AVIATION

Global high-fliers pay up big to stay away from the economy-class masses

Those at the pointy end get to check in at separate areas and even have luxury cars on call to chauffer them to the plane at some airport

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 9:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 9:47pm
AP

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On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy king crab or a grilled beef tenderloin, loll in a 91cm-wide seat that converts to a bed and wash it all down with a pre-slumber Krug champagne.

Yet some of the most cherished international first class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats.

Global airlines increasingly are rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible - physical distance between them and everyone else.

The idea is to provide an exclusive experience in which they are inaccessible, and even invisible, to the masses in economy. It's one way that a gap between the world's wealthiest 1 per cent and everyone else has widened.

Many international passengers, who spend about US$15,000 for a ticket, now check in at secluded facilities and are driven in luxury cars directly to planes.

Others can savour the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent flier miles for a trip of a lifetime.

When Emirates Airline opened a new concourse at its home airport in Dubai last year, it made sure to keep economy 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 economy wait one storey 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 was willing to pay an extra US$2,500.

"First class has become a way for a traveller to have an almost private jet-like experience," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst. Airlines "will do everything but sing a lullaby", he said.

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 is a lot of money on the line. At big carriers such as American Airlines, about 70 per cent of revenue comes from the top 20 per cent of its customers.

The special treatment now starts at check-in. American and United Airlines have both developed private rooms in discreet corners of their terminals in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, that allow for a speedy check-in.

Boarding passes in hand, travellers move straight through to the front of security lines.

Some airlines have gone further. Lufthansa offers a separate terminal in Frankfurt with its own restaurant, cigar lounge and immigration officers.

For those who want a shower or a bath, the private rest rooms come with their own rubber duck - 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 flights," said Tim Winship, publisher of travel advice site FrequentFlier.com

A round-trip flight in July between New York and Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific costs US$1,600 in economy, US$7,600 in business and US$19,000 in first class.