Life at the pointy end

First class, as Etihad Airways claims, is all about your own private universe – a retreat from the electronic mayhem created in the name of progress and from the intrusion, intentional or not, of other passengers. First is the ultimate in air travel carrying with it an ambience of achievement, entitlement …and a hefty price tag. Mostly the province of the rich and famous, what is it that these distinguished passengers get that their business class fellow travellers forego? The answer is a whole lot of privacy and much more space. The bedding is more luxurious, the amenities superior, bigger flat-screen TVs and, in some cases, an on-board shower.

However, with airlines striving to outdo each other in the business class stakes, the first class proposition can be a little harder to justify. Lie-flat beds are standard though smaller and less secluded than those in first. Airport lounges and separate check-in counters in both classes are exceptional and a limo service is often available for both.

Business class, which accounts for around seven per cent of passengers, is critical to airlines because it contributes a massive 30 per cent of revenue. Competition between full-service airlines is intense –  as winning control of the business class market guarantees success. Our profile airlines are amongst the world’s most consistently profitable because they are trendsetters in the first class as well as the business class space. 

Food and wine in both premium classes of the airlines we are reviewing are outstanding with first class just that little bit grander with such refinements as Dom Perignon Champagne being offered instead of Moët. First class passengers are treated to a seven- or eight-course restaurant-style dining experience compared to a slightly pared-down five-course version in business. Here, we take a closer look at the first and business class offerings within five airlines.

Etihad Airways

Late last year, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways introduced its First Class Apartments and Business Class Suites, both offering new levels of luxury and privacy. Its first class product, however, differs markedly from the business, particularly on its flagship A380, which is now operating into Australia. The First Apartments give passengers a huge armchair (77cm wide), a full-length ottoman or sofa where two more people can easily sit, a 61cm monitor that swings so passengers can watch from armchair or bed, a chilled minibar, a well-lit vanity unit with a big mirror, and a four-minute shower in a full-height shower room. 

The Business Class Suites do offer a high degree of comfort and privacy in the 1-2-1 configuration and being brand-new are at the cutting edge of technology and functionality.

Etihad Business Class


Emirates introduced its “Orient Express”-inspired First Class Private Suites last decade ahead of the arrival of its first A380s, which also feature spacious showers. The suites give a wonderful feeling of seclusion and the exquisite wood-grain and leather treatment drip opulence. The airline’s A380s also introduced the now-iconic bar for all premium classes – you may even encounter Jennifer Aniston!

Compared with the airline’s business class, which is the more traditional open plan, Emirates’ first class delivers on privacy, but unlike Etihad, there is less room to move about.

Emirates lounge onboard the A380

Singapore Airlines 

Singapore Airlines launched its current first and business class offerings in 2006 on its 777-300ERs and later on its A380s. First class offers a comfortable double bed on the A380 romantically adorned with Dom Pérignon and red rose petals, but with the blunt message: “No sex please, we are Singaporean.”

On the A380s, Singapore Airlines, unlike Etihad and Emirates, has first class on the main deck ahead of economy, but separated by galleys and toilets. The cabin features two enclosed double suites and four single suites against the windows. Being on the main deck of the A380 they are a bit more spacious in width than the Emirates suites, which are on the upper deck.  

Singapore Airlines offers four first class open suites, with no sliding door, on its 777-300ERs and thus the value proposition dims a little compared to its business class suites, which are outstanding. 

Singapore Airlines First Class

Cathay Pacific Airways 

Cathay Pacific Airways’ first class open suites are amongst the most spacious at 91cm wide and as such offer a distinct value add over the airline’s new award-winning business class suites. However, because of the design with much lower sides, they do not offer the same level of privacy as other airlines’ suites, although once seated you actually can’t see other passengers.

The airline’s 747-400s have nine first class suites in the exclusive nose area. The suites are angled away from each other and there are privacy screens on the aisle side and between centre seats to add to the seclusion.

Qantas Airways

Like Singapore Airlines, Qantas has its first class on the main deck of its A380s. The airline offers open suites, but with a high back and surrounds that give a significant level of privacy. Its business class seats are in sets of two and not entirely private if you’re travelling as a single. Food and wine offerings are comparable, but the width and comfort of the lie-flat bed is superior in first class.

Qantas is introducing a secluded business class suite-style product for its fleet of A330s, but hasn’t yet announced a similar upgrade of its A380s.

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