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Astounding first-class air cabins

Courtesy of Jet Airways

The eight first-class suites aboard Jet Airways' 777s offer passengers 26 square feet of private space. Chairs come with variable lumbar support and massage system, and convert to 83-inch beds.

When San Francisco law firm operations director Jeffrey Lais was due for a well-earned vacation, he booked himself a first-class ticket to Munich on Lufthansa. Once aboard the German carrier’s A346, he was led to his first-class suite, where a spacious leather seat and ottoman ran the length of four airplane windows and various compartments overflowed with noise-canceling headphones, menus, pajamas and slippers.

Slideshow: See the high-flying luxury of first-class

After a dinner of caviar, prawn confit, duck breast and an assortment of French cheeses, a flight attendant converted Lais’s seat into a mattress-topped flatbed — complete with duvet and giant pillows — and showed him how to seal his seat from view with a privacy screen for the rest of the 12-hour flight.

There’s no doubt about it, first class makes travel better.

As airlines stave off bankruptcy by cutting amenities and services to their economy classes, there seems to be a shield around the almighty first class. According to the International Air Transport Association, this is because upper-class passengers, although a small minority among international air travelers, account for almost a third of airline revenues. It’s not surprising, then, that recent reports show that cabin modifications, especially those that favor upper-class travelers, are the fastest-growing segment of the airline MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) industry.

“In order to stay competitive, airlines need to keep pace with the rapidly changing demands of corporate travelers,” says Nigel Page, Emirates’ vice president of commercial operations. “That’s why we consistently invest in refining and enhancing our first-class product.” The Dubai-based carrier delivers on its promise — thus far, it’s the only airline to offer showers for first-class passengers aboard its fleet of 21 A380 jets.

And in-flight showers aren’t the only perks offered to today’s first-class travelers. Swiss’ new first class, launched in 2009, offers a spacious executive desk for one that converts to a comfortable dining table for two (for those who want dinner company); Lufthansa added cabin humidifiers, and trumped the seat-to-flatbed race by adding both a flatbed and a chair to each first-class suite on their 747s.

Of course, no matter how opulent the cabins get, the best part of first-class flying may be off the plane. Says Lais, whose personal Lufthansa escort expedited his passage through airport security and passport control, “As much as the free-flowing caviar and throne-like seat add to the exclusivity of first class, it’s the level of on-the-ground attention that makes all the difference.”

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