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Private suites in the skies: whereas the recession may well have affected air travel, the luxury end remains resilient and many airlines are adding extra first-class services putting extra pizzazz into flying.

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There was a time, in the early days of commercial flying, when it was perceived as glamorous: Pan Am offered meals catered by Maxim's of Paris and there was live piano music and a bar in the upper echelons of first class.

But as flying has become ever more popular, airlines have adopted very different strategies aimed at different markets, cramming in as many seats as possible into economy or steerage and offering ever more luxurious benefits in first class.

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Private charter business in the Middle East region remains buoyant, as Chapman Freeborn, a market leader in the sector with 30 offices across 22 counties, confirms. However, where private charter is unavailable, scheduled airlines are pulling out all the stops to wow their first-class travellers with every other kind of luxury: fine champagne, toiletry kits by Bulgari and Ferragamo, seven-course meals and, on the ground, special concierges to expedite their passage through check-in and security.

"Right now, first class is all about creating an over-the-top experience for passengers," says Edward Plaisted, chief executive of Skytrax, a London-based airline and airport-quality ranking firm. At a time when some carriers have eliminated first class altogether (in order to focus on business class), the ones keeping it have ramped it up a gilded notch. They are striving for "that wow factor".

Singapore Airlines' first class, for example, gives its passengers a choice between Dom Perignon and Krug champagne, and while fliers change into their Givenchy sleep suits and slippers in the extra-large bathrooms, their seats are turned into real beds with sheets, a down duvet and oversize pillows.

Cathay Pacific actually has skillets and rice cookers on board for its top-tier flyers, which means that eggs and rice dishes are made to order and prepared fresh.

Outstanding privacy

Emirates' first-class suites are mini-suites with sliding doors offering passengers total privacy. The new private suite is fully equipped with individual storage, a coat closet, vanity desk and personal mini bar. The extra-large seat reclines to become a fully flat bed, and the 23-inch wide-screen LCD screen features over 600 channels of entertainment.

Qatar Airways is offering first-class passengers flying out of Doha access to a new separate $90-million terminal that resembles a five-star hotel with marble floors and cascading waterfalls.

Passengers are cosseted from the moment they arrive at the airport. An attendant takes their bags, checks them in and leads them to a lounge, which has several fine-dining restaurants, a medical centre and a spa with a sauna and Jacuzzi.

The wow factor continues on board, where fliers get caviar service, full-size pillows, white linen mattresses, Australian wool blankets and Bulgari toiletry kits. Each seat also has a 23-inch meal table, which lets two people dine across from each other, as in a restaurant.

With Thai airlines, first-class passengers are waited on hand and foot from the moment they arrive in a private section of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi's Airport. A personal concierge checks them in and escorts them through security to a lounge with Wi-Fi, a sauna and a spa that offers Thai massages. When flying into Bangkok, a concierge fast-tracks them through immigration, customs and bag pick-up. The on-board perks include up-market toiletry kits and a choice of 22 dishes.

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Etihad's state-of-the-art first class cabin contains 12 individual suites: the outfitting of the cabins has cost $70 million. The private suites provides customers with an extra-large leather seat, upholstered by the leather company Poltrona Frau which provides interiors for Ferrari cars; the seat extends to a fully-flat bed, 80.5 inches in length. Within the first class cabin there is also a large and luxurious changing room with a full-length mirror, wash basin and leather fold-down seat allowing customers to freshen up at any time during the flight.

James Hogan, Etihad Airways' chief executive, said: "The entry into service of our new first-class product is a major milestone for Etihad Airways as it is the first time we have offered our customers their own private suite within the first-class cabin.

"The new suite is state of the art in every way and the innovative enhancements, such as a personal illuminated wardrobe with mirror and refreshment cabinet, demonstrate our continued commitment to provide a world-class experience for our premium passengers."

It may not be exactly like staying in a five-star hotel--after all, there are no king-size beds and Jacuzzis on board, at least not yet--but with all its lavish amenities, 21st century first-class air travel comes pretty close.

EDITED BY RHONA WELLS

rhona@africasia.com
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Title Annotation:DETAILS
Author:Wells, Rhona
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:757
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