First class is getting classier--the food is getting fancier, the wines rarer, the service more pampering.
Earlier this year, for example, Air France and British Airways introduced sumptuous restaurant-style meal service--so you can order what you want when you want it--and redesigned seats that recline into horizontal "sky beds."
Japan Air Lines has installed an extra "JAL Sky Massage" seat and is adding oversized lavatories to some of its first-class cabins.
Although foreign carriers have moved first, U.S. airlines are implementing changes as well, all seeking to capture the loyalties of an important--and growing--segment of their customers.
"With the globalization of the economy, more and more business travelers are flying increasingly longer distances," said Wido Schaefer, president of Los Angeles-based Travel Store Inc. "Business travelers are also quickening the pace of their travel, such as a round trip to New York in 36 hours or flying back and forth from Los Angeles to Asia in three or four days. These travelers really value . . . comfort and pampering."
Frequent travelers, of course, are pleased.
"When I am flying off out of Los Angeles to see a client, I appreciate the first-class cabin's space, quiet and privacy so I can organize my thoughts and review my presentations," said Peter J. Miscovich, who flew more than 250,000 miles last year as president of Interior Space International, a Los Angeles-based commercial interior design firm. "When I return home after several days of back-to-back meetings, I'm usually tired, so I'm grateful I can relax and enjoy some of the first-class creature comforts. Sometimes, it's just nice to push back the seat and read."
The battle for high-yield international first-class passengers is heating up. United Airlines has added faxing service and upgraded meals and wines.
"We will introduce other major cabin improvements this fall," said Mark Liberman, a United vice president at Los Angeles International Airport.
American Airlines isn't far behind.
"We are presently conducting research to learn exactly what our first-class passengers want," spokesman Bill Dreslin said. "We are also studying what the competition is doing."
A decade ago, first class seemed like an endangered species. On domestic flights, many U.S. carriers had reduced the size of their first-class cabins, pushed the remaining seats closer together and cut back on meal and beverage services.
On international flights, business class seemed to be taking over. A dozen airlines eliminated first class on these long-haul routes in favor of an enhanced hybrid of business and first class, which offered many (but not all) first-class amenities, usually at a business-class fare.
In the 1990s, first class started making a comeback, with more seats and services on both international and domestic flights.
For example, Phoenix-based America West, which had previously offered first class on only a few of its flights, installed such cabins in all its planes.
Several new discount airlines, such as Midway and Reno, offer variations of first class on many of their flights. Even Shuttle by United includes an eight-seat first-class cabin in its 737 fleet.
What kind of passenger uses first class?
"Today, our typical first-class passenger is a 47-year-old man traveling on business," said Sandy Gardiner, a British Airways spokesman. "Eighty-two percent of first-class passengers are male. Seventy-three percent travel for business."
A recent United survey shows that such passengers rank comfort first and consider attendant responsiveness, air quality and on-time performance very important. Food was mentioned less often.
"On the typical 747," said Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer magazine, "the first-class passenger has 600% to 700% more space than the usual coach passenger."
But there are other, newer benefits of first class.
On international trips, these perks can include a chauffeur-driven car to the airport, a separate first-class check-in counter and a pass to the airline's local airport club (such as American's Admirals Club, Delta's Crown Room or United's Red Carpet Club), where passengers can wait in relative comfort.
At a handful of international gateways, such as New York's JFK and London's Heathrow, some carriers operate their own elegant first-class or VIP lounges, which do not sell memberships like the domestic carriers' clubs do. The champagne starts flowing here. Caviar and smoked salmon are often available. Telephone calls may be free--to anywhere in the world.
Each airline offers its own special services and amenities. At JFK, Virgin Atlantic Airways provides a complimentary hair salon and a music room with hundreds of compact discs. United has a private jetway at JFK so that moguls and celebrities can board some flights in privacy.