Roomier, relaxing cabins
A record 18 Airbus A380s were delivered in 2010, and 24 more of the world's largest passenger airliner - a 525-seat double-decker dubbed the superjumbo - are due this year. The big bird fits 35 per cent more passengers than its nearest competitor, Boeing's B747-400, with 50 per cent more floor space. And the unused square footage is an inspiring tabula rasa for aircraft designers, who are making cabins roomier, with unique common areas. Expect flourishes such as Emirates' first-class showers and bar lounge or Lufthansa's sound-absorbing partitioning curtains and carpeting (which gives the Germans bragging rights to "the quietest first class ever").
Meanwhile, older B747s and A340s are being retrofitted with wider-screen televisions, longer seat-beds and more legroom. Iberia recently removed a row of business class from its Airbus A340s on international routes to extend precious personal space by 30 centimetres.
Rich interior design completes the VIP in-flight experience. Cathay Pacific's next business class on its long-haul aircraft, which will make its debut with service to Sydney in March (Toronto flights start early in 2012), will surround fliers with original works by Hong Kong abstract artist Maria Lobo. Leather maker Poltrona Frau, which makes Ferrari interiors, is the choice of Singapore Airlines for seats on its 380s and of Etihad Airways, for portions of its fleet, including A380s on order.
'Restaurant' meals, premium alcohol
At mealtimes, airlines roll out designer flatware, linens and place settings. Emirates has Royal Doulton bone china, Singapore uses Givenchy, Lufthansa's is by Dibbern. Multiple-course meals served whenever you're hungry, and complimentary alcohol, are privileges of first-class flying - and once a bottle of Krug, Dom or Taittinger is uncorked, Singapore Airlines lets you enjoy the rest. Qatar beats everyone with 10 courses, including caviar and lobster. Airlines are also fans of Michelin. Iberia designed its menus with starred chef Sergi Arola, and Lufthansa relies on a revolving panel of celebrity chefs, including Thomas Keller.
Gulf Air, British Midland, Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines up the ante by offering restaurant-quality service employing in-flight chefs and sommeliers, says Raymond Kollau, an airline analyst and founder of airlinetrends.com. Asiana, for instance, licenses cabin staff through Le Cordon Bleu and recognized sommelier programs, and on certain routes flies with a sushi chef. Mr. Kollau also sees airlines striving for greater conviviality, noting Etihad's diamond first-class seat swivels 180 degrees, so passengers can face one another as they eat. Other airlines manoeuvre ottomans for dinner guests to sit on, and several, including Air Canada on its Boeing 777s, offer self-serve areas where passengers can mingle while they munch.
Better bathrooms, luxe toiletries
First class banishes the sticky bathroom floor. Emirates employs shower attendants scrubbing the A380s' showers after each use, and Lufthansa's massive first-class bathroom features separate wash and changing areas. Most first-class bathrooms stock spa-quality toiletries.
And if you've forgotten your toothbrush, there's one in complimentary amenity kits, along with cosmetics, shaving gear, earplugs and other sundries. Often, these are "curated" by a well-known designer. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, for instance, has partnered with Viktor & Rolf for its amenity kit launching this year, and Lufthansa on the A380 gives out men's and women's Porsche Design bags filled with swag. There's also designer sleepwear. British Airways has Anya Hindmarch slippers and pyjamas, and Singapore Airlines enlisted Givenchy.
Since flying for work is the main reason to buy a premium ticket, various work-related conveniences are offered. Singapore Airlines seats give you the ability to plug an expandable travel keyboard into the in-flight entertainment system. Several types of airline seats come with chargers for various tech tools, including laptops or iPhones, and may have noise-cancelling headphones to tune out distractions or catch a movie on the seats' built-in screens. Movie and music lists are predictably long and include unusual forms of edutainment, such as audiobook language lessons offered on Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic flights, or Emirates's audio-version Koran.
Bed seats and fantasy suites
There's no better emblem of what it means to fly as a VIP than the seats on newer planes. Designed as personal-sized living rooms, they're roomy enough in some cases to snuggle a small child alongside. High sides ensure cocoon-like privacy in British Airways' business class. And seats are loaded with conveniences, such as chargers to juice laptops or iPods, or the massagers in Iberia's new business class.
Premium seats mostly recline to fully flat beds - if an airline doesn't have them today, there's probably an upgrade scheduled soon. According to airlinetrends.com's Mr. Kollau, the roomiest new business-class seat is on Singapore Airlines, which is double the width of the competition at 76 centimetres. Better still, though, is Etihad's Diamond First Class Suite, a cabin-like structure that closes off with a sliding door, with its own wardrobe and full-length mirror, mini-bar and wash basin. And best of all, the analyst says, might be Singapore Airlines' double beds for first class on its A380s. Now there's a flight you won't want to miss.
Special to The Globe and Mail