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AIRLINE REVIEW

Simply first class

A survey of airline first class seats. Who has the widest first class seats aloft, the longest bed, the most legroom and the biggest video screen? Need a first class suite? It's do-able.

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by Sara Yin

SEE ALSO First Class Seat Survey | Economy Class Seat Survey | Small Airlines Guide | Airbus vs Boeing | Frequent Flier Programs | Business Class Seats Review | Round the world fares

Singapore Airlines new first class seats on B777-300ER aircraft

Singapore Airlines new First

Thai Airways first class sleeper bed

Thai Airways

Cathay Pacific first class seat pod

Cathay Pacific

Emirates first class suite with flat bed

Emirates First Class Suite

CHANCES are you’ve forgotten what First Class was like back in the day when flying boats hopped across the Pacific on tedious, if romantic, milk runs as the vagaries of weather, onboard weight and sightseeing took their toll on business travel itineraries. Then, it was the jolting, lightning-dodging journey, not the arrival, that mattered. Things are different now. For starters, there’s no need to ooh and aah over your fully flat bed – that’s a given. Down-filled pillows, champagne selection and on-board massages are the new bottom line. More brashly, the new Singapore Airlines A-380 jets come with 12 partitioned Suites in a grade beyond the humble preserve of first class. Here double bed accommodation can be rustled up for couples with the even more seductive rustle of Givenchy linen as accompaniment. Keep it legit though. This is not Mile High Club Country. SIA Suites are configured 1-2-1 facing forward with rich brown leather for seats and ottomans and glass windows in side partitions. The space is utterly private and sensibly equipped. Inflight WiFi is available through On Air after a somewhat tedious sign in. Once your credit card details have been input you can start accessing WiFi in-flight at US$5.99 per 5MB of usage or US$9.99 for 10MB of bandwidth. Inflight internet is expensive but you'll be able to harangue the boys back in the office non-stop - and think how much that's worth.

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Airline Seat
Pitch
Bed
Width
Seat
Width
Seat
Recline
PTV
/Size
Air China
A-340

72"

-

28"

180°

10.5"
ANA
B777-300ER
B747-400

-
-

33"
33"

33"
33"

180°
180°

15"
15"
British Airways
B747

-

20"

20"

180°

8.5"
Cathay Pacific
B777-300ER
B747-400

-
-

36"
36"

24"
24"

180°
180°

17"
17"
Cathay Dragon**
A330 -Type 1

-

21"

21"

180°

10.4"
Emirates
A340-500
B777-200LR
B777-300ER

-
-
-

28"
29.3"
29.3"

20"
23.5"
23.5"

180°
180°
180°

19"
23"
23"
Gulf Air
A330-200
A340-300
A343

80"
80"
74"

25"
25"
-

-
-
21.25"

180°
180°
17.5"

Yes
Yes / 15"
Yes / 10.4"
Japan Airlines
B747-400
B777-300ER

-
-

-
-

26"
26"

180°
180°

Yes
Yes
Jet Airways
B777-300ER

-

-

30"

180°

Yes
Kingfisher
A-320
A-321

-
-

-
-

20"
20"

125°
125°

Yes / 10.6"
Yes / 10.6"
Korean Air
B747-400

-

-

30"

180°

Yes / 15"
Lufthansa
A330-300
A340-600
B747-400

-
-
-

27.6"
27.6"
27.6"

20.5"
20.5"
20.5"

180°
180°
180°

10.4"
10.4"
10.4"
Malaysia Airlines
B747-400

-

-

21.3"

180°

10.4"
Qantas Airways
B747-400

-

21.5"

21.5"

180°

8.3"
Singapore
Airlines

A380
B777-300ER
B777-300ER new


81"
67"
-


27"
-
35"


35"
35"
-


130°
130°
-


23"
24"
24"
SWISS
A330
A340

-
-

23.6"
23.6"

22"
22"

175°
175°

6.5"
9"
Thai Airways
A340-600
B747-400

-
-

-
-

22"
22"

180°
180°

10.4"
10.4"
United Airlines
B747-400

-

-

20.5"

180°

5.7"
*Approximately US$3 per minute
Bed width details are often inclusive of flattened armrests in recline position.
Some seat widths have been supplied as well with the armrests down.
** Dragonair was rebranded as Cathay Dragon in January 2016

We invited major airlines to come forth with details of their pride and joy. Some demurred, saying they are going through a refit, others blushingly informed us their first class product is no more. Alas, more and more first class cabins have been taken over by high-demand business seats. But the remaining first class ‘survivors’ have an uphill task, as flat beds and extreme pampering become the norm. Instead, differentiation is in the finer details—a rare scotch, an exclusive set of china, a lavish lounge. Gulf Air brings their chef on board. Jet Airways has sliding doors for privacy. British Airways passes out herbal sleep sprays, not perhaps part of their famous “sleep well guarantee”. Knock yourself out.

So on to our first class seat survey of international airlines serving Asia with a look at the widest first class seats, the longest beds and the fanciest throw-ins. The accompanying seat chart carries at-a-glance details of the airlines that responded to the survey and supplied us information.

We know it’s a cliché, but the Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) first class service is still well over-the-top. They offer among the widest first class seats in our survey at 35 inches in Suites (same as a single bed in Europe). Each seat is encased in a high mahogany wood shell with all sorts of bells and whistles under the hood. A humungous LCD screen with 23 glorious inches will keep passengers goggle-eyed. Another new service for night flights of at least seven hours, and day flights (of over nine hours duration) is a turndown service. At bedtime, a crew member will come by to transform your seat into a bed and fluff your down pillow. Meanwhile you can slip into Givenchy pyjamas – just don’t forget to change out of them before you disembark.

The new SIA first class seats roll out on the Singapore-London route from September 2013 on the new B777-300ER aircraft. These seats will be available later on next-gen A350s and some of the older aircraft will be overhauled in due course. Passengers can expect a "fixed-back" shell with side panels for privacy. The seat itself is a generous 35 inches wide and turns into an 82-inch fully flat bed (up from 80 inches). Padded headboards and new mattresses will ensure a good night's rest. Also with the new ensemble are adjustable lights and a 24-inch touch screen for inflight entertainment. Within a leather-lined stowage compartment are USB, eXport and HDMI ports. In-seat electric sockets to charge laptops and other devices are on hand. Inflight web connectivity is coming in stages on A380s and B777-300ERs.

Singapore Airlines in mid 2014 announced an upgrade to first class seats on B777-300ERs using a new shell design with a fixed back and sweeping side panels to create greater private space. Also expect 35-inch seat width, and a bed length of 82 roomy inches. There is an "ergonomic" cushion to support the back and an adjustable headrest. Entertainment comes by way of the signature KrisWorld with on-demand movies and music on a 24-inch video LCD screen. New aircraft will have the new seats in place while older aircraft will undergo a steady overhaul.

Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) hopes to give SIA a run for its money in the first class cabin. After an extensive facelift in 2007 on select flights from Hong Kong to Sydney, London, and North America, Cathay Pacific offers the widest first class seats and beds of the lot (for now). Upon takeoff you can extend your 24-inch seat to 36 inches, and later into a roomy bed (with extra elbow room) that’s larger than a European single. Each seat in the remarkably private 1-1 seat configuration comes with a half-length closet for your mink coat. If you can’t live without your full English breakfasts in the morning, have no fear – Cathay keeps toasters and skillets on board. Eat, drink up and lie back on that flat bed. And from 15 September 2016 the airline offered 10kg extra baggage allowance on every class. That's a lot of extra shopping with a 50kg bag allowance in first class.

Cathay Pacific's first A350 launched 1 June 2016 on the HK-Manila and HK-Taipei routes. Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh follow 1 July 2016 then HK-London Gatwick (1 September 2016). Long-haul routes follow thereafter on the 280-seat aircraft. Cathay's NextGen Airbus A350 aircraft offers WiFi connectivity (shortly over Mainland China too) at just under US$20 on its longest route with unlimited data. The aircraft also serves up high definition in-flight television. New seats are featured in business, premium economy and economy (but not as yet in first class).

India’s fast-growing Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) has introduced new first class livery on its B777-300ER flights, which fly non-direct routes from India to far-flung New York and Toronto and elsewhere. And based on a quick chart scan, the relative newcomer to longhaul travel obviously picked up some best practices from its Singaporean neighbour. Wide seats of 30 inches, a 23-inch personal video screen and, according to their press information, the “longest bed” at 83 inches. Best of all, the Jet Airways first class seats are fully enclosed suites of 26sq ft. This is not a level above first class. There is one tough decision you’ll have to make though—vintage Dom Perignon or Krug?

Regional Hongkong-based carrier Cathay Dragon (www.dragonair.com) is the rebranded Dragonair that changed name in January 2016. It is like the tiny fighting machine in this league of international heavyweights. But despite its shorter routes, this Cathay Pacific associate is hanging onto its first class cabin for the foreseeable future. A 21-inch-wide seat doesn’t get any wider when the bed is reclined 180 degrees. Meals are arranged on Japanese bone china exclusively designed by Narumi. Yes, you’re rich and you care about these things.

From Tokyo to Europe or North America, Japanese market leader All Nippon Airways (www.ana.co.jp) is a solid choice. ANA offers one of the roomier seats in the pack, with 33 inches of wiggle-room for your behind. The private, semi-enclosed pods are designed in sleek silver, navy and wood-grain finishing with lots of hidden storage compartments. You won’t get a hard bed to sleep on, given the down-filled duvet and pillow. A long-haul flight on ANA is also a good chance to sample regional Japanese delicacies such as purple sea urchin and salmon caviar on rice.

{As soon as your well-heeled feet hit the ground, a THAI Airways representative will escort you right through the heaving scrum

But if puffer fish sashimi is what you’re really craving, then hop onto Japan Airlines (www.jal.com). JAL has been enhancing its first class cabins. In 2008 JAL will serve a rare bottle of bubbly, Champagne Salon 1997. If that means anything to you, perhaps you’ll appreciate the fact that their new Skysleeper Solo seats were upholstered in beige leather from Italy’s Poltrona Frau, which accessorizes luxury cars. The armrests don’t drop down when the bed is in place but seats are considerably roomy at 26 inches. Aesthetic attention has also been paid to the personal faux-marble dining tables and cute shoe compartment. The selection of in-flight entertainment on the JAL Magic-III video-on-demand has doubled and passengers can tune out by slipping on spiffy, noise-cancelling Bose headphones.

Some of the best cosmetics and foods come from Switzerland, and national carrier SWISS (www.swiss.com) makes this known in its first class cabins. Toiletries come from anti-ageing demigod La Prarie while menus are created chefs from celebrity ski haven St Moritz. Pullout dining tables encourage an extra guest to join you, or just space for a lot of food. Each seat in the private 1-2-1 configuration is partially enclosed in a beige and navy pod for a decent amount of privacy. When you fully recline your flat bed you lose the armrests and gain a few inches of elbow space to a reasonable 23.6 inches.

Hospitality is king on Thai Airways International (www.thaiair.com). While its 22-inch-wide first class seats have room to grow, the on-ground services are what appear to set this carrier apart. Almost as soon as your two well-heeled feet hit the airport curb, a Thai Airways host will escort you to the First Class lounge for exclusive check-in and, well, lounging. You can read more on their lounge below but trust us, it ain’t too shabby. Seats are in a 1-2-1 configuration. When it’s time for bed, slip into your pyjamas and pamper yourself with Bulgari amenities. Food-wise Thai Airways often tops airline food surveys and in first class, their culinary prowess is clear: passengers can choose from 22 menus or request special diets. However these choices must all be made pre-boarding.

THAI's WiFi rates on Sky Connect start at US$ 4.99 for 5MB. Moving up to 10MB of browsing costs US$8.99, and 20MB usage is US$16.99. A larger 30MB plan is available for business travellers at US$24.99. Wi-Fi is available on the A380-800 flights to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and on some A330-300 flights from Bangkok to Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kolkata, Taipei, Yangon, Hong Kong, and Dubai.

From New York to Zurich, those seeking a bit of Malaysian sun will inevitably come across Malaysian national carrier, Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com). Its B747-400 planes from Kuala Lumpur come with bright red and blue first class seats in auxiliary (paired) configurations. The 21.3-inch wide seats become even wider when unfolded into a full-flat bed. If the muse strikes, MAS also offers first class members stationery to pen a thoughtful letter back home. In-flight service is very well regarded on MAS, which has picked up several accolades along the way.

Korean Air Kosmo Bed

Korean Air Kosmo Sleeper Seat

United Airlines first class seat

United Airlines

ANA first class seat pod

All Nippon Airways

British Airways first class sleeper bed

British Airways

As the official sponsor of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it’s no wonder Air China (www.airchina.com) overhauled its tired-looking first class cabins. Fully reclining sleeper seats on China to Europe or North America flights may give you hope for some shut-eye. Like Thai Airways, Air China will ask you to choose your cuisine pre-boarding. With 18 options including Wuxi pork spare rib and Sichuan prawn, they hope you like Chinese. Seats aren’t stingy either – at 28 inches wide you can easily fit two pint-sized Chinese acrobats.

Gulf Air (www.gulfair.com) rides on the belief that a happy stomach equates to a happy passenger. They bring a ‘Sky Chef’ onboard to ensure food is fresh and cooked-to-order. If you brought them along you can leave the tots with Gulf’s ‘Sky Nanny’. Seats are fairly roomy, at 25 inches, which can be fully reclined and unfolded. However Gulf is a tad behind its competition in terms of entertainment, with video-on-demand available on select aircraft only.

On Emirates (www.emirates.com), you’ll get to experience some serious privacy and pampering in a first class suite on certain newer aircraft. Trimmed in gold and mahogany, the suites allow space to comfortably toss and turn. The suites also come with a touch screen remote where you can order meals, close your doors and flip on a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. Clearly, they don’t want you to lift a manicured fingernail during your entire long-haul journey. On older aircraft you’ll have to make do with the older first class suites with slightly more modest sleeper seats but you’ll find two partitions to block out your prying neighbours. The Emirates B777-300ER offers 23.5 inches of seat width, with a perfectly horizontal flat bed (bed width is 29.30 inches) and a humungous 23-inch personal TV screen. The other advantage of flying Emirate first class is the Web access at US$3 per minute. There are power outlets for your laptop and a UK plug will need an adaptor.

Call us imaginative, but stepping into a Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) first class cabin recalls a scene from Harry Potter—when Harry first enters the Hogwarts School of Wizardry. That’s because the design scheme in Lufthansa is dark blue with gold stars and moons as blanket patterns. Seats are comparatively narrow at 20.5 inches but after the bed reclines your elbows get almost 8 inches more. Passengers don’t receive silky pyjamas but a practical, long-sleeve polo instead. Food and alcohol pairings were made by important sounding taste buds from the likes of star chef Paul Bocuse in France and Hemant Oberoi in India.

When flying to the ends of the earth – Australia – Qantas Airways (www.qantas.com.au) is the only carrier with first class. An espresso machine onboard ensures you can stay up all night watching your video-on-demand if you like. We’d rather sleep. Pyjamas, French toiletries and a lamb’s wool blanket are on hand to help. The seat width is less than the survey average and armrests don’t drop down, but your tummy will be happy. Along with the usual seven-course meal you can select nibbles from a lavish tasting menu, where you might find items like Black Pearl Steerling Caviar or Shitake Wontons in Onion Broth. Gulp.

Indian carrier Kingfisher (www.flykingfisher.com) allows passengers to sprawl out in a dedicated first class cabin. Flights never last too long domestically, so Kingfisher is forgiven for not having a flat bed. However they do provide a personal valet to accompany you through the zoo that is an airport in India. They meet you at the curb. Video-on-demand entertainment in English and Hindi will let you get your fix of Bollywood and Hollywood. Take your pick.

We suspect British Airways (www.britishairways.com) had Posh Spice in mind when designing its first class experience. An exclusive Anya Hindmarch toiletry kit filled with Kiehl’s items? Way Posh. As one of the pioneers of the flat-bed, BA has spent the last decade or so adding to this first-class staple. Like SIA, there’s a turndown service on night flights or those over ten hours, where a crew member will drop your armrests and bring out the linens. You can change into a set of redesigned pyjamas (think blue-and-camel colour motifs) and slippers, before a spritz of your own Aroma Therapeutics ‘Sleep Enhancer’ spray. “Light” dining options such as lobster fish cake or pan-seared cod may prevent high-altitude indigestion, though there’s an extensive “normal” menu as well.

Maybe it’s an American thing, but United Airlines (www.united.com) is a couple of years behind the Asians and Europeans when it comes providing a competitive first class experience. Upgrades were being introduced in 2007 but it’ll take two years for all B-767, B-777 and B-747 aircrafts to be refitted. In the meantime, most long haul passengers will squint at a screen measuring 5.7 inches diagonally and squirm in chairs 20.5 inches wide. Okay fine, it’s not that bad. We’re just speaking comparatively. And to United’s credit the upcoming first class seats will be a vast improvement. Seats will become three inches wider and LCD screens will nearly triple in size to 15.4 inches. Partitioning will be raised above eye level so you can avoid awkward glances from your fellow travellers. Patience.

{Lufthansa doesn't have just a first class lounge in Frankfurt, it has an entire terminal. Nap, smoke cigars or shop and think about how to get back at your boss

Korean Air’s (www.koreanair.com) new first class livery (as of 2007) is wider and classier than the tired old green flat beds. The new First Class Kosmo Sleeper Seat is an individual unit in celadon green. The fabric seats are 30 inches wide and add stretch-room when deployed as a bed. Partitioning for each pod is low but you can pull out a small one on the side to pick your teeth in private. First class passengers will also find new tableware underneath their delicate kimchi morsels. And finally, Korean Air has added video-on-demand entertainment packed with enough Korean dramas to make you weep nonstop.

Several carriers are also funnelling more money into the pre-boarding experience: the lounge. Heck, can you see Posh Spice lugging her own duffel? Fortunately most carriers offer curbside assistance, straight to your lounge.

Naturally, the airport at each carrier’s headquarters will contain the largest lounge although several airlines recently launched fancy offshoots elsewhere. Lufthansa doesn’t have just a first class lounge in its hometown of Frankfurt, Germany. It has an entire terminal. Check-in, take a nap, smoke cigars, lounge in the bar or even do some duty-free shopping here. They just built a (slightly smaller) lounge in Munich as well. The new Qantas lounges in Sydney and Melbourne contain libraries (don’t worry about a library card). And you might not want to leave your flight after experiencing the Thai Airways lounge, where an entire Thai spa and gym are at your disposal.

Well, that’s our first class seat survey, for now. Watch this space for growing legroom and the widest seats in the first class cabin for some red-eye shuteye.

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