For most of us, the thought of flying conjures images of long lines, cramped seats and questionable food choices — if we are lucky enough to get some food.
But for those who can afford it, airlines are going out of their way to add amenities in their first-class and business-class cabins. New seats, new entertainment systems and a bevy of additional services unheard of just a few years ago are popping up as airlines battle each other for lucrative customers.
Welcome to the latest round of airline seat wars.
International airlines have long prided themselves on having an extra level of service. But now some American carriers, fearing that they might lose some of their most-profitable customers, are starting to step up their own efforts.
In October 2006, Delta announced its intention to be the first U.S. carrier to offer lie-flat seats in its international business class. American Airlines introduced its plans for upgraded seats in March of this year and United unveiled its plans last month.
United's "First Suite" offers a 180-degree lie-flat seat, a five-course meal, a laptop power source, a personal video screen with nine channels and a videotape player with a choice of 14 feature films.
Sound nice right?
Yes, but it is nothing compared to what some international carriers are doing.
Emirates Airlines plans to spend $50 million in the next 18 months to upgrade its first-class product. Its new in-flight entertainment system, which will also be available in coach, will offer more than 600 channels of entertainment on demand. First-class screens will be a whopping 23 inches.
Singapore Airlines has a news system called KrisWorld. Passengers can choose from 100 movies, 150 television shows, 700 CDs, 22 radio stations and 65 games.
Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., said that airlines are putting their money where the profit is. On some routes, a first-class ticket can go for $10,000 or more. Airlines will do anything to attract those types of customers.
That said, Mann is still not convinced that it is the best business model for airlines — all the games, videos and toys are nice, but they are not what the business traveler needs.
"You didn't go to play, you went to work," Mann said.
As for the beds, Mann believes that they "give you the appearance" that you will get a good night's sleep and be fresh for your meeting. But that it's still not a great night's sleep.
The airlines choose to roll out their best amenities on the most-profitable routes.
"It's basically the very, very long hauls and the very, very deep pockets," Mann said.
That means flights to the world's financial markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, London and Paris.
The latest trend is to go to big pods with privacy screens or even private rooms with sliding doors.
"It's everything that an airplane doesn't want to be. These things are incredibly heavy. They are cumbersome," Mann said. "It guess it's exclusivity. I think first-class gets you there, but I guess some people think you need to go to walls until you really get it."
Change Takes Time
Upgrading seats is not an easy task.
First, an airline has to come up with a concept and design it, but designing something for an airplane has many extra hurdles. Cost and size are factors, but so is weight and compatibility with the rest of the aircraft's systems.
Airplane seats also need to clear a rigorous set of flammability and safety tests.
It can then take several months or even more than a year to manufacture the seats.
But even once the airline gets the seats it doesn't mean passengers will immediately see the benefits.
Airlines only make money when their planes are in the sky so they prefer to upgrade seats and other amenities only when an aircraft comes in for its routine maintenance. That means it can take months for new seats to appear throughout an airline's fleet.
Joe Ferry, the head of design for Virgin Atlantic, said a constant struggle when designing new seats is to make sure that there are still the same number of paying passengers in a section.
"It's easy to just take off seats and give them more space," Ferry said.
But it isn't that easy.
When Ferry and his team of 15 designers work on a new concept, they test ideas with the flight crew and with some of their frequent fliers.
The seat must also go through rigorous crash tests, flammability tests and a list of other checkoffs.
Virgin's upper-class service — something it calls a first-class product at a business-class price — is not just about being comfortable, but about being hip. There are sharp colors on the plane, massages, meals on demand and for customers who don't want to spend the entire flight in their seats, there is a bar on its 747s to mingle at.
So how much does Virgin watch out for its competition's latest products?
"We keep an eye on what they are doing," Ferry said, "but it certainly doesn't dictate what we're doing because we like to think we're so much further in advance of all the other airlines that our own driving factor should be ourselves."
The Next Step?
Singapore Airlines, one of the leaders in service and amenities, used to upgrade its seats every seven years or so.
"That cycle has become shorter," said James Boyd, vice president of public relations for the airline.
The airline has new seats on its long-haul routes such as New York-to-Singapore or Los Angeles-to-Singapore — the longest distance and duration flights available today.
But many airline watchers are waiting for Oct. 15 when Singapore takes delivery of the first Airbus A-380.
Boyd won't say much about it except that "this is going to be a complete rethink of air travel."
Airbus recommends installing 555 seats on the new jumbo jet. Singapore will have fewer than 480.
But there's more to a flight than a good seat. Singapore Airlines prides itself on its service.
While most airline flight attendants undergo six weeks of training, Singapore Airlines has a five-month program. It is so rigorous, Boyd said, that only 10 percent of those who apply graduate from the training.
The Ego Play
Mann said when it comes down to it, "I don't think anybody really chooses" an airline because of the amenities.
"They're really chosen because they're the only guys that fly nonstop to Doha or Dubai or wherever it may be," he said. "You're buying based upon nonstop service and to some degree global [frequent flier] alliance affiliation."
Some of the newer Middle-Eastern airlines, such as Qatar Airways and Emirates, are "spending a ton on image," Mann said.
"There's some ego stuff involved here. It is a highly visible industry. If you're going to try to play in a game where you expect people to drop $10,000 one way to fly some place, you really have to have — at least what you think — is a top quality product," he said.
But the irony of all of this is that the people who buy these sorts of tickets are opting out of the scheduled airline system all together, according to Mann. Instead they are buying time on private jets where they don't have to deal with airport security, lost baggage or lengthy delays at major airports.
"What [the airlines are] really trying to do," Mann said, "is make a last gasp at people who are on the fence ready to jump for the business jet."