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Has first class become the unicorn of commercial air travel? True first class—that pod of posh in the nose or upper deck of a classic three-cabin plane—is getting more elusive as more airlines switch to two-cabin models featuring hybrid business–first class. These days true first is almost exclusively found on long-haul international flights (JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco are the only domestic routes where it still exists), and it comes at a big premium over business, with round-trip fares often running well north of $10,000. But it’s the only cabin where the glamour and mystique of the old Pan Am Clipper days are still palpable. In recent years many airlines have, thankfully, taken bold steps to further coddle their first-class customers.
“There’s still luxury in first class that doesn’t exist in business class,” says Matt Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com, a leading authority on airline cabins and where to sit. The biggest change came in 2007 with the introduction of the Airbus A380, which spurred airlines to radically rethink their elite cabins. Several Asian and Middle Eastern carriers—Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Emirates, and Etihad—decided to up the first-class experience by changing the seat to a suite, a semi-enclosed compartment that is as close as it gets to a hotel room in the air. “The new gold standard is Singapore and Emirates,” says Daimler, “which offer an experience that’s like riding in a Pullman car.” Cathay Pacific also gets high praise even though its suites don’t have doors, and Etihad’s suites were recently named “World’s Best First Class” by the airline review website Skytrax.
But not all carriers are going with suites for their top-tier cabins. In May Lufthansa unveiled its new open-plan first class on the A380, citing customer preference for generous space rather than cordoned-off suites. Last fall Air France inaugurated its own open-plan first class, La Première. With British Airways, ANA, and United also having just overhauled their elite cabins, the past few years mark the most extensive wave of first class upgrades in a generation. “You might not see innovation like this for another decade,” says James Boyd, a spokesperson for Singapore Airlines.
Of course, it’s not only about the cabin interiors. First class offers a host of onboard amenities and gourmet-caliber meals as well as on-the-ground privileges ranging from access to luxury lounges, expedited security and customs clearance, and chauffeured transport.
Given the emphasis airlines are placing on first class, departures decided it was time to survey the field, from the creature comforts to the ins and outs of gaining admission without paying list price. (Yes, it can be done.) We imposed one rule: Only carriers offering true first class in a three-cabin configuration could be considered. No line-blurring business-first, even though this meant omitting airlines that get high praise in this area such as Virgin and Continental. Things are changing in first class—here’s your guide.