NEW YORK - On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy a mesclun salad with king crab or a grilled prime beef tenderloin, stretch out in a 3-foot-wide seat that converts to a bed and sip Krug Champagne.
Upscale up there
Airlines once again are upping the ante in their international first-class service. But this time, it has little to do with fancy meals or comfy chairs. The carriers are focused on letting wealthy fliers pass through airports without having to mingle with the masses. Among the recent additions:
American Airlines: Now offers its top customers and anyone flying international first class a private check-in area at its terminals in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. Travelers exit through hidden doors leading to the front of security lines. United Airlines: Has a similar setup in Chicago and Newark, N.J.
Delta Air Lines: Will drive its top passengers who have a tight connection in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York or Minneapolis from one plane to another in a Porsche. They never have to enter the terminal. United does the same in Mercedes-Benz GL-Class vehicles at Chicago, Houston and Newark.
Emirates Airline: Has separate floors in its Dubai A380 concourse for premium passengers and coach fliers. The two groups board jets through separate gates, never interacting.
London's Heathrow Airport: Has opened private suites, originally designed for the royal family, to passengers flying business or first class, for an extra $2,500. Fliers using them receive their own immigration and security screening.
Lufthansa: Offers first-class passengers a separate terminal in Frankfurt. There's a restaurant, cigar lounge and dedicated immigration officers. When it's time to board, passengers are driven across the tarmac to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Porsche Cayenne.
Yet some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else. The idea is to provide an exclusive experience - inaccessible to the masses in coach.
Paying for privacy
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 savor the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent-flier miles.
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 double-decker Airbus A380s. Those in coach wait one story below.
London's Heathrow Airport took a private suite area designed for the royal family and heads of state and opened it to any passenger flying business or first class who pays an extra $2,500.
"First class has become a way for a traveler to have an almost private jet-like experience," says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst. Airlines "will do everything but sing a lullaby."
The front of the plane has always been plusher than the back. But airlines have put a greater focus on catering to the most affluent fliers' desire for privacy.
There's a lot of money on the line. At big carriers like American Airlines, about 70 percent of revenue comes from the top 20 percent of its customers.
The special treatment 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. Travelers 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, private restrooms come with their own rubber ducky - a plastic souvenir for the 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.
"That sort of exclusivity plays to the ego of people who are in a position to spend that much money on airline flight," says Tim Winship of FrequentFlier.com.
At Heathrow's private suites, designed for up to six people, fliers pass privately through their own immigration and security screening. While waiting, hors d'oeuvres and Champagne are provided. When it comes time to actually fly, passengers are driven to their plane in a BMW 7 Series sedan and escorted to their seat.
U.S. airlines have copied a bit of that touch. United started in July and Delta Air Lines in 2011 driving top customers with tight connections at major airports from one gate to another in luxury cars. No need to enter the terminal, let alone fight the crowd.
In recent years, airlines have upgraded international business class sections, installing chairs that convert into lay-flat beds. That left very little to differentiate first class from business class.
So some airlines scrapped the ultra-premium cabin. Others have cut the number of first-class seats in half, thereby creating a more intimate experience that commands the higher price.
Austrian Airlines, Etihad Airways and Gulf Air are among carriers to staff planes with first-class chefs, who prepare the meals at 35,000 feet. Emirates offers an onboard shower for first-class passengers on its A380s.