Asian Airlines: Sky's the Limit for Luxury

Carriers such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Emirates are taking the pampering of first-class passengers to a whole new level

While passengers in the U.S. have learned to expect less and less from their in-flight experience due to budget airlines and cost-cutting at full-service carriers, airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Emirates continue to raise the bar for pampered passengers. And with Boeing (BA) predicting Asia Pacific carriers will account for about one-third of aircraft orders in dollar terms over the next 20 years, manufacturers of everything from in-flight espresso machines to pneumatic seats to air bags are looking to the region for growth.

Visitors to the Asian Aerospace International Expo & Congress, which took place in Hong Kong last week, had an excellent opportunity to sample a broad array of products and services promising untold luxury and convenience for business and first-class passengers in the region. They also got a chance to tour the Airbus A380, the world's largest airplane, which is set to take its maiden commercial flight operated by Singapore Airlines between Singapore and Sydney, Australia, on Oct. 25. (A pair of seats in first class for this flight sold for more than $100,000 on eBay (EBAY) as part of a charity auction run by the airline.)

True, unlike the better-known Paris and Farnborough air shows, the Asian Expo had no screaming fighter jets or other aerial performances that normally draw crowds. Indeed, the idea of a static aircraft display doesn't exactly get one's blood rushing. Still, the show had plenty of delightfully reclining moments for this visitor.

It's Suites, Not Seats These Days

One of the most popular displays was hosted by Cathay Pacific, which featured its first-class suites. (Referring to them as seats is passé.) The brainchild of British design consultancy Design Q, which also does interiors for yachts, the suite on the Boeing 747-400 flying between Hong Kong and London has its own closet, a 17-inch high-definition TV, adjustable arm rests, and mechanical massage. There's even a jump seat at one end of the suite for visitors, though they have to be first-class ticket holders as well. When it's time to sleep, the flight attendants will provide turndown service, including a mattress, duvet, and pajamas by luxury retailer Shanghai Tang.

Italian coffee machine maker Iacobucci HF Electronics is helping take caffeine to new heights, too. It has teamed up with Nespresso to provide in-flight coffee makers that offer espresso drinks which rival anything you can find on the ground.

With competition to outdo one another in terms of service, airlines are changing their interiors every three to five years, providing plenty of opportunities "for designers and suppliers to come up with innovative designs with better use of space, comfort, and materials," says David Nelson, vice-president of Everett (Wash.)-based Jamco America, a subsidiary of Japan's Jamco that provides solutions for aircraft interiors.

In-flight Communication Flying High

That means plenty of recurring business for Lantal Textiles of Switzerland, especially its Lantal Transportation Fashion division, which provides thousands of different textiles for seats, carpets, and walls. Its leather line alone comes in 64 standard colors. Lantal has also developed a pneumatic seat cushion as an alternative to foam. These seats save money for carriers, with weight savings of up to 2kg (about 4.4 pounds) in wide seats, and allow greater comfort to passengers as pressure can be varied from firm when upright to soft when reclining.

In-flight mobile communications are about to become a reality, too. OnAir, owned jointly by Airbus and SITA, will introduce a service before the end of the year that allows people to use their own phones, laptops, and other portable electronic devices such as the BlackBerry. Air France, RyanAir, AirAsia, Shenzhen Airlines, and India's Kingfisher Airlines have announced plans to go with the service.

The OnAir system involves a GSM server, base station, and antenna on board and will connect to satellites. This system solves the problems of conventional mobile-phone use interfering with avionics, which is caused when phones radiate at maximum power while attempting to locate terrestrial networks.

With greater comfort and convenience come challenges for safety, however. John Yun, sales executive at Phoenix-based Amsafe Aviation, the only Federal Aviation Administration-certified maker of air bags, says as premier seating evolves, the risk of head injury is greater compared with standard bench seating: "There are too many places where a passenger could hit his head, become unconscious or even [die]." Amsafe has provided air bags primarily for business and first-class for Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines, while Cathay is installing them in the seat belts of all classes of its new planes. The likelihood of U.S. carriers installing air bags will increase with time as the FAA's 2009 deadline for better protection against dynamic crash conditions approaches.

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