Luxury airlines fly higher with private suites and butlers

Modern air travel is increasingly polarised, with ultra-cheap budget flights dominating the skies, flanked by winged palaces offering unspeakable luxury, writes Elizabeth Matsangou

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The era of budget travel has fully permeated the aviation industry, with the majority of consumers now opting for economy over comfort and style. However, amid the thrifty movement that has made flying more accessible, a trend of ultra lavish air travel has also emerged. Airlines are continuing to enhance their business class offering, giving passengers more space, luxury and comfort, akin to what first class was a couple of decades ago. “You’re seeing more and more airlines removing their first class products and retaining the business class product that they have improved, because the differential between the two was becoming so small it’s almost a natural progression”, said John Grant, Senior Analyst at air travel intelligence company OAG.

Although to many, a one-way ticket that comes with a hefty price tag of around $20,000 is an absurdity, it can actually be cheaper than private aviation

While the number of first class seats is being reined back by various airlines, those that maintain this grade are going to incredible lengths to offer a distinction and, in fact, a whole new type of bespoke experience within the commercial arena. “If you are going to offer a first class, it’s got to be spectacular”, noted Nigel Goode, Director at aircraft design company PriestmanGoode. And spectacular they are; for example, on board the Airbus A380s of airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Singapore, passengers with deep pockets can now enjoy their own cabin space and the very height of personalised lavishness. From dedicated chefs to secluded cabins, and even the opportunity to shower on board, luxury air travel just got a whole lot more luxurious.

The good life
Although to many, a one-way ticket that comes with a hefty price tag of around $20,000 is an absurdity, it can actually be cheaper than private aviation. And so, in order to attract the type of traveller that normally goes to the expense of hiring a private plane, Etihad, Emirates and Singapore Airlines are creating cocoons of comfort and personal space on board their commercial aircraft. Some of this business is impossible to capture, as explained by Grant. “Private aviation is a specialist sector that fills a specialist need”, he told European CEO. “It caters more for people who need to move at short notice or have an immediate need, be it medical or be it a corporate business meeting.”

There are those, however, that will be swayed by the superior facilities and service provided by a commercial airline’s product, along with having the option of long-haul flights (which smaller private aircraft struggle with). Providing perhaps the pinnacle of this type of travel is Etihad’s Residence, the only three-bedroom private suite in the sky. Launched in December 2014, the Residence, which is situated in the nose of an Airbus A380, offers passengers a living room, bedroom and bathroom, for their exclusive use. While enjoying meals at the dining table or watching television in a double bed, guests have a Savoy-trained butler at their sole disposal to satisfy their every whim. Champagne fridges, gourmet personalised cuisine, high-end furniture and a plethora of other elegant touches make the experience one of the most luxurious that the skies can offer.

Major players
Often cited as one of the world’s best carriers, Singapore Airlines has its own private suite product, and was in fact the first airline to offer a double bed in the clouds. With Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, Dom Pérignon champagne and lobster on the menu, expensive tastes are most definitely catered to on board the leading airline’s suites. Also on an Airbus A380, the suites’ interiors were designed by luxury yacht specialist Jean-Jacque Coste and feature Poltrona Frau’s plush leather armchairs. Adding to the indulgence of passengers while on board are Bose headphones, Salvatore Ferragamo amenities, and Givenchy bed linen and pyjamas. “Attention to detail has really improved tremendously”, Goode explained. “In terms of safety and what materials you can and cannot use, everything has to be bespoke and everything has to be made especially and certified, so it’s quite a long process, but when the final product comes out, it is stunning.”

By no means trailing behind is Emirates, whose mini suites feature a bed, table, minibar and a 32-inch TV, as well as time slots for showers and a lounge that resembles a high-end private club. With the evident appeal of private space on board and affluent surroundings, Emirates is also in the process of upgrading to fully partitioned suites. Given the level of investment undertaken by several Gulf airlines to upgrade their planes and offer unique experiences, it is clear that the region is the main driver of growth behind this new trend. According to Chris Goater, spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), along certain routes, premium travel to and from the Middle East has risen in the past year. For example, from Europe to the Middle East, premium travel has increased by 7.2 percent. “The Middle East is doing very well – it’s a strong market for both economy and premium”, Grant added. “[Travelling there] is viewed as a status symbol of your wealth and your position in society.”

Shifting horizons
At present, the industry is undergoing a transformation in the type of experience that it offers passengers – and this does not just apply to the premium classes. All across an aircraft, airlines are coming up with clever new ways to make the most of the limited space on board. Moreover, this approach encompasses the entire passenger journey, which starts from the purchase of a ticket, to arrival at the airport, waiting in the lounge – right up to being on board. From start to finish, airlines are not just improving their offerings; they are consolidating their corporate identity to an unprecedented level in the sector.
“Airlines want to create their own brand and create something, so that when their passengers go on [a plane] they recognise it as actually being a physical part of the region or culture”, Goode explained. This now means far more than just different coloured headrest guards; it extends to everything that a passenger comes into contact with during the passenger journey – from ceilings to floors and sidewalls. “It’s not just about luxury, it’s about doing it in a particular way.”

Of course, branding varies among airlines and also among regions and their respective cultures. Premium classes on European airlines, for example, tend to be more spacious and open, while counterparts in the Middle East opt for more secluded and private areas for passengers. Yet this kind of thought process is now going on behind the scenes for each, offering a bespoke and superior product that can be identified by the company offering it. Gone are the days when the same standard seats are used in the same uniform fashion. “What we’ve been trying to do more is to make the products look more domestic. If you get away from this sort of corporate plastic photocopier look to making it very luxurious…the airlines can create a really very comfortable environment”, Goode told European CEO.

Aerial innovation
Naturally, each addition comes at a price, in terms of added weight and growing fuel expenses, as well as less space, which means fewer seats. This can cost an airline millions a year. Yet the level of innovation now taking place in the field is astonishing, from slimmer ergonomic seats, to sound minimising dividing curtains that create quieter spaces for passengers. “It’s a very competitive industry; we have tremendous competition on many routes”, said Goater. “Airlines have traditionally innovated and invested heavily in their products to woo passengers, and obviously premium passengers are a very highly prized group.”

Wooing premium passengers is facilitated more so by the space afforded by large aircraft, such as the double-deck, wide-body Airbus A380 jetliner, which offers an array of possibilities for the air travel of the future. As well as more space in private cabins, new flight entertainment offerings and even indulgent treatments could be the next phase in the evolution of luxury travel. For example, aviation design company Windspeed Technologies recently designed the Sky Deck, a project for which it is currently seeking investment. The idea is that an Airbus will feature stairs or a lift up to the top deck, where a skylight ceiling will provide awe-inspiring views for passengers, thereby offering in-flight entertainment on a whole new level. While this feature is still some way off, it represents the potential of new innovations in aviation design and technology, which are transforming flights from a mandatory waste of time into an exciting and fulfilling experience in and of themselves.