First class gets an upgrade

When it comes to first class, a flight to Dallas looks very different from one to Doha. First-class cabins have disappeared on many US domestic routes, and those that remain often provide little more than extra legroom and complimentary cocktails.

On international routes it’s a different story. American and United are making major upgrades to their international first-class cabins in order to compete with foreign carriers that are pulling out the stops to woo premium passengers. Singapore Airlines recently unveiled a first-class cabin with 35-inch-wide, lie-flat seats, private vanity areas, and 23-inch entertainment consoles, while India’s fast-growing Jet Airways uses high walls and sliding glass doors to create first-class “cabins.”

Some of the biggest changes are happening on the ground. Air France, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, and others are equipping their elite lounges with everything from hair salons and Italian furnishings to clothes-pressing services and Japanese water walls. Qatar Airways and Lufthansa have raised the stakes ever higher, opening first-class only terminals at their respective hubs in Doha and Frankfurt. Qatar Airways offers a nursery, high-end spa, and game room, while Lufthansa provides a cigar lounge, leather daybeds, and a service that chauffers passengers to their aircraft via Mercedes or Porsche. Lufthansa vice president of the Americas, Jens Bischof, says the new terminal has contributed to a nearly 20% jump in premium revenues.

US airlines must compete not only with international rivals and airlines like Eos and Maxjet that offer “all business” flights across the Atlantic, but also with private jet fractional ownership programs. As fractional shares can be prohibitively expensive on international routes, it means that, for many, commercial first class is still the best option. Besides, even C-suiters like to earn frequent flyer miles.

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