Suite life: The best airline first-class cabins are more like flying hotels

Airlines may be hoping new seats will add extra tech and convenience to the economy cabin of a plane, but they aren’t getting roomier. In fact, as Panasonic Avionics’ Neil James told us last week, seats are only going to get slimmer, and cabins more cramped.

But at the front of the plane, it’s a different story: First-class cabins are getting so posh that it’s becoming ridiculous (unless you’re an oil tycoon, then it’s probably normal). Lie-flat seats, large displays, and noise-canceling headphones? Old news. Now, it’s all about private suites, massaging chairs, showers, and even full-size bedrooms. Most of these over-the-top amenities are found in international carriers that shuttle the wealthiest of the wealthy, but even modest JetBlue has installed suites that can be closed off.

It not a surprise that airlines want to attract well-heeled passengers with luxury amenities and services (a round-trip ticket from New York to Singapore in first class can easily cost more than $10,000 on Singapore Airlines), but it has also become somewhat of a bragging right, as airlines try to one-up one another in what they can stuff into a plane.

Here are some of our favorite over-the-top first-class cabins.

Etihad Airways

Forget private suites, how about a full-service three-room apartment? That’s what Etihad offers onboard its Airbus A380 from London to Abu Dhabi, appropriately called “The Residence”. This flying apartment includes a living room decked out with a leather sofa, dining tables, 32-inch TV, and mini fridge; a private bathroom with a shower; and a bedroom with a double bed and luxury linens. There’s Wi-Fi and loads of entertainment from Panasonic’s eX3 system. Etihad also throws in a chef that will cook whatever you desire, a butler, and a ground-based concierge to take care of everything.

If Etihad’s goal was to raise the bar, then it has succeeded, because the excess just seems unimaginable. “This is the culmination of five years of intensive effort and research into how Etihad Airways can provide an unparalleled VIP experience,” Peter Baumgartner, Etihad’s chief commercial officer, said in a release. “Without doubt, we are ushering in a new era of luxury travel in commercial aviation.”

Etihad Airways First Apartment
Etihad Airways First Apartment

The Residence costs more than $18,000 for a one-way ticket. If that’s too rich for your blood, Etihad offers a downsized first-class private suite experience, called “First Apartment”, that includes a seat and bed – for a modest average price of $3,500 one-way.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore is the first airline to put the A380 into service, and you could argue that it started this whole private suite craze. The first-class cabin is already private enough – you share it with only 11 other passengers – but you can close the doors for extra privacy. Each “Airlines Suite”, created by a luxury yacht designer, includes a 23-inch LCD, Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones, in-seat power, and a USB jack. Those who have experienced this cabin often compliment the airline’s service. Compared to Etihad, Singapore’s offering may seem underwhelming, but don’t expect the airline to sit on its laurels – it is already in the process of upgrading its regular first-class cabin with seats designed by BMW’s DesignworksUSA.

Emirates

Like Singapore, Emirates has private suites in its A380, but it took things to the next level when it became the first to install showers for all first-class passengers. Each suite has a its own minibar, a large display for a variety of entertainment that includes live television (voted by Skytrax as the best in-flight entertainment), and Wi-Fi. There’s even a lounge for the times you wish to commingle with your fellow upper crust.

For an even more private experience, you can charter an Emirates Executive Airbus A319 with 10 private suites, decked out with 32-inch displays, a shower, and full Wi-Fi and cellular service.

Air France

Whereas Emirates’ first-class suites are decked out in gold trim, Air France’s new La Première is cool and elegant – typical French. Instead of sliding doors, the suite uses curtains that aren’t as private. There is loads of storage, a 24-inch touchscreen, and hotel-quality bedding. It isn’t as feature-rich or high-tech as its counterparts – and it looks the least excessive of the bunch – but you’re only sharing this part of the plane with three others.

Air France La Première
Air France La Première

JetBlue

Unlike international carriers, our domestic airlines aren’t as daring, but of all of them, leave it to low-cost JetBlue to redefine domestic first-class. Eager to capture some of that lucrative transcontinental travel, the airline introduced its Mint premium cabin last year. Although it’s considered a business-class product, of the 16 seats, four can be entirely closed off – giving you that first-class experience. Besides Wi-Fi and live television, the seats have a massage function and adjustable firmness, in addition to converting into a lie-flat bed. The best part: It’s an attainable luxury that costs less than $1,000 one-way.

Asiana

Asiana touts its first-class suite’s sliding doors as the first from a Korean airline – most likely a jab at rival Korean Air. What you’ll notice right away is the large 32-inch display and tablet-like controller. Besides a USB port and AC outlet, you can make calls with the satellite phone. There’s no Wi-Fi, but there’s a pricey SMS and email service.

ANA

Like many first-class cabins, ANA’s suites in its Boeing 777s are open and can’t be closed off with a door, but the way these cubicle-like suites are designed (there are only eight) makes it seem enclosed and private – just like a cubicle! There’s a large 23-inch LCD, and the handset remote doubles as a satellite phone (if you can afford the seat, you can afford the charges). There’s a large closet for your jacket and shoes, AC outlet, and a USB port for viewing photos and listening to music on your iPod – if you still use one of those, that is.

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