It was somewhere over the Andaman Sea that I started thinking about how to blockade the door. I was sprawled in a private suite aboard a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380, and it had just occurred to me that, in only a few more hours, the flight would end and I'd be expected to vacate my new quarters. I resolved then and there not to give them up without a fight.
After all, my accommodations hadn't been easy to secure. In the service of journalism, I'd persuaded three carriers—Singapore, Emirates, and Etihad—to host me for free in their new deluxe solitary suites (India's Jet Airlines also offers the feature but declined to participate). I was intrigued by what seemed like a crazy industrial gambit: introducing superexpensive, superluxurious, fully enclosed little rooms on their flagship airplanes—in the midst of a global recession. Curious whether it could possibly pay off and dying to find out just what these seats were actually like, I'd created the most arduous itinerary I could come up with. In six days I'd travel 42,720 kilometers (New York to Singapore to London to Abu Dhabi to Dubai to New York) in order to test just what extreme luxury really meant and whether it could compensate for the brain-fogging, back-clenching horror of about 53 hours in the air.
I'd like to think I was the brave one here, but it is the airlines in question that are being truly audacious. There was a time, of course, when air travel was synonymous with luxury: Pan American's first air clippers offered catered meals from Maxim's of Paris, and in the early days of the 747 you could find a piano and a wet bar if you ventured upstairs. But then rising fuel costs, industry deregulation, and intensifying competition forced the airlines to dump the tinkling ivories and martinis and shift emphasis to bulk travel—moving as many passengers as quickly and cheaply as possible, with little regard for comfort. The operating model went from the QE2 to a city bus.
Then the latest world financial crisis hit. According to the International Air Transport Association, overall air traffic fell 10.7 percent between 2007 and 2009, while revenues for premium travel dropped 20 percent—an especially painful contraction given that this is where carriers make 30 percent of their revenue. Most airlines, including the majority of the Americans and brands such as Qantas and Air Canada, eliminated or drastically reduced their first-class seats; a few all-premium carriers like Eos and Silverjet even went bust altogether. Yet a handful of companies decided to go in the opposite direction, in what Jim Corridore, an airline analyst at Standard & Poor's, calls a "Tiffany versus Walmart" strategy. These premium airlines are offering unprecedented luxury—including the holy grail of commercial air travel, near-total privacy—at a stratospheric price: Singapore to London round trip costs about $12,000; Dubai to New York is about the same.
How exactly this is supposed to pay off is difficult to determine. The airlines are extremely cagey when it comes to numbers, and none will distinguish between business and first-class suites when discussing their profits or sales rates. But the consensus among analysts is that the cabins are a high-risk gamble, yet to pay off, and born, they say, of several factors. The first is simple physics: the new A380s offer so much extra room (about 40 percent more than the long-haul 747s) that airlines weren't sure what else to do with them. They could have made economy less torturous, but as Nick Cunningham, an industry analyst with Evolution Securities, puts it, the thinking was that coach passengers are "peasants, so they won't appreciate it. And if the airlines made economy more comfortable, people wouldn't pay for premium." Carriers such as Singapore Airlines did increase the comfort of their business-class cabins, but there was still "a lot of space to play with." To fill it, the few airlines still known for luxury decided to offer an extreme product that would further increase their veneer of sumptuousness—what Cunningham calls "a gloss on the overall product, the way the Concorde was for BA and Air France." Etihad CEO James Hogan says, "We've seen the aviation industry struggle over the past two years, but the introduction of our new first-class suites has positioned us well for the upturn." James Boyd, a spokesman for Singapore, adds that there was a competitive element too: "It was a salvo, a way of drawing a line in the sand. "You know, the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War by spending it into the ground," he told me at another point.Whether such tactics will win any battles in the airline wars remains very much to be seen, however. Such superexpensive offerings are far more profitable than more humble seats—if they sell. But airline analysts are mostly skeptical that the penumbra effect—the idea that these new suites give the whole airline a more luxurious aura—will translate into more passengers buying tickets. They also note that, in the words of S&P's Corridore, airlines have historically been "horrific" at getting these kinds of experiments right (remember those piano bars). Industry executives counter that the new suites are doing well, and that they couldn't afford to offer a product for prestige value alone. But none of the cabins on my flights was more than 25 percent full. This is admittedly anecdotal evidence, but it's hardly surprising, given the economic climate and the fact that anyone who can afford to travel this way could also, in Cunningham's words, "probably afford to take their own Gulfstream." As he puts it, if "super–first class is edging close to the cost of hiring a private aircraft, why would you bother?"
Determined to find out, I set off from New York on a snowy Friday evening a few weeks ago. The first benefit of suites-only travel became apparent on the ground: an almost total absence of waiting. Sure, if you hit the terminal too early even a suites traveler will end up sitting around (albeit in baronial spelnder). But don't expect to encounter any lines. From the moment you arrive (generally in a dedicated hall decked out like a fancy hotel), you are greeted by a personal attendant, a kind of butler/sherpa who quietly whisks you toward your aircraft, sending you sailing through exclusive check-in, passport control, and security lanes so fast you barely have time to unlace your shoes.
Such personal attention is seductive—and dangerous, as I discovered on the first leg of my journey. On my way out of New York, I was so distracted by the presence of my minder that I temporarily forgot my suitcase on the X-ray belt.
Like the extreme level of personal attention, the extravagant, sometimes absurd amenities also start on the ground. These can include a chauffeured ride to the airport, a totally private VIP lounge (as with Singapore Airlines—which proved gloomy and a little lonely), or a free massage (Etihad). They also guarantee a reserved seat in a complementary full-service restaurant—hardly necessary given the orgy of free food waiting on board, but a nice perk if you are (a) extraodinarily gluttinous or (b) the flight is less than eight hours and you hope to spend all of it sleeping.
Things only escalate once you finally make it to your seat (designed, for both Singapore and Etihad, by Poltrona Frau, which also does interiors for Ferrari). The first glimpse of the suites—and I know that I'll make few friends confessing this—was a tad underwhelming. Given the name and the publicity photos, I expected a private room. What I found instead was more like a pod. This means a seat—albeit an epically wide and comfortable one—with a screen door on the aisle side that can be slid shut, blocking you from view. But not completely; the partition is only about one and a half meters tall. This is necessary for safety reasons (the attendants have to be able to check on you in case of emergency), but it gives the first-class cubbies the look of extremely cushy office cubicles; inside, they feel like old time railway compartments on a movie set built for three-quarter-size actors.
Not that I'm complaining. The first time I slid the door at my elbow shut, the feeling was slightly claustrophobic. But that sensation faded fast, and soon I was protective of my privacy, resentful of intrusions. When the lights dimmed the experience became womblike; I felt like a kid secure in a fort made out of sofa cushions—and equipped with a 23-inch flat-screen TV.
While the suites are essentially the same on all three carriers, they do offer slightly different distractions; Singapore's, all cream and mahogany, are the most subdued, while Emirates', decked out in burled maple and gold plate, take the bling category hands down. Do you need a minibar that rises out of the armrest at the push of a button? No. Is it cool? Hell, yes.
What you do need—or greatly appreciate—is a full, flat bed, which all the suite seats transform into (Singapore also features a fold-down memory-foam mattress that sits on top). The ever-attentive cabin crew will deck it out with high-thread-count linens (by Givenchy, in Singapore's case) when you, or the complimentary Krug you've been knocking back, decide it's time to lie down. The bed came in especially handy when I came down with a short but nasty case of food poisoning soon after my plane left Singapore for the 14-hour trip to London (the result of an unholy street-food binge during my 24-hour layover in Singapore).
But even for those not ill, a proper bed on an airplane is a killer perk. Along with the privacy and all the little gadgets (and the vast movie selection), it produces what I came to term the Valium effect. Sitting in a suite doesn't make the flight any shorter. But you find you don't mind the duration. On my final day, boarding the plane for the last leg (Dubai to New York), I felt a dread bordering on panic. But no sooner had I slid under the covers and started playing with the five- by seven-centimeter toch-screen remote control in my berth than I was bathed in a profound sense of calm.
And I slept. I'm usually a terrible airplane sleeper, even in business class and even when medicated. But I managed to do it for uninterrupted hours on all these flights, regardless of my level of gastric distress or the amount of alcohol consumed (it's hard even for a sick man to resist a 2000 Dom Pérignon or a 1989 Saint-Julien). This produced what is perhaps the final, and most important, advantage of this kind of travel: you tend to arrive wherever you're going feeling practically refreshed—especially if you fly on one of the Emirates A380s that feature a shower, or take advantage of the spa facilities all three airlines offer in their arrival lounges. Net result: I walked into my apartment after six days in the air feeling pretty much the way I had when I left—that is, normal. That's an incredibly valuable perk, especially for the business traveller who has to hit the ground running. In fact it's hard to put a price on it. Unless, of course, you actually have to foot the bill.