500, are actually cabins within the cabin; each one is situated along an aisle in a 1-2-1 configuration. Doors open and close electronically, and—like a hotel suite—each has its own minibar and a “do not disturb” sign, room for luggage, a closet, and a large interactive LCD entertainment system with more than 500 channels. “No private jet can compete with what we offer,” says Emirates CEO Maurice Flanagan, “especially on long hauls. But we’re constantly looking for something new.”

Consequently, he says, Emirates’ new first class has been the subject of much speculation. Flanagan declines to discuss specifics but refutes one report while confirming another. “We will not have bowling alleys,” he says, “but we will have showers.”

Airbus, www.airbus.com
Emirates Airline, www.emirates.com
Lufthansa, www.lufthansa.com
Lufthansa Technik, www.lufthansa-technik.com

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