There is a magical place in the clouds and we all hope to go there one day: it’s called first class. And while nostalgics mourn flying’s halcyon days, it could be argued that exclusive air travel is entering a second, shinier golden age. Airlines are battling each other to provide the comfiest seat, the highest starred menu and enough over-the-top extras — on-board masseuse, designer pyjamas — to make your five-star destination hotel look shabby in relation.
The most obvious sign of rising first-class standards is the introduction of private cabins (or suites), do-not-disturb signs and proper beds. Showers and sommeliers are also recent additions to the new, improved package. Etihad Airways has chefs who cook on demand. Singapore Airlines has double beds. BA has wardrobes. And Virgin has just unveiled a newly designed on-board 2.5m bar. First-class flying is being, well, spruced-up.
“The first-class experience has improved dramatically over the past decade,” says Nicholas Kralev, a former Financial Times correspondent who flew more than two million miles before writing his business traveller handbook Decoding Air Travel.
“It was very different 25 years ago, when service and food were good, but there were no sleeper seats. It wasn’t comfortable. Now airlines are being far cleverer about how they use the space.”
The recent and rapid improvement is the result of a war between airlines, as they try to attract high-paying passengers in a struggling market experiencing increasing costs. To do this, they’ve channelled the dawn of air travel in the Fifties, when first class was literally the only way to travel.
But then came the second generation of jets in the Sixties that gave airlines more space. They used it two ways: one was to squeeze more seats into a new class called ‘economy’. The other was to raise the standards of luxury in first class. Piano bars were installed, larger galleys were built for chefs hired from top restaurants, and hostesses in white gloves floated down aisles, serving chateaubriand.
Famously, the hostesses became the biggest attraction. Airlines sold tickets based on the glamour of the women working on-board. Most successful was Pan Am, whose hostesses wore sky-blue uniforms and regularly had rigorous beauty checks. If they were considered fat, they weren’t allowed to fly.
In a recent Daily Mail interview, former Pan Am hostess Sheila Riley recalled serving first-class passengers such as Paul Newman, who invited her to share his lobster and Dom Perignon lunch. David Niven played parlour games with her. Peter Sellers amused everyone. Bing Crosby was miserable. Film star Joan Crawford clutched a cool box of vodka and Pepsi.
But this ‘golden age’ of flying has benefited from retro-polishing — and a thick lacquer of Hollywood icons. People forget that tickets were prohibitively expensive, planes were prone to failure, runways were overcrowded, hijackings were becoming fashionable (air marshals were employed in the Seventies) and crashes were 10 times more likely.
RETURN TO FORM
The new demand for luxury began in the Far and Middle East, before filtering into European and American airlines. “It is glamorous,” says Virgin’s senior customer manager Verinder Supria. “It’s so vital to us that the product remains aspirational to our passengers. It’s important that we have elements of surprise and delight.
“We have the longest bar in the air, which provides that social space. And the new seat is finessed to a very high standard. We don’t just put a tray table on the outside of the seat — it’s a massive slab of a table. The materials we use add the glamour you wouldn’t expect on an aircraft.”
The idea is to make passengers feel special when they’re spending thousands of pounds on a ticket (or their employer is), rather than spending hundreds of pounds like the rest of us. “For most people, it’s insane and out of reach — but it is great,” says Kralev, who has sampled the new private cabins. “It makes me hate flights under 10 hours, because it’s a waste of such a luxurious environment.
“It’s an experience I hope everyone has once in their lifetime,” he says. “You do feel bad for the people in the back.”
Ah, the people in the back. That’ll be most of us then. We’re there because crossing to first class is hard — there is no shortcut. Forget wearing a suit or arriving early. There’s only one way to enter that hallowed 18 sq ft: buy a ticket.