Fly­ing Pleasures: Ex­plor­ing the suite life in su­per first class

The rise of busi­ness class is mo­ti­vat­ing these air­lines to of­fer some truly one of a kind first class ex­pe­ri­ences


In 2015, Abu Dhabi-based Eti­had Air­ways made head­lines when it an­nounced its new “Res­i­dence,” a pent­house in the sky fea­tur­ing a sit­ting room, bed­room with dou­ble bed and bath­room. Dur­ing a re­cent visit to the Eti­had Air­ways In­no­va­tion Cen­ter in Abu Dhabi, the air­line’s prod­uct team high­lighted that these pre­mium cab­ins are not de­signed to look like a typ­i­cal first or busi­ness class prod­uct. They’re mod­eled af­ter a “pri­vate mem­ber’s club” or even a yacht. And fur­ther adding to the lux­ury quo­tient are ex­clu­sive priv­i­leges like a pri­vate Savoy­trained but­ler, branded ameni­ties, lux­u­ri­ous linen, mas­sive tele­vi­sion screens and the works. This is the su­per first class.

In avi­a­tion par­lance, su­per first class is a prod­uct that goes be­yond tra­di­tional first class. The more con­ven­tional first class prod­ucts do not in­volve en­closed suites but in­stead of­fer wide flat-bed seats, al­beit with lim­ited pri­vacy.

There has been an on­go­ing de­bate about the rel­e­vance of first class since 2017, be­cause of the per­va­sive pres­ence of new, en­hanced busi­ness class seats, as well as the in­tro­duc­tion of pre­mium econ­omy cab­ins. De­spite this, many long-haul air­lines – Cathay Pa­cific, Bri­tish Air­ways, Lufthansa, Air In­dia, Jet Air­ways – con­tinue to of­fer a note­wor­thy first class prod­uct on their long-haul routes, cater­ing to a small bunch of trav­el­ers who are look­ing for that ex­tra ex­clu­siv­ity.

And then there are the fol­low­ing four, who cater to an even smaller group with their high-end of­fer­ings.

Re­vis­it­ing His­tory

In 2007, Sin­ga­pore Air­lines rolled out its new Air­bus 380, tipped to be its flag­ship air­craft. The high­light was its rev­o­lu­tion­ary of­fer­ing of 12 self-con­tained lux­u­ri­ous suites. This was in ad­di­tion to its ex­ist­ing first class prod­uct (avail­able on the 777, but not the A380), mak­ing it the first air­line in the world to of­fer a cabin prod­uct above first class. It also be­came the first car­rier to of­fer a dou­ble bed in the sky, when the pri­vacy panel was low­ered to com­bine the two cen­ter suites. It was a bold move in a rel­a­tively un­pre­dictable eco­nomic cli­mate, and marked the new age of deluxe travel.

Soon af­ter, Dubai-based Emi­rates rolled out its plush Air­bus 380s. It made the news with its first class prod­uct – once again, self-con­tained suites, but with sin­gle beds. How­ever, the high­light of this su­per first class prod­uct

was the shower in the sky. The bath­rooms in this cabin, chris­tened Shower Spa, al­lowed pas­sen­gers to take a shower dur­ing flight.

In­ter­est­ingly, Doha-based Qatar Air­ways of­fers a first class only on its A380 air­craft. How­ever, this cabin is not de­signed in a suites for­mat. In­stead the air­line is con­cen­trat­ing on its “su­per busi­ness class.” which has been rolled out on their Air­bus 350s and Boe­ing 777s.

"Our busi­ness class is so good it can be counted as a first class prod­uct,” says Qatar Air­ways CEO Ak­bar Al Baker. “We will go all out to make our busi­ness class prod­uct as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as pos­si­ble.” Qatar’s new Qsuite busi­ness class prod­uct is de­signed such that four peo­ple can travel, dine and in­ter­act to­gether in the same suite.

“While many air­lines are elim­i­nat­ing their first class cab­ins, a select few are push­ing the lim­its of what is pos­si­ble with the highly sought-af­ter cab­ins,” notes Ja­son Rabi­nowitz, the di­rec­tor of air­line re­search at Route­happy and an avi­a­tion in­flu­encer. “There is no clear ‘right thing’ for air­lines across the board as each has its own unique iden­tity, cus­tomers and stan­dards. In cer­tain mar­kets, first class may be in high de­mand by pas­sen­gers, while there may be no de­mand at all in oth­ers. Air­lines do ex­ten­sive mar­ket re­search to jus­tify the need to con­tinue to of­fer new prod­ucts or up­date their first class prod­ucts, as these are multi-mil­lion dol­lar in­vest­ments that will take years to re­coup,” Rabi­nowitz ex­plains.

“Hav­ing said that, the line be­tween a su­pe­rior busi­ness class prod­uct and a first class prod­uct has be­come in­creas­ingly blurred in re­cent years. A select few air­lines of­fer over-the-top, multi-room suites to cre­ate a sort of su­per first class. But that is only pos­si­ble on the largest of air­craft. There is only so much an air­line can do to en­hance its first class of­fer­ing in the sky.” As a re­sult, he says, “much at­ten­tion has been shifted to ground han­dling and ser­vices, as a way to sep­a­rate it from busi­ness class.”

What’s New?

To mark the tenth an­niver­sary of its Suites prod­uct, Sin­ga­pore Air­lines un­veiled its “new” Suite, to be retro­fit­ted on its A380 air­craft. Sin­ga­pore Air­lines CEO Goh Choon Phong says, “When we put the world’s first A380 into com­mer­cial ser­vice in 2007, it set new in­dus­try bench­marks for pre­mium full-ser­vice air travel. A decade later, the new A380 prod­uct is shin­ing with our flag­ship prod­ucts and leg­endary ser­vice.”

Be that as it may, the air­line’s mas­sive facelift in­cludes a sin­gle-aisle Suites cabin fea­tur­ing six Suites (down from 12), each of which has a sep­a­rate sit­ting area (a swivel arm­chair) and a sep­a­rate bed which can be low­ered next to it. In some ad­ja­cent Suites, a di­vider can be low­ered and beds joined to make a dou­ble bed. All this is de­signed in an un­der­stated aes­thetic by Paris-based Pier­re­jean De­sign Stu­dio.

"There is a niche of su­per wealthy trav­el­ers who want to travel their way"

“The de­mand is still there for first class,” adds Marvin Tan, the se­nior VP of prod­uct and ser­vices at Sin­ga­pore Air­lines. “There is a niche of su­per wealthy trav­el­ers who want to travel their way. Even though an air­line may have a fab­u­lous busi­ness class prod­uct, there is still a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence that is fairly tan­gi­ble be­tween the two cabin classes. Cus­tomers who think about what they are will­ing to pay and the value that they get will see these two propo­si­tions in a very dif­fer­ent light.”

Emi­rates, on the other hand, re­cently gave a facelift to its Boe­ing 777 first class prod­uct with its com­pletely en­closed suites. The cabin is sized down to six suites in a 1-1-1 con­fig­u­ra­tion, each suite spread across 40 square feet with floor-to-ceil­ing slid­ing doors. Cen­ter suites, not nor­mally hav­ing a win­dow view, have a vir­tual win­dow with live images from out­side cam­eras. The bed is de­signed to give a feel­ing of weight­less­ness— and in­cludes unique “mois­tur­iz­ing pa­ja­mas” and Bul­gari ameni­ties.

How­ever, de­spite the pos­i­tive im­age these prod­ucts cre­ate for the air­lines, there is the po­ten­tial draw­back of fly­ing with these seats un­sold. Suites take up valu­able space in the cabin and add weight. Un­sold first class space might have been sold as more econ­omy or pre­mium econ­omy seats. In 2018, it is dif­fi­cult to know if these prod­ucts are eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able or not. They gen­er­ate ex­cite­ment when they de­but, but chances are most cus­tomers will never ac­tu­ally fly in these suites.

MAIN IM­AGE: Lob­ster Ther­mi­dor Sin­ga­pore Air­lines

BE­LOW: Eti­had Air­ways The Res­i­dence OP­PO­SITE PAGE:

Emi­rates Air­lines En­closed Suite, Qatar Air­ways QSuite

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