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For the seriously rich, 'suite class' is the new luxury

It was Emirates which brought about a paradigm shift in luxury air travel, starting its First Class Suite in 2003 on ultra-long haul flights out of Dubai, aboard its Airbus A340-500s and its Boeing 777s to New York in the west and Sydney in the east.

Sky is the Limit

Sky is the Limit

AIR TRAVEL

I'm in the hi-fidelity first class traveling set And I think I need a Lear Jet

Not long ago, as these lines from the Pink Floyd 1973 hit song Money underline, a private jet was the epitome of luxurious air travel. (Lear Jet was a well known manufacturer of such jets at the time, and has since been acquired by Bombardier.) Commercial airline seats were cramped, the food served tasteless, the travel experience - especially on long-distance flights - a crashing bore. There was no question of a bed to lie down on during overnight flights, even for the wealthiest. Only private jets allowed them privacy, comfort and some space to move about in.

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EMIRATES PRIVATE SUITE


Economy class travel remains much the same more than four decades later (if anything, it has become more crowded), but for high net worth individuals it is a different story. In the last few years a number of airlines have raised traveling comfort to amazing levels, way beyond the few extra amenities Business Class traditionally provided. Hiring or owning a private jet is no longer the only option for the well heeled. "Over the years, airlines have become much more than just a mode of transport" says Essa Sulaiman Ahmad, Vice President (India & Nepal), Emirates Airline. "Healthy competition in this sector has led to some great innovations, bringing elements of private jet travel into commercial aviation."


EMIRATES PRIVATE SUITE

Facilities include fine dining on demand, and shower spas

Private screens with choice of over 2,000 channels of entertainment

Electrically operated door, reading lights, work desk with illuminated vanity mirror, mini-bar and wardrobe


Though mind bogglingly expensive compared to an economy seat on the same flight, the ultra luxurious category can be either cheaper or expensive than chartering a private jet. An Etihad Airways return flight from Delhi to London, for instance, traveling by its much talked of The Residence would cost about Rs 29.16 lakh per passenger. For a group of eight, the bill would amount to Rs 2.33 crore, while that for hiring an eight-seat jet for the same trip would be Rs 59.27 lakh, or about one-fifth. (No doubt, an economy class ticket on the same Emirates flight would cost Rs 22,000 to Rs 46,000.) Private jets still offer immense flexibility, enabling the user to take off and land at will, but on all other counts, high-end airline seats more than match them.

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THE RESIDENCE BY ETIHAD


It was in fact Emirates which brought about a paradigm shift in luxury air travel, starting its First Class Suite in 2003 on ultra-long haul flights out of Dubai, aboard its Airbus A340-500s and its Boeing 777s to New York in the west and Sydney in the east. For the first time an airline offered the privacy of a small room with electrically operated doors and a comfortable seat which turned into a full length bed at the press of a button. Today, these suites - 14 of them on each aircraft - are available on all Emirates flights to Australia and the Americas, as well as most of those to Europe and the East, including Mumbai and Kolkata. Indeed, Emirates is the only airline so far to provide this category on its Kolkata flights.


THE RESIDENCE BY ETIHAD

Living room, including twoseater reclining sofa, in-seat massage, and mini-bar

Bedroom, including wide double bed, TV monitor with dual noise-cancelling headsets and fulllength wardrobe

Personal toilet, personal butler, and luxury limousine transfers


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SINGAPORE AIRLINES' SUITES


In 2007 Singapore Airlines initiated another crucial upgrade by providing full length beds, as distinct from convertible seats, inside the 'Suites Class' rooms it created on Airbus A380 flights from Singapore to Sydney. Since then, all its 19 A380s have been configured with a Suites Class section and fly numerous routes, including Singapore-Delhi and Singapore-Mumbai. "We started Airbus A380 commercial services to India in May 2014," says David Lau, Manager (India), Singapore Airlines. "We have received overwhelming response from Indian passengers for our Suites Class category."


SINGAPORE AIRLINES' SUITES

The cabin features sliding doors and window blinds

Book the cook allows fl iers to preorder gourmet main course

Champagne, Grand Cru red burgundy and Second Growth Bordeaux are served


A host of international carriers - Air France, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, and more - have since followed suit. Air France, for instance, started its La Premiere class in 2014, providing four private suites on its Boeing 777 flights between Paris and Dubai, Jakarta, New York and Singapore. Offering perhaps the highest degree of comfort and convenience, however, is Emirates' key rival Etihad Airways, which started a category called 'The Residence' on its Airbus A380 flights in 2014. The Residence provides a complete suite - living room, bedroom with double bed and en suite bathroom - along with a dedicated flight attendant, called a butler, trained at the Savoy Butler Academy in London.

Airline luxury products are compact no doubt - even Etihad's Residence suite takes up a mere 125 square feet - but they are crammed with luxury and conveniences. The Residence living room has a Poltrona Frau leather two-seater sofa with ottoman, two dining tables, a chilled drinks cabinet and a 32-inch flat screen TV. The bedroom is furnished with delicate fabric, its double bed sporting natural fibre mattresses covered by Egyptian cotton sheets. The Emirates private suite includes a mini-bar, wardrobe and work station, which with its built-in, illuminated mirror, can also double as a dressing table. The seat has an electrically-operated leg rest, headrest, armrests and a multi-mode massage system with adjustable speed and intensity.

The meals too are a far cry from what cattle class gets. At Air France, the menu has been chosen and prepared by Michelin starred chefs and includes caviar and foie gras. Champagne flows freely. At Singapore Airlines, passengers can have any dishes they would like to have on board provided they inform the airline what they want 24 hours in advance. The wines and spirits that complement the meals have been chosen by a panel of experts. Emirates makes it a point to offer a variety of regional Indian cuisine. For luxury travelers, most airlines have no fixed meal times or mass serving - they can summon a flight attendant to get them food whenever they want, as often as they like.

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AIR FRANCE'S LA PREMIERE


Some airlines provide chauffeured luxury cars passengers can use to reach or leave the airport; some have private check in and lounges for them before they board. On the flight, some provide an exclusive lobby and some have shower spas. WiFi and a variety of entertainment channels are a given everywhere. Emirates has a choice of 2,000 channels, including several Indian ones. Singapore Airlines provides background noise cancelling headphones.


AIR FRANCE'S LA PREMIERE

Each suite designed with leather, woven fabrics and suede.

A large fullyfl at bed; a sleek console with integrated storage compartments; large table and an ottoman for inviting a guest during the trip.


Airlines, however, were markedly reluctant to provide details of occupancy in their ultra luxury products, the cost of creating their customized interiors and the other appurtenances of luxury, or the return on them. But given the crowded global aviation market, the return could be more than financial. "Such products help airlines create a positive image, which has a rub-off effect on the other segments of the airline," says Neelesh Hundekari, Partner at consultancy AT Kearney. "Also, some could successfully upgrade their business class customers to these high-end levels."

Though hard data is unavailable, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Indians have not lagged behind in using these luxury offerings. "As a regular traveler on the Delhi-Singapore route, I find the (Singapore Airlines) suites have an ample number of takers from India," says Ankur Bhatia, Executive Director, Bird Group and Director, Amadeus India. "This is especially the case with people traveling on to Australia." If the same cannot be said of Etihad's Residence, it could well be due to the difficulties Indians face in getting aboard. "Etihad's apartments are a great product but Indians have to first travel to Abu Dhabi to catch it," adds Bhatia. "It's not the full experience from here. The Emirates' suites may not be as opulent but one can use that product from India itself."

The Indian attraction for luxury flying is hardly surprising. Despite the downturn, the number of ultra high net worth households in India has risen at a compound annual rate of 20 per cent in the past five years to reach 137,100 in 201415, according to a Kotak Wealth Management report, Gliding on Optimism, released earlier this year. Even the private jet market in India has been growing in size and popularity.

With inputs from Chitra Narayanan

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