It's Heaven For High-fliers
Sunday April 18, 1999
Leather seats, polished wood, lush carpeting - it has to be an exclusive club. No, it's just today's airline experience. Kate Cox flew on cloud nine.
A SMARTLY uniformed, discreetly attentive hostess has just cleared away a mouth-watering seven-course meal.
While I change into a stylish set of complimentary pyjamas in the spacious faux marble and gold and bronze panelled bathroom and stretch my legs in the lushly carpeted, spacious cabin, two attendants turn down my bed, spreading it with crisp white sheets and an embracing down doona.
Lying down, I flick the large 35cm monitor from Nintendo to television, select a movie from a choice of hundreds, stretch out and doze.
I am more than 10,000 metres above the sea, flying in the polished wood and rich leather clubby surrounds of first class on a Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore from Sydney.
International flying is no longer the obligatory mode of transport to a holiday or business destination (to be endured, rather than enjoyed), but a vital aspect of the whole experience. As a matter of course, all travellers should expect friendly service, a large range of video channels and quality food.
But there's an insurmountable difference between economy and first class, as I was to learn on my connecting flight to Sri Lanka, where I flew in the very last row of cattle class on an old, unremodelled plane: no in-seat telephones, big screen blackjack, "sleepers" or personalised service in my miniature seat.
And the food? Well, I never did discover what was in my Gladwrapped sandwich, because the broken tray upended it in my lap.
Heard the one about there not being much difference between first and business classes?
I am in the privileged position of assuring you, dear reader, that these days there is. "So there should be for the price!" many would argue.
It costs $4,240 for a first class return flight from Sydney to Singapore, $3,180 for business class.
Airlines are adapting the marketing philosophy that 80 per cent of a company's revenue comes from 20pc of its customers.
When James Strong announced Qantas's $550 million, three-year upgrade to cabins, service, food and seats in 1997, he pointed out that it was more profitable in the long term to convince upmarket travellers to fly again than to compete in the cut-throat market of discount travel - where passengers were motivated by price rather than airline loyalty.
But he had more than just profits in mind. Competition in the airline industry has made exclusive overseas travel a valuable weapon and the prestige international traveller (usually CEOs, cabinet ministers, celebrities, public service and union leaders, and the exceedingly well off) a sought-after client.
A full first class cabin lends prestige, tastefulness and general superiority to an airline.
For the past five years, most major airlines have been quietly conducting extensive research into the needs of high-fliers.
British Airways filmed, scientifically monitored and surveyed hundreds of volunteers sleeping on their own beds and prototype models of cabin seats, while Singapore Airlines surveyed 4,000 of its regular first and business class passengers.
The biggest issue was comfort: specifically leg room and ergonomic support - which, roughly translated, means making sure our backs don't ache after hours in the air.
In first and business class, seating capacity has been reduced to make room for longer, wider and more comfortable lounge-style chairs, and in the case of British Airways, Air New Zealand, Qantas and Singapore Airlines, full-size sleepers.
Even back in economy, seats once regarded as flying torture chambers have been replaced by friendlier designs with height-adjustable, wrap-around headrests that significantly improve comfort and reduce neck strain on long flights. British Airways was the first - in October 1995 - to introduce "individual cabins" to get first class passengers truly horizontal. And its business class seats have been designed by a leading back specialist.
British Airways area marketing manager Jodie Leonard said reducing the seat numbers to make way for sleepers was a major step for the airline.
"It was fundamentally different to anything else being offered," she said.
For those not intending to sleep, airlines are competing to offer better in-flight entertainment, with Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines providing on-screen credit-card gambling and shopping.
Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Canadian Airlines provide satellite phones in all seats. Singapore Airlines has also introduced state-of-the-art Dolby headphones.
First and business class passengers no longer just choose exactly what to eat, but precisely when they want it. They can also order snacks and request specially designed meals. The major airlines call on some of the world's top chefs as they compete to offer their first and business class passengers the finest cuisine. Qantas was completely overhauled by Rockpool's Neil Perry, Air New Zealand employs three international chefs to create 120 signature dishes each season, and Singapore Airlines has a think-tank of seven international chef consultants, including 41's Dietmar Sawyere.
Meals are accompanied by full-sized wine glasses, fine bone china, thick, crisp linen tablecloths, fluffy face towels and fresh flowers.
On the ground, this regimental butt-kissing goes beyond priority baggage handling, check-in and boarding. First and business class passengers can check in by fax, e-mail or phone, are provided with limousine transfers, kerbside greetings and complimentary hand-phone rentals. They are sped through immigration and luxuriate in specially dedicated lounges.
Malaysia Airlines boasts the "world's biggest air-side lounge" at Kuala Lumpur, containing a gym, sauna, business centre, "slumberettes", pre-flight dining and separate children's rumpus and computer games areas. And its on-board business centre comes complete with fax, printer, laptop, and multimedia library.
For more details on Singapore Airlines' service call 13 10 11.
FIRST CLASS TOP 4
Year introduced: 1996
Pear wood with silver and grey suede, leather and textured fabrics
Number of seats: 14
Air New Zealand
Year introduced: 1998
Design: Blue textured cushions, with elegant plaid blankets
Number of seats: 12
Year introduced: 1999
Design: Wood-lined and upholstered Connolly leather, Givenchy-designed sleeper suits.
Number of seats: 12
Year introduced: 1996
Design: Sleek dark blue seats traditional Qantas patterned fabric
Number of seats: 14
United Airlines and Lufthansa also offer fully reclining sleeper seats, Cathay Pacific has them on the way and Malaysia Airlines are "evaluating them".
CLASS WARS ECONOMY CLASS SPACE INDEX Airline Pitch Recline Inseat Video Footrests Back support Other Ansett 86-94cm 20 degrees N N N Air NZ 84 20 N Y Y winged headrest British Air. 79 20 N N N Cathay Pac. 81-86 20 N Y N phone Malasia 86 20-30 Y Y Y Qantas n/a 25 N N Y winged headrest Singapore 81 25 Y Y Y phone, wingd hrest Other seat pitches BUSINESS CLASS Air France Contoured- Footrest Back support Elec-op'd Channels Pitch Recline 76-81cm headrest Virgin Atlantic * Ansett N Y N 8 137-140cm 53-68deg 76cm Korean Air, Canadian, Air NZ Y Y N 9 127 60 China, South African, Thai Airways 86cm Vietnam Airlines British Air. Y Y Y 8 127 50 84cm Philippine Airlines Cathay Pac. Y Y N 9 101-126 26 81-91cm Air India Malaysia Y Y N 45 127 55 81-86cm KLM, Japan, Lufthansa, SAS Qantas Y Y Y 10 127 50 81cm Lauda Air, United Airlines Singapore Y Y Y 22 132 50 79cm * Ansett is "BusinessFirst"