If your in-flight wish list includes designer cutlery and food with Michelin-starred provenance, take note. As airlines eye the success of the private-jet industry and re-invest their profits of the last few years, many have decided to woo celebrities, top executives and the ultra-wealthy by ushering in the era of making first class classier — or, to use the industry's word, "superpremium."
Lie-flat seats? They were a wonder when introduced by British Airways in 2000, but they're common now in first and business classes. So carriers hoping to lure the wealthiest travelers, especially those based in Asia and the Middle East, are scrambling to turn seats into suites (even if they're just seats surrounded by curtains).
Besides those elite suites, enhanced in-flight offerings include improved entertainment options and connectivity, luxury linens and closets. In the airport, you can find streamlined check-in and baggage handling, along with lounges that gently separate the first-class billionaires from business-class millionaires.
The leader in luxe commercial travel is Etihad Airways, which will debut its Residence by Etihad suite this month on its first Airbus A380 jet (with others to follow). The three-room suite, with a bedroom, private bathroom, sitting room and butler, can accommodate one or two travelers.
The airline has set the price at about $21,000 per person each way — hefty, but less expensive than a private jet at $5,000 an hour.
"It's just over the top," said George Hobica, founder of the website Airfarewatchdog. "Nothing like that has ever been done. It's like flying private, but safer."
Etihad, based in the United Arab Emirates, started flying once daily between LAX and Abu Dhabi in June. Its 777s don't have a Residence, but each plane has eight first-class suites with a 23-inch monitor, private mini bar, closet and seats that become 80-inch-long beds. Fares are generally $11,000 to $21,000 one way.
Among other international carriers with notable first-class offerings:
Dubai-based Emirates has first-class private suites on its A380s with sliding doors for privacy and a 23-inch monitor (but no personal bathroom). When you're ready to snooze, an attendant adds a mattress to convert your seat to a flat bed (82 inches long and 21 1/2 inches wide, with a built-in massage system). The china is Royal Doulton; the cutlery, Robert Welch; the teas, Dilmah.
If you're flying the 16 hours or so from Dubai to LAX, you'll have a chance to bathe — there are two showers in the first-class cabin featuring the airline's Timeless Spa products (developed with Babor Cosmetics), Frette towels and perfumes by Bulgari. And finally, on departure and arrival, first- and business-class travelers get chauffeur service (up to 60 miles from LAX). First-class fares for LAX-Dubai: about $30,000 to $35,000 round trip.
On Dec. 9, Paris-based Air France will start flying a Paris-Singapore route with new suites in its La Premiere (first-class) cabin on 777-300s, with Paris-JFK to be added in January and Paris-Dubai in February.
Besides lie-flat seats (78 inches long, 30 inches wide) and 24-inch monitors, each Premiere suite offers a privacy curtain and individual closet, the better to store your Isaia cashmere suit. The carrier has enlisted various Michelin-starred chefs, including Joël Robuchon, to contribute dishes to the in-flight menu.
Before boarding, Premiere customers have access to chauffeur service and a first-class lounge at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. La Premiere fliers also get special help connecting to private jet flights between Paris (de Gaulle) and other destinations in Europe. (Air France offers La Premiere seats on its daily flights from LAX to Paris, at a cost of about $20,000 round trip, but so far no suites.)
Singapore Airlines' A380s don't include individual bathrooms or showers, but the carrier's Suites Class gives you a sliding door to shut out the world and some of the widest seats in the sky — 35 inches, so you can curl up. Before your flight, you can preorder from a Book-the-Cook list of more than 60 dishes, including these for flights from LAX: lobster Thermidor with buttered asparagus, pan-seared pheasant with stuffed blini and nigiri sushi.
When you're not eating, attendants will hand you Givenchy pajamas and pour Dom Pérignon or Krug. Tableware is by Givenchy, and the amenity kit is from Salvatore Ferragamo. To fly LAX to Singapore by way of Tokyo, fares are generally $12,000 to $14,000 per person, round trip.
Among U.S. carriers, there's been less emphasis on domestic first class in recent years, but two carriers have claimed some high ground.
Early this year, American unveiled an updated first class on its Airbus A321T jets between LAX and JFK in New York, and then added it on San Francisco-JFK flights as well.
On these six-hour flights, there are 10 first-class seats upfront, each a sort of island with aisle and window access. Those seats can lie flat and are 21 inches wide. And first-class fliers can use American's first-class Flagship Lounges at LAX and JFK. The round-trip fare can vary from $3,200 to $8,100.
"It's so private," Hobica said, noting the galley and restroom that separate business class from first.
Within the U.S., "I think there's only room for one airline to have that product," said Hobica. "There isn't enough demand."
But there's one other airline to watch if you're a domestic high-flier who likes a bargain. In June JetBlue rolled out its Mint class between LAX and JFK, and added it to SFO-JFK routes in October. The Mint cabin includes four private suites with doors that close (and 12 non-suite seats) in its A321 jets.
Other Mint perks: speedier check-in, free Wi-Fi; lots of programming on 15-inch video monitors; lie-flat seats; a small-plate meal menu from New York restaurant Saxon & Parole; and grooming, travel and lifestyle products from Birchbox. Fares are $599 to $1,199 each way.
As for the food, Hobica not only liked it, he sought out Saxon & Parole and dined there "to see what the food was like on the ground."
"It actually tasted better on the airline than it did in the restaurant."