New perk for the super-elite
First-class flyers get exclusive boarding area away from the masses
NEWYORK — On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy a Mesclun salad with king crab or a grilled USDA prime beef tenderloin, stretch out in a metre-wide seat that converts to a bed and wash it all down with a pre-slumber Krug Grande Cuvee Brut Champagne.
Yet some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy flyers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else.
The idea is to provide an exclusive experience — inaccessible, even invisible, to the masses in coach. It’s one way that a gap between the world’s wealthiest one per cent and everyone else has widened.
Many top-paying international passengers, having put down roughly $15,000 for a ticket, now check in at secluded facilities and are driven in luxury cars directly to planes. Others can savour the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent flyer miles for a trip of a lifetime.
When Emirates Airline opened a new concourse at its home airport in Dubai last year, it made sure to keep coach passengers separate from those in business and first class. The top floor of the building is a lounge for premium passengers with direct boarding to the upstairs of Emirates’ fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s. Those in coach wait one story below and board to the lower level of the plane.
London’s Heathrow Airport took a private-suite area designed for the royal family and heads of state and in July opened it to any passenger flying business or first class who’s willing to pay an extra $2,500.
“First class has become a way for a traveller to have an almost private jet-like experience,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Hudson Crossing. Airlines “will do everything but sing a lullaby.”
In recent years airlines have put a greater focus on catering to the most affluent flyers’ desire for new levels of privacy.
There’s a lot of money on the line. At big carriers like American Airlines, about 70 per cent of revenue comes from the top 20 per cent of its customers.
The special treatment now starts at check-in. American and United Airlines have both developed private rooms, located in discreet corners of their terminals in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, that allow for a speedy check-in. Boarding passes in hand, travellers exit through hidden doors leading to the front of security lines.
Some foreign airlines have gone further.
Lufthansa offers first-class passengers a separate terminal in Frankfurt. There’s a restaurant, cigar lounge and dedicated immigration officers. For those who choose to shower or take a bath, the private restrooms come with their own rubber ducky — an exclusive plastic souvenir for the international jet set.
When it’s time to board, passengers are driven across the tarmac to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz S-class or Porsche Cayenne.