Height of luxury: class struggle in the skies

Forget economy: first-class passengers are the people who keep airlines in profit. So it's no wonder Virgin Atlantic is threatening legal action to put off alleged imitators. Jerome Taylor reports - and finds out how to fly in style

When you have customers willing to spend anything up to £9,000 for a flight it is hardly surprising that today's airlines jealously guard the exclusive amenities they offer to their first class and business travellers.

Whether it's a private cabin inspired by the interior of a Rolls-Royce, a celebrity-designed10-course menu featuring beluga caviar washed down by the finest Dom Pérignon or a helicopter service that takes you direct from your home to the airport, carriers seem to be obsessed with outdoing each other in the luxury stakes.

In fact, so important are the individual luxuries that differentiate one carrier from its competitors that Virgin Atlantic has started legal proceedings against the company that designed the airline's flagship Upper Class "herringbone" seats.

The airliner is suing Welsh seating manufacturer Contour after rival carriers, including Delta, Cathay Pacific and the Indian airline Jet Air, began using what Virgin claims are copies of their herringbone flat bed.

Yesterday Virgin Atlantic said they were suing Contour for breach of patents. "We are absolutely taking legal action against Contour," said Paul Charles, director of communications at Virgin Atlantic. "We have only licensed our technology to one other airline [Air New Zealand], who paid for it. The others are doing so illegally."

Designed by Contour and unveiled in 2003, Sir Richard Branson's carrier spent £50m developing what they said at the time was a revolutionary flat bed that gave customers extra space and placed them on their own, enabling a flyer to get to the aircraft aisle without having to climb over a fellow passenger.

In the increasingly cut-throat battle for business and first class travellers, who – for most long distance airliners are the customers that enable carriers to make a decent profit – luxury facilities are passionately guarded.

"Our seat is one of our distinctive features and it is very precious to us," said Mr Charles. "It is important to have some features exclusive to us and our special seating is one of them."

Contour denied yesterday it had broken any patent laws and said the seating formation used by Virgin has already been in use for more than a decade. "We will vigorously defend ourselves and we have a very strong case," a spokesperson said.

The proceedings come at a time of intense competition amongst airliners over the luxury market, resulting in increasingly luxurious travel for those with the money to pay for it.

Gone are the days when business class simply meant a bit of extra leg room, wider arm rests and food slightly less grey than economy class grub. Nowadays, the business traveller can expect a decent night's sleep on a flat bed, a games console and a celebrity endorsed menu.

On Thursday, Singapore Air flight SQ380 will make history by becoming the first commercial airliner to fly the world's largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380. But the airliner will also break a new record in near unimaginable luxury. 12 of the 471 people on board will spend the seven-hour flight inside the most luxurious and private cabin seen in commercial aviation history – a double bed suite designed by the French luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste.

Skytrax, a UK-based company which audits all airlines on more than 400 customer criteria, says Asian and Middle Eastern airlines routinely beat their European and North American rivals in the quality stakes.

Getting to the airport

Malaysia Airlines: A private limo service from home to the airport is de rigueur for first class and most business travel nowadays so for those who really like to arrive at the departure terminal in style, Malaysia Airlines offers customers something much more exclusive. For first class customers travelling from the UK or France, they collect you in your own personal helicopter and shuttle you direct to the departure lounge. On board, dinner is served on bone china plates and eaten with silver knives and forks while champagne and a choice of vintage wines accompany each meal. The airline cooks its own signature beef and lamb satay on board, grilling the meat over a charcoal fire.

Cost: London to Kuala Lumpur £4,592.30.

Space

Singapore Airlines: Seats that turn into beds may have revolutionised air travel but Singapore Airlines is taking the flat bed concept one step further. Their new Airbus A380 fleet, which begins operating between Singapore and Sydney this Thursday, features twelve suites designed by the luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste. Offering total privacy and unprecedented space these virtual in-flight hotel rooms contain a double bed, leather upholstered seats, a table, 23in flat-screen TV and a whole range of office facilities. Such unprecedented space will spread across the airline industry in the next few years with Emirates beginning their A380 flights next summer and British Airways and Virgin expected to take delivery of the superjumbos by 2012. For the rest of its fleet, Singapore Airlines spent £180m last year upgrading their eight customer cabins making each seat 35in wide and convertible to a full-size flat bed.

Cost: £7,000 for a return ticket from Singapore to Sydney in a, A380's double bed suite.

Pampering

Gulf Air: While the fraught parents of a howling child battle disapproving looks from fellow economy class passengers, passengers flying with Gulf Air's first class service can benefit from a whole host of spare hands designed to make your flight as stress-free as possible with even an on-board nanny service. The Bahrain-based airline first introduced their so-called Sky Nannies in 2003, making the carrier extremely popular with wealthy Arab clientele, where servants often outnumber family members in rich households. Gulf Air has included a whole service team to look after passengers from the minute you are collected to the moment you land. Chauffeurs in jet black limousines, a myriad of flight attendants, personal chefs and nannies make travelling on Gulf Air quite possibly the most pampered form of travel.

Cost: London to Dubai first class £4,596.30.

In-flight entertainment

Cathay Pacific: Described by Forbes as "the undisputed emperor of first-class carriers" Cathay Pacific provides a host of entertainment facilities to keep the insomniac flyer happily occupied. 17in flat-screen TVs (the biggest airline screens if you discount those in the new Airbus A380's double suites) play on-demand entertainment from a vast library while genuine high-speed internet allows users to surf the web almost as quickly as on the ground. Each entertainment station is equipped with noise-cancelling headsets and "Audio-Video-On-Demand" offering a choice of over 30 blockbusters and 80 popular short features viewable at any time. Dining is also on demand, with rice toast and eggs all cooked to order.

Cost: London to Sydney first class £11,269.40.

Food

Qatar Airways: From celebrity chefs to the finest quality ingredients, fine food and first class travel go hand in hand, none more so than on Qatar Airways where passengers indulge in an almighty 10-course meal. Middle Eastern main courses are complemented by caviar, lobster and tiger prawns followed by cheese from around the world and specially selected chocolate platters. Other airlines are increasingly turning to celebrity chefs to spice up their menus. Singapore Airlines recently introduced its own "International Culinary Panel" which counts celebrity heavyweights Gordon Ramsay, Georges Blanc, and Matt Moran among its advisers. Lufthansa has hired the notoriously experimental culinary expertise of Juan Amador. Michel Roux, Jancis Robinson, Mark Edwards and Shaun Hill have all been members of British Airway's own "Culinary Council".

Cost: London to Dubai first class £3,201.90.

Style

British Airways: If designer brands, haute couture and fashion are your bag, look no further than the first class service offered by British Airways. Cabins on the airliner's most expensive fares are designed by the UK interior designer Kelly Hoppen and take their inspiration from the inside of a Rolls-Royce. Customers recline in Connolly leather flat beds and cashmere fabrics and are each given a custom-made amenity bag created by designer Anya Hindmarch. Wilkinson Sword Xtra2 razors replace the painful plastic shavers of yesteryear, while cosmetics for female travellersinclude top brands such as Amanda Lacey cleansing products. The BA arrivals lounge at Heathrow, meanwhile, allows first class passengers to shed any remaining jet lag they may have at the in-house Molton Brown spa. A freshly pressed suit will be ready by the time you leave.

Cost: London to Sydney first class £7,611.40.

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