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A dream of a flight for highfliers

February 18, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — What level of luxury does a $10,000 ticket buy in Singapore Airlines' new first-class cabin?

On a recent flight from San Francisco to Singapore, with a stopover here, the airline gave Peter Smith designer pajamas so he could take a three-hour snooze in a seat that a flight attendant had converted into a twin-size bed.

That was after Smith had dined on salmon topped with Russian black caviar, accompanied by Champagne from a $165 bottle of Dom Perignon 1999. Before dinner he had watched first-run movies on a 23-inch liquid crystal display television screen.

"You just can't compare," said Smith, president of a mining equipment maker in Jakarta, Indonesia. "They've raised the bar for travel experience."

Major international carriers are scrambling for travelers such as Smith, who will pay as much as 10 times more than economy-class passengers for wider seats, added legroom, in-flight massages, five-star restaurant meals and other amenities. That's because such "front of the plane" passengers typically take up only 20% of the cabin but can account for 80% of the airline's profit.

Analysts, competitors and business travelers say Singapore Airlines is once again jumping ahead of the competition with the cabin it is rolling out on its new Boeing 777-300ER airplanes.

The carrier expects to have the new seats for Los Angeles passengers in June.

Singapore Airlines has to keep developing new creature comforts to lure international travelers because it has no domestic market. The carrier markets itself to well-to-do clients willing to stop over in Singapore, a tiny island of about 3 million residents, on their way to their final destinations elsewhere in Asia. A typical flight from Los Angeles to Singapore takes about 20 hours.

But competition has been heating up across the Pacific. In the last year, other carriers have been beefing up their cabins.

Cathay Pacific Airlines recently announced that it would introduce seats this year that promise to be the most spacious in the world. First-class seats will be 36 inches wide, 1 inch wider than those on Singapore Airlines. Passengers also will have personal closets.

By comparison, seats in economy are typically 17 to 18 inches wide.

For now, the new Singapore Airlines seats are getting a lot of attention.

"It's outrageous," said Terry Cooke, regional director of an aircraft leasing company who was flying home to Kirkland, Wash., from Singapore with a stopover in San Francisco. "One of the best things about the bed was that you had so much room, you could roll over."

Such luxuries are rare in the U.S. because flights are typically much shorter and domestic carriers have been struggling financially.

So, was the experience worth $10,000?

"Sure, it's expensive, but it's a business decision I don't regret," Smith said, noting that with the bed, he could arrive rested and better prepared for meetings.

"In my business," he said, "even a small mental mistake could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars."

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