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."
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.