Flying the more than friendly skies
For most of the vacationing population, the business-class experience behind those curtains is a total mystery. Coach fliers assume it provides at least more legroom and a better sleeping position, but each airline has different ideas about what constitutes luxury, and so not all business-class sections are created equal.
While it's pretty much impossible to estimate the price of an average business-class seat – which varies depending on carrier, route, type of aircraft, length of flight, time of year, day of week, place of purchase, etc. – a review of blogs and articles on the subject suggests that you can fly the friendly skies as a business traveler for about $3,000 to $5,000 for a long-haul flight, which is usually defined as six hours or more. That's often about five times the cost of a seat in coach, while a first-class ticket will tend to cost about 10 times more.
Here we look at some of the best perks in the world of business-class travel, from ensuring you arrive prepared for your morning meeting (Malaysia Airlines' onboard printers) to luxury perks that have nothing to do with “business” at all (Singapore Airlines’ Givenchy tableware). Read on – we saved the best for last.
Photo Credit: Global X
We start in Italy, where, thousands of years ago, the Roman empire collapsed in no small part due to its residents’ lavish lifestyles. That tradition is upheld on the country’s flagship carrier, Alitalia, which definitively does away with bland airplane food. Passengers in its Magnifico class are treated to luxurious food and drink in the way only an Italian at home could pull off.
The airline highlights a different region of the country at a time. Current Magnifico passengers get a menu from the Veneto region that includes no fewer than four types of bread and espresso brewed in copper espresso machines on some planes. The Tuscan wine list goes just as far, with a 2005 Castello di Brolio Chianti Classico making the prospect of flying Alitalia Magnifico indeed.
Photo Credit: Alitalia.com
Still in Europe, we turn to Virgin Atlantic, which embraces a certain level of British snobbery in what it calls its “Upper Class” seats. Eva Leonard, editor-in-chief of Business Traveler magazine, has seen how Virgin, along with British Airways, launched the luxury travel idea.
“European carriers like Virgin and British Airways really led the way in putting flat beds in business class,” she says. “Now Virgin has a full-on bar on board some of their aircraft, and you can even get a haircut in their lounge at Heathrow.”
Leonard also notes, with some nostalgia, that many carriers – including Virgin – have increasingly moved their perks to their lounges at various airports instead of aboard the actual planes.
“I don’t know if it was an actual masseuse or just a specially trained flight attendant, but I once got a massage on a Virgin flight,” she says.
Photo Credit: Virgin Atlantic
Most people don’t know much about Singapore, but its belief in cleanliness and order have made headlines around the world. It should come as no surprise, then, that Singapore Airlines is at the forefront of luxury travel.
Claiming to offer the most spacious seat of any airline in the world, Singapore makes the details count to give business passengers the most comfortable flight possible. Multiple surfaces and storage areas help passengers stay organized, and its fresh linens and duvets match the elegance of the Givenchy tableware that will make you feel like you’re in your very own gourmet restaurant rather than on an airplane. Singapore Airlines even published a cookbook featuring dishes crafted by its chefs. Not all of them are available on your flight, but with such a repository of culinary talent responsible for the food, you will be wise to ask the flight attendants to wake you up for every meal.
And those flight attendants are top-of-the-line as well. Janet Libert, editor-in-chief of Executive Travel magazine, ranks them at the head of the class. "Their service is extraordinary: The training they give their flight attendants is more than any other. They really set the bar and others aspire just to meet it," she says.
Photo Credit: Singporeair.com
Food and drink is a recurring theme in business-class perks, as a bad meal can sour the whole experience. On certain long-haul flights, where you may eat three or four times, the quality of food can easily become the one thing that determines your quality of life on board.
“It’s very much a trend now for airlines to work with celebrity chefs because there’s a whole different set of circumstances when you’re preparing food on an airplane, and these guys are the experts,” Leonard notes.
While Germany is not immediately known for gourmet cuisine, Lufthansa’s “Star Chefs” create fusion cuisine blending French with Chinese or give their own take on Indian delicacies. Yes, there are also some German specialties in Lufthansa’s business class, but no matter your route you are sure to eat well.
Photo Credit: Lufthansa.com
South African Airways
For some business travelers, there just isn’t enough room on the work table for a plate of food, not to mention the sauces and side dishes that often accompany it. For them, there is always the wine. Whether enjoyed with food or without, fine wines can make or break a business travel experience, and South African Airways takes its wine very seriously.
Every year, the airline holds a competition for South African winemakers who wish to get their best grapes on the tray tables of the airline’s millions of passengers. The company’s press release describes the effort:
“’What we look for in the wines we serve on board our aircraft are the best South African wines with a balanced flavour intensity to shine even at 30,000 feet,’ says Bongi Sodladla, SAA’s Global Food and Beverage Manager and Sommelier.”
Photo Credit: South African Airways
As one of the two American carriers on the list, American Airlines focuses its perks for the business side of business-class travel, with some comfort features thrown in as well: Two tray tables in business-class seats can lock together to form an extensive work surface, and Bose noise-canceling headphones ensure a quiet and pleasant way to listen to Bach while finishing that report.
In terms of comfort, AA’s business-class seats offer extra privacy by shifting forward 10 inches even in the upright position to gain some much-valued personal space from your neighbor. Five motors within the seats ensure the most comfortable posture you can find.
In general, though, Leonard observes that airlines in the U.S. have lagged behind their Middle Eastern and Asian counterparts. “Americans aren’t as export-conscious, while a lot of countries have realized that attracting visitors and international travel is important.”
Photo Credit: American Airlines
United Airlines has also tailored its business-class perks to favor what the United States does best: entertainment. The 15.4-inch video screens at every seat are bigger than most, but the real killer app here is the ability on some planes to connect an iPod or iPhone to the seat's entertainment system and listen to or watch your own music, photos, and videos just like at home. Anyone who's stared blankly at midair broadcasts of "Two and a Half Men" or "Confessions of a Shopaholic" will appreciate the compatibility with their own media.
And the personalized experience doesn't stop there. Rahsaan Johnson, United's communications and public relations representative, noted the airline's concierge-like service for business-class passengers. "With enough advance notice, we can provide special milk for those passengers or a number of other things that we usually don't carry on our planes."
Photo Credit: United Airlines
Leonard is certainly right when it comes to business-specific perks. While American Airlines offers a wide table surface to work on, Malaysia’s flagship carrier offers business-class travelers a whole business lounge, complete with satellite phones, fax machine and printers to take care of last-minute details while on the way to a big meeting.
The seats, which are spacious (but don’t lie completely flat), offer an entertainment center with live broadcasts of CNN so travelers can stay on top of the latest news, even up in the air. No more waiting until you get to the hotel to see who won the Knicks game – er, to see how much the price of gold moved.
Photo Credit: Malaysia Airlines
Sometimes technology is the main driver of luxury, and although delays in delivery of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner mean we will have to wait to see what kind of features that plane provides, Europe’s Airbus A380 has already begun to revolutionize air travel. Korean Air will be one of the first to exploit the gigantic, double-decker plane, which comes with a host of new features.
With seats that recline a full 180 degrees, Korean offers business-class passengers a service previously reserved for first-class travelers — and it matters. According to Libert of Executive Travel magazine, a few degrees can make all the difference: “The seat is the No. 1 consideration for a business traveler flying internationally. It may not sound like much, but with a seat that reclines to only 174 degrees, you will find yourself at the bottom of it at the end of a 10-hour flight.”
In the Middle East, Emirates Air plans to take full advantage of the fleet of new Airbus A380 aircraft it plans to amass over the next few years, providing an unparalleled experience to its business- and first-class passengers.
The 14 first-class fliers on Emirates planes get access to a shower, though it will be limited by the onboard spa attendant to five minutes to ensure everyone gets enough hot water. While Emirates’s business travelers may not get the perk of a full shower, the onboard lounge (complete with bar and sofa section) and five-course meal, as well as fully reclining seats that also feature the biggest personal screens of any airline – 17 inches – ensure they will be treated to a more than comfortable flight.
Oh, and that comfort doesn’t start when you board your flight – business travelers on Emirates Air are also offered complimentary chauffeur-driven transport to and from the airport in most cities, plus access to a VIP lounge where they can feast on filet mignon and shrimp cocktail. Now that is luxury.
Photo Credit: Emirates Air
The grand prize for luxury goes to Asiana Airlines. South Korea’s second airline takes luxury to a whole new level in its insistence on service, with flight attendants trained in a variety of ways to serve business-class passengers that no western country can match. Indeed, the carrier has won a variety of awards for its onboard service, most recently by Global Traveler magazine.
In addition to mixing drinks on par with the best bartenders, flight attendants on Asiana flights perform magic tricks, carry out fashion shows in the aisles, draw caricatures of passengers, teach origami and, depending on who is aboard, will play a violin serenade during mealtime. Such comprehensive customer service comes on top of Asiana’s top-class food and seat offerings and represents truly unparalleled service.
Leonard sees the roots of such luxury in the local philosophy of service: “Asian cultures value serving people and do not see it as a lower position. They really think of everything, like training their flight attendants to walk more softly so they don’t disturb people. It’s amazing.”
Photo Credit: Asiana Airlines