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Comfort Level

Sep 1, 2009
2009 / September 2009

Comfort LevelIt is no secret that airlines and their first-and business-class cabins are struggling in today’s difficult economy. The airline industry created some hurdles for passengers over the past 12 months — from checked bag fees to reduced routes and capacities. But, in the world of premium-class travel, one goal remains intact: delivering high-quality service and innovative premium products at competitive prices.

Here at Global Traveler, we know our dedicated readers continue to travel in first and business class. As entrepreneurs, small business owners and executives, you know nothing keeps business alive in a down economy like face-to-face meetings. And so, as you continue to travel, we continue to bring you the information

you need — and want — about the offerings in premium travel.

For the fifth consecutive year, GT staff culled through mounds of information to compile the comprehensive charts on these pages. We asked, and the airlines answered. Our charts include information on configuration, entertainment, seat width, seat pitch, recline and amenities.

It happens every year. Our extensive research — which includes questioning airlines, researching, scouring the Internet and, at times, performing complicated geometry — turns up perplexing bits of information.

Seat pitch is always a source of confusion. Pitch is defined as the distance between the back of your headrest and the back of the headrest in front of you when the seats are fully upright. Pitch determines how much room passengers have when sitting upright or when reclining and attempting to sleep. A seat must have a pitch of at least 70 inches in order to be a true “lie-flat” bed of 180 degrees. That estimate is based on the average male height of 5 feet 9 inches. Taller passengers may want to consider British Airways, United Airlines, V Australia, Air India, Hainan Airlines or any of the others with a pitch of 70 inches or greater.

As with every rule, there are exceptions. Singapore Airlines, with a 51- to 58-inch pitch, offers a truly flat bed because of its unique design. The “wide seat concept” considers the traditional pear shape of the human body and compartmentalizes the head and foot areas. When the seat is turned into a bed, the body juts, head and feet shift into smaller areas, and passengers can enjoy a fully flat 76-inch-long bed.

Or take Air Canada. The herringbone design is another exception to the pitch rule. The unique configuration creates a suite-like atmosphere. Each seat is angled outward and is smaller at the bottom. (The layout looks similar to the flippers in a pinball machine or the pattern skis make in fresh snow.) While Air Canada’s pitch from headrest to headrest is only 44 inches, its recline is a true 180 degrees because there is no seat directly in front of the seat bottom. This exception also applies to Delta Air Lines.

This is the year of the consumer. In an effort to entice people to travel, airlines are offering sales fares never before seen. First- and business-class fares are at an all-time low. So, if the stats on these pages appeal to you, why wait? There has never been a better time to test the first- and businessclass cabins of airlines around the world. And we’re even willing to bet that what’s offered will keep you coming back as the economy continues to recover.

North America

North American travelers can be a tough crowd. After all, with the plethora of budget carriers available for domestic travel, the major U.S.
carriers have had to work hard to lure people on board. Add to that skyrocketing fuel prices, the recession, the H1N1 flu outbreak and safety concerns, and it’s been a tough year.

Within the last year, four of the major domestic airlines have formed partnerships. Delta and Northwest have merged, creating an airline superpower. Continental has left SkyTeam and teamed up with United Airlines and Star Alliance.

A new twist in the past year was the addition of in-flight wireless Internet service. Pioneered by American Airlines, others followed suit. A quick comparison of our 2008 and 2009 surveys shows quite a few more “yes” answers in the WiFi On Board column. Alaska Airlines offers the service in its first-class cabins, as does Virgin America. AirTran completed a fleet-wide installation of the service, making it the first North American airline to outfit its entire fleet.

In addition to introducing WiFi on board, American Airlines welcomed several new Boeing 737-800s into its fleet and completed the installation of the lie-flat, next-generation business-class seats on all of its Boeing 777s and 767s. Plans for new fleet additions and additional WiFi installation continue through 2012. The carrier plans to weather the economic storm while continuing to bring customers a top-of-the-line product.

“American Airlines remains upbeat and confident in our plans to see our way through this environment,” said Charley Wilson, managing director, external communications and international advertising. “And that’s because we are fixated on two key customer objectives: first, to be the airline that best delivers what premium customers value and, second, to be the airline that delivers fair value to all non-premium customers.”


It has certainly been a tumultuous year for European carriers. Late 2008 through 2009 saw the demise of several single-class airlines serving the United States and Europe. British Airways launched OpenSkies, a two-class (Biz Bed and Biz Seat) airline flying between Paris (ORY) and New York (JFK/EWR). OpenSkies took over single-class carrier L’Avion and, just as quickly as they announced flights between the United States and Amsterdam (AMS), they eliminated the route.

Also within the past year, two large European carriers — Malév Hungarian Airlines and Czech Airlines — ceased operations to the United States. Lufthansa is now part owner of Brussels Airlines and is preparing a complete revamp of their premium cabins for next year, while British Airways and Iberia Airlines stalled on talks of a merger. Phew, there’s a lot to keep straight.

Swiss International Airlines introduced a complete firstand business-class redesign in 2009. The first completely refitted business-class flight departed New York (JFK) on April 20. Traditional Swiss innovation brought the first aircushion seats to the world of flight. The lightweight seats make the aircraft more fuel-efficient; they are completely adjustable and definitely more comfortable. Outfitting of the first- and business-class cabins continues through at least 2011.

LOT Polish Airlines is one of the Eastern European carriers still serving the United States. According to Marek Serafin, general manager for the Americas, the airline is concerned with improving its product during these times. In July, LOT launched a new business-class menu featuring cuisine prepared by a popular Polish chef.

Pacific Rim

Asia continues to be an ever-expanding marketplace, with more tourists interested in visiting the region and more airlines interested in serving those customers. In late 2008, Hainan Airlines launched service from Seattle (SEA), and Singapore Airlines launched a unique business-class-only flight. Vietnam Airlines is in talks to join SkyTeam and expand its worldwide offerings.

A variety of low-cost carriers have begun popping up in China, creating more competition for the country’s major airlines. Air China, however, prefers to look at the positives.

“Although there have been many negative impacts, opportunities parallel as well,” said Zhihang Chi, general manager. “Most importantly, the Chinese economy is maintaining a steady increase, ensuring robust demand for travel. Non-stop charters across the Taiwan Straits are creating a new premium market.”

The airline is fresh from an $80 million overhaul of its long-haul aircraft. Updates include a lie-flat bed in first class, a new 170-degree reclining business-class seat and interesting new on-the-ground luxury amenities.

Asiana Airlines is continuously improving its product. The carrier removed an entire business-class row to improve comfort in the cabin. Its Boeing 777 business class was upgraded to include 32 seats with 60-inch pitch and 167-degree recline, while its Boeing 747 first class was updated to include 10 sleeper seats with 86-inch pitch. And, as usual, high service standards remain at the forefront of every Asiana improvement.

“Regardless of economic hardships, Asiana passengers’ paid comforts are never compromised, but always improved,” said Steve Koo, advertising director. “We improve the product not only by financially improving the physical product, but also by adding personal heart to the overall delivery of cabin service.”

Richard Branson’s Virgin group launched V Australia, offering flights between Los Angeles (LAX), Sydney (SYD) and Brisbane (BNE).

Qantas, however, remains the largest carrier in the Pacific. Over the past year, cosmetic adjustments have updated the airline’s seats, and a new website has made booking trips to Australia more user-friendly than ever. Wally Mariani, vice president North America, noted the frequency of the airline’s A380 flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and Sydney (SYD) will be increased to daily in November.

Air Pacific has faced some challenges as Fiji competes with other leisure destinations. The airline canceled its service to Tokyo but looks forward to its new Hong Kong (HKG) route, launching December 2009. A new codeshare agreement with Alaska Airlines will provide connections between Canada and Nadi (NAN). In March, Air Pacific completed a 747-400 refresh and upgrade program. The refreshed cabins feature upgraded entertainment systems; new lighting, seat covers, carpets and curtains; and updated galleys and lavatories.

No matter what the economy brings, “at all times, Air Pacific does not place any compromises on product, customer convenience or safety,” said Candy Andrus, general manager.

Latin America

Due to a strong 2008, TAM solidified its place as a leading airline in Latin America. The region is largely served (from the United States) by North American carriers, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Avianca and LAN.

TAM joined Star Alliance in late 2008. The integration process will not be fully complete until early 2010, but the membership marks a huge step toward global access for the airline. Additionally, the airline launched five international routes. Two flights from Rio de Janeiro (GIG) serve Miami (MIA) and New York (JFK), while new routes from São Paulo (CGH) include Orlando (MCO) and Lima, Peru (LIM). Service from Brasilia (BSB) to Buenos Aires (AEP) was also launched.

In 2008, Global Traveler revamped survey categories to include “Date of Last Major Cabin Overhaul.” When you take a gander at the charts, note all TAM aircraft are marked “New” in the category. With a policy dedicated to operating a young fleet and providing additional comfort to passengers, the airline took delivery of four Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. According to José Sampol, commercial manager, the new aircraft offer three more spacious cabins and are more energy efficient.

Middle East/Africa

Middle East airlines have also seen some struggles in the past year, including the ever-present competition in the region.

Robin Middleton, regional general manager of the Americas, Etihad Airways, shared some of the airline’s recent developments. In addition to four new destinations in 2009, the airline is launching non-stop service from Chicago on Sept. 2. Etihad’s new Terminal 3 at Abu Dhabi International (AUH) introduced a concierge-style check-in for premium travelers to complement its brand-new first-class cabin.

The new cabin, slated to be unveiled this month, features individual suites with extra-large, fully flat seats. Other amenities to enjoy on board include built-in massagers, increased storage, iPod connectivity and added privacy. The South African travel market is similar to the market throughout the rest of the world. But that doesn’t mean South African Airways has made any changes to its level of service.

“While demand for travel is down, we haven’t slowed down in our efforts to win over new customers, to maintain our current customers, to convince them to travel to South Africa or to choose to travel with South African Airways,” said Marc Cavaliere, executive vice president of the Americas.

Over the last year, to entice travelers to choose SAA, the airline has introduced non-stop morning service from New York (JFK), increased onboard entertainment options, offered innovative menu selections and continued to focus on service.


In order to bring you the most comprehensive information on first- and business-class services, Global Traveler spent months contacting airlines, scouring for independent research and conducting brief interviews with airline executives.

We reached out directly to each airline for the information in our charts. In the event we received no response, we completed the survey with information provided last year and obtained through independent research on airline websites and other reputable sites, such as SeatGuru.com and SeatExpert.com. All surveys completed through our research are clearly marked. Any information marked “EST” was changed by Global Traveler due to inconsistencies between pitches and recline.

So, as you choose which airline to fly on your next journey, enjoy your first- and business-class experiences. Happy travels from one set of global travelers to another.


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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