It's been a long time since first- and business-class cabins were just like coach, but with bigger seats and better meals. These days, it's a different world in the front of the plane, one that draws inspiration from exclusive nightclubs, chic restaurants and hotels, modern business centers, even hip spas. Why such swanky enticements?A handful of business tickets can generate as much revenue as dozens of seats in coach. So as economy class becomes more economical, business and first class get classier. Here, a sampling of how the top carriers lure the most desired passengers.
AUDIO Even if you're not listening to music or watching a film, a noise-canceling headset from Japan Airlines or Virgin Atlantic can help you enjoy some peace and (relative) quiet.
BIGGER BATHROOMS SAS is expanding its bathrooms, adding windows to counter claustrophobia. For those vain frequent fliers, Cathay Pacific has a full-length mirror in its revamped WC.
LIGHTING Virgin has created a lighting system that can go from dawn to dusk over the course of a flight, thus reducing the effects of jet lag on your body's clock.
ON-LINE The technology is still in its infancy, but Singapore Airlines and Virgin are leading the pack with e-mail and Web-browsing systems that let you surf the Net while in flight. But how much will it cost?
FOOD Several carriers have overhauled their menus with help from ground-based chefs (Charlie Trotter at United, Alice Waters at American). On Singapore, you can order ahead from a haute menu; on Virgin or British Airways you can dine à la carte.
CHINA Better food, better place settings: Royal Doulton plates, Irish linen napkins (Air New Zealand); Orrefors crystal, Royal Copenhagen plates, Georg Jensen cutlery (SAS).
ENTERTAINMENT Singapore spent $27,500 per seat to install 14-inch video screens—the sky's largest. Japan Airlines' Eye-trek fits over your face (imagine a scuba mask with built-in headphones) to give the illusion of a 62-inch screen.
CLEVER CREWS US Airways flight attendants are trained by the Culinary Institute of America, while Delta's first-class crew gets annual visits to a château in France for a two-week course on how to sample, pair, describe, and serve wines.
SNACKS Not every perk requires high-tech innovation. Enjoy buttered toast and fresh eggs over easy at any time from Cathay Pacific's onboard toasters and skillets.
PAMPERING Virgin's massage-or-a-manicure service has been such a success that the airline has reconfigured its Upper Class deck to make room for a private treatment area (behind yet another curtain). And forget airline-brand soap. Delta and Cathay Pacific carry L'Occitane products, BA and United have Molton Brown, and American has Origins. Air New Zealand provides individual anti-jet lag aromatherapy kits.
COCKTAILS Yes, we know you're not supposed to fly under the influence, but Virgin's Upper Class bar—with 15 brands of top-shelf liquor, including its own Virgin Vodka—makes a sky-high highball an awfully appealing prospect.
INTERIORS Givenchy decorated Singapore's Raffles Class (and designed the striking tableware). BA took its Club World name literally, outfitting the cabin with lots of supersoft leather, walnut trim, and cashmere and chenille throws.
SEATS British Airways raised the first-class standard with a seat that morphs into a flat bed long enough for a 61/2-foot-tall passenger, perfect for a transatlantic nap.
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