Flights Of Fancy

David Owen chronicles the evolution of luxury air travel:

In the early nineties, the best seats on airplanes were still just seats, even if they reclined almost all the way back. Then, in 1995, in first class on some long flights, British Airways introduced seats that turned into fully flat beds, and within a relatively short period airborne sleeping became a potent competitive weapon. The carriers that fly the wealthiest passengers on the longest routes have been especially aggressive about adding comforts, in both first and business (while also often shrinking the seats in economy and squeezing them closer together). A first-class passenger on the upper deck of some Lufthansa 747s gets to hop back and forth between a reclining seat and an adjacent full-length bed. On some of Singapore Airlines’ A380s, a couple travelling in first can combine two “suites” to create an enclosed private room with a double bed and sliding doors. On some flights on Emirates, first-class passengers who make a mess of the treats in their personal minibar can tidy up with a shower before they land.

But the real money is in business class:

Premium cabins contribute disproportionately to an airline’s economic performance—both directly, through higher ticket prices, and indirectly, by solidifying relationships with big-budget customers who fly all the time. Business class is especially valuable; first class can be problematic, because first-class ticket holders require extra pampering and won’t tolerate overbooking. Web sites like SeatGuru enable picky fliers to compare seats on many routes, and keeping such fliers loyal is expensive: new first-class seating units can cost more than half a million dollars each. Jami Counter, a senior director at TripAdvisor, which owns SeatGuru, told me, “The true international first-class cabin actually keeps shrinking, because the international business-class cabin has become such a great product, to the point where you’re differentiating more on things like food and service.”