NEW YORK — On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy a Mesclun salad with king crab or a grilled USDA prime beef tenderloin, stretch out in a 3-foot-wide seat that converts to a bed and wash it all down with a pre-slumber Krug “Grande Cuvee” Brut Champagne.
Yet some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks 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, even invisible, to the masses in coach. It’s one way that a gap between the world’s wealthiest 1 percent and everyone else has widened.
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 for a trip of a lifetime.
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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 Emirates’ fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s. Those in coach wait one story below and board to the lower level of the plane.
London’s Heathrow Airport took a private suite area designed for the royal family and heads of state and in July opened it to any passenger flying business or first class who’s willing to pay an extra $2,500.
“First class has become a way for a traveler to have an almost private jetlike experience,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Hudson Crossing. Airlines “will do everything but sing a lullaby.”
The front of the plane has always been plusher than the back. But in recent years airlines have put a greater focus on catering to the most affluent fliers’ desire for new levels of 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 now starts at check-in. American and United Airlines have both developed private rooms, located in discrete corners of their terminals in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, that allow for a speedy check-in. Boarding passes in hand, 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, the private restrooms come with their own rubber ducky — an exclusive plastic souvenir for the international 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, publisher of travel advice site FrequentFlier.com.
Want to board first? No problem. Want to be the last one seated, moments before the door closes? Sure. Airlines will even save room for your bags in the overhead bin.
Besides privacy, that extra cash provides an outsize seat, attentive service and superior wines and liquors. Austrian Airlines, Etihad Airways and Gulf Air are among the carriers to staff planes with their own first-class chefs. Instead of having flight attendants reheating meals cooked on the ground, these chefs prepare the meals at 35,000 feet.
In the ultimate show of indulgence, Emirates has offered an onboard shower for first- class passengers on its A380s since the plane joined the fleet in 2008.
Once back on the ground, that luxury treatment continues. At airports in Paris, London, Istanbul, Bangkok, Sydney and elsewhere, airlines offer their top passengers fast-track cards allowing them to speed past immigration lines.
And then, while other passengers wait in lines for buses, taxis or shuttles, chauffeurs in suits meet these fliers ready to — once again — whisk them out of the chaos.