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Mile-High Luxury

May 24, 2017 | Featured, Luxury Trends

When it comes to in-flight luxury and an innovative design aesthetic, global airlines are demonstrating that the sky’s the limit

There’s never been a better time to fly in the rarefied world of first and business class. Amid heated competition for passengers willing to pay a premium for long-haul comforts, global airlines are embracing luxury brands and custom design to create a luxury experience from boarding to arrival. ‘Good design shows our customers that we care about them,’ says Peter Cooke, design lead for aircraft cabins at British Airways ( ‘The end goal is always to create truly great experiences for our customers.’ He adds that the airline’s ongoing cabin evolution is always a reflection of the brand’s DNA. ‘It’s a nod to our heritage, but should be progressive, modern and contemporary,’ he says. That is perhaps best exemplified in BA’s new-look FIRST cabins. For inspiration, the design team turned to classic British brands, a process they dubbed ‘heritage in progress’.

“Global carriers are increasingly playing off the cachet of well-known luxury brands”

Taking their cue from classic automotive interiors – Bentley, Jaguar, Aston Martin – the result is a timeless in-flight product. ‘One of our blueprint principles was design for a reason; nothing was superfluous,’ says Cooke. ‘Everything had a purpose and function was paramount.’

That translates into understated luxury in the Italian leather with twinstitch detailing. The foldaway table features a leather writing surface and intricate barley-print detailing. It’s more private club than airline seat. Electronic blinds across the double windows are managed by a single integrated control. A 21in monitor delivers in-flight entertainment in  a cabin with improved space and stowage. ‘The trend is to have a more private suite space, which we incorporated into the design,’ says Cooke.


Since Singapore Airlines ( launched its first suites aboard the A380 superjumbo, airlines have been expanding the amount – or at least perception – of private space on offer in their premium cabins.

With The Residence, Etihad ( delivered a private apartment with separate bedroom, lounge and washroom but few can afford its hefty price tag. Rather, first and business class is the battleground driving innovation at 35 000ft. Surprising, then, to see a US legacy carrier, never known for being first out the blocks, leading the charge in the business class battle. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines ( will launch its new Delta One suite in late 2017, becoming one of the first business class cabins in the world to  feature a sliding privacy door for each suite. ‘People like to have some privacy and the feeling of owning their space,’ says Ryan Graham, senior designer at Factorydesign, the London-based firm responsible for the product. ‘It is a major step forward in business  class travel.’ Along with a full-height sliding door at the entrance to each suite, the new product delivers ambient lighting and contemporary design.



Perfect privacy is a key selling point of class-leading First Cabins such as La Première on Air France; British Airways is investing millions in evolving its in-flight dining for premium passengers; the Delta One Suites are setting the bar high for American carriers; in the Middle East, the space and privacy of Etihad’s First Apartment is a hard act to follow



For British Airways, luxurious FIRST seats evoke the finest traditions of bespoke British design; Virgin Atlantic is expanding its network of trendsetting Clubhouse lounges



Glamorous in-flight bars help to woo premium passengers aboard Emirates’ A380 fleet; Cathay Pacific’s sleek new premium lounge at Heathrow T3 mirrors the Hong Kong carrier’s contemporary Asian aesthetic.



Dubai-based Emirates is also investing heavily in its offering on terra firma, spending $11 million to revamp its haven for business class passengers in Dubai International Airport’s concourse 2


Global carriers are increasingly playing off the cachet  of well-known luxury brands. In 2017 British Airways is embracing homegrown design with first class washbags by Liberty. Issued in a range of eye-catching designs, they’re filled with top-drawer skin products by Refinery and Aromatherapy Associates. In its new Polaris business class product, American carrier United ( partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue for custom-designed bedding and turned to  Soho House & Co’s Cowshed Spa to stock its amenity kits. Likewise, American Airlines ( brought Chicago brand Cole Haan on board, topping the kits  up with products from 3LAB and Clark’s Botanicals. Dubai-based Emirates (, never  a laggard in the world of luxury, taps into Irish  brand VOYA for airport lounges and onboard showers, while Italian luxury icon Bulgari took care of the revamped amenity kits. Qatar Airways, meanwhile, opted for Giorgio Armani fragrances and products  in its first-class kits.



Just as luxury brands add extra appeal to premium cabins, so the culinary offering is becoming a crucial selling point. Airlines continue to work with awardwinning chefs. Cathay Pacific ( recently partnered with chef Pino Lavarra of Michelin-starred Tosca restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong to bring Italian flair to its premium menus. United works with Bill Kim of Chicago eatery Urbanbelly. British Airways has worked with Heston Blumenthal to revamp its in-flight dining in the past.  On selected flights, Air France ( offers guests in La Premiere (first class) the choice of menus  by Joël Robuchon, Guy Martin and Daniel Boulud.


But touting chefs in toques is no longer enough. The savvy airlines  are broadening their scope to include more bespoke experiences. Emirates has been quick to flaunt its luxury credentials with its  Dom Pérignon service in-flight. The airline offers exclusive vintages onboard, complete with canapes created in collaboration with Pascal Tingaud, the chateau’s Michelin-starred Chef de Cuisine. The airline also recently reimagined the iconic horseshoe-shaped lounge/bar aboard its fleet of Airbus A380s. ‘In our latest revamp, we have taken inspiration from private yacht cabins,’ explains Tim Clark, president of Emirates. ‘We have increased the seating space, and also made it more intimate and conducive for our passengers to socialise  or enjoy our lounge service.’ Soundproof curtains separate the bar from the premium cabins,  while mood lighting, surround sound and large-screen TVs help you forget you’re at 35 000ft. Cathay Pacific took a more unusual approach recently, with the world’s first handcrafted beer brewed to enjoy at altitude. The Hong Kong Beer Co used fuggle hops, Dragon Eye fruit and honey from  Hong Kong’s New Territories to produce the Betsy Beer, a full-bodied craft ale ideal for high-flying beer lovers.


It’s not all about what’s on board. Airlines are paying as much  attention to the passengers’ experience on the ground as in the air. Cathay’s new lounge at Heathrow T3 sticks to the airline’s contemporary Asian aesthetic. Artwork is by noted Chinese artist  Han Feng and the Solo Chairs are from the airline’s lounges at  Hong Kong International Airport. The airline has also invested on home turf, expanding The Pier business class lounge. Despite seating more than 500 travellers, the design by London-based Studioilse delivers an intimate, sophisticated space. The full-service marble bar remains, complete with Cathay’s signature cocktails, while the noodle bar and tea house bring a distinctly Asian identity to this cosmopolitan globetrotting space. Although on a smaller scale, there’s a similarly international feel to the new Emirates lounge at Cape Town International Airport. As part of a global revamp of its lounges, Emirates invested almost $3 million in the facility. It’s the 14th lounge worldwide to boast the airline’s new lounge concept and incorporates Italian marble floors, leather armchairs and walnut wood finishes just a few steps from the aircraft. Back in London, British Airways is about to open a new First Wing at T5 that will similarly offer a seamless journey from check-in to the exclusive Concorde Room to the revamped FIRST cabins. Great design, they say, is invisible, and yet it’s also memorable. For Peter Cooke and airline designers worldwide the quest continues to transform just how memorable the world of premium travel can be.


1. The world’s first ‘rideable’ luggage, Modobag (, can whisk you more than 9km on a single charge and can be recharged in just an hour. It also features built-in USB ports for connectivity on the go. The fact it weighs a shade over nine kilograms shouldn’t bother too many business class travellers.

2. British luggage-maker Globe-Trotter ( has been an icon in the world of travel since 1897, with clients including Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Winston Churchill. They remain the suitcase of choice for Queen Elizabeth II. Last year they even launched a capsule collection in honour of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday. Royal Claret fibreboard matches QE II’s personal Range Rover and helicopter, while leather straps are edged in gold ink and finished with gold hardware.

3. Locally, Melvill & Moon ( bring similar credentials to the world of African safaris. Hand-stitched in their Port Elizabeth factory, their range of hard-wearing yet stylish luggage is worthy of any African adventure. If it’s good enough for Kingsley Holgate, it’s good enough for me.

Credits: Photos: iStock by Getty Images, Text: Richard Holmes

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