It's not just about suites.
A number of airlines have done away with first class and are offering business class cabin experiences which would have made first class look second rate only a few years ago.
But on those airlines that still offer first class, there are benefits both on the ground and in-flight which make paying the high fares worth it.
Here are some of the top features of those very exclusive tickets.
1. VIP service, from the ground up
A number of airlines offer private car service to first class passengers included in the price of the ticket, from your front door to the airport and from the airport to your hotel at your destination.
At the airline’s hub airport, you will likely find exclusive first class check-in services, some seated at a private check-in desk.
Lufthansa offers will drive you from its First Class terminal in Frankfurt to the plane in a luxury car. The airline will even arrange a “Porsche First Class Excitement” driving experience as a mini-tour of Frankfurt Maim or Munich to help you pass the time between flights, for a bit extra.
Air France and Lufthansa also offer private jet services for onward connections in Europe.
First class today is often a smaller cabin than it was in the past. There are still some airlines flying low double digit numbers in first, but others are bringing their first class cabins below ten passengers. For example, British Airways' dreamy first class on the Boeing Dreamliner now only seats eight, instead of 14.
If you want to avoid a crowd, first class is still the top choice. And you get endless attention from a dedicated and specially trained crew during the flight.
3. Fine dining and amenities
Although many airlines offer their first class passengers fine dining before take-off in the lounge, they also spend a lot of time planning and preparing first class dining onboard. Most of these menus are designed by world-class chefs, so spare some appetite for the flight.
If you love collecting luxury airline amenity kits and pyjamas, first class gets the very best. Even beyond these useful items that you can take home with you, airlines “dress” their first class with superior blankets and pillows for sleeping, as well as quality dishware, flatware and glassware for those chefs-in-the-sky meals.
4. The suite seat
Where many airlines today are blurring the line between a first class and business class experience is in the seat or suite offering. Not too long ago, you’d only find suites onboard if you flew on first class with a limited set of airlines on certain long-haul aircraft. In fact, Singapore Airlines was first to introduce suites onboard, in the A380. Emirates followed closely, with broader availability.
Recently, Delta Air Lines upturned this trend by introducing Delta One business class suites and Qatar Airways introduced its QSuite business class cabin which makes booking luxury onboard delightfully confusing.
Etihad, by contrast, took the whole concept of exclusivity up a notch with its First Apartment cabin. It has features a separate bed, and room to walk behind closed doors. The airline also offers The Residence, a notch above first class, which includes a private bathroom and shower as well as a double bed in a private bedroom next to the living area. There is only one of these available onboard each A380 aircraft and includes white-glove service from a private butler.
But whether they offer apartments, closed suites, demi-suites or lay-flat seats, all airlines which offer first class make their heaviest investments in this cabin, ensuring passengers get the most comfort for their money and far better than the next class of service. Lufthansa even introduced rarified air to its first class cabin, by using special Hepa filters and humidifiers.
5. Lounging around
While many airlines will offer “snacks galleys,” even in premium economy cabins, some airlines offer their first class passengers separate lounge cabins where they can enjoy refreshments and gather socially.
Credit is due to Virgin Atlantic for keeping the onboard lounge concept flying in the lean years of airline cutbacks when lounges had fallen out of favor with other airlines.6. Fresh Arrivals
First class passengers will also find better in-flight lavatories with extra room to freshen up and change into those in-flight pyjamas. Emirates and Etihad offer shower facilities to first class on the A380 aircraft.
If your airline doesn’t offer showers onboard, you can always stop by the first class lounge on arrival and let the water flow with no time limit.
Whatever changes airlines make, we’re unlikely to see the first class flying experience disappear completely. There are still passengers willing to pay very high fares to get the very best pampering on long flights. Those airlines which have made their first class a distinctive luxury feature of their brand are likely to keep doing so on key routes.