Flying high: battle of luxury classes

The celebration of air travel as a glamorous way to get around is an outdated sentiment of yesteryear. With exorbitant fees, delays, downgrades and bankruptcies, it's certainly not as grand as it once was --say, during the time depicted on the ABC drama "PanAm".

For most of us, post 9/11 air travel is a means to a destination-an uncomfortable stretch of time spent cramped in a seat with little legroom, stale air and greasy food.

But for a certain class of flier, air travel can be pure luxury.

Over the last five years the airline industry has gone to great innovative and financial lengths to reintroduce a Golden Age of air travel in business and first class-- or Upper Class, as Sir Richard Branson likes to call the service on his Virgin Atlantic fleet.

Across the board, airlines have added luxurious concierge amenities, like chauffeur car service to the aircraft, onboard showers and heated floors. New, larger aircrafts like the massive Airbus 380 double-decker jet airliner give extra leg room and more --dazzling those flying Air France, Emirates, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines. (British Airways, Virgin, and other airlines will roll the A380 out over the next four years.)

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Personal touches like designer linens, on-demand entertainment and celebrity chef menus prove that luxury thrives even when you're 35,000 feet up.

With a high-flying price tag, which can be as much as $18,000 a flight, traveling in style can bring some back down to earth with a thud. But for those willing to pay more, or who have acquired enough airline miles to fly better, the joy of the pampered journey begins at the airport gate.

We decided to compare two airlines that, over the past years, have been working hard to lure in the business and first class passenger: Singapore Air and Virgin Atlantic.

I recently flew from JFK Airport in New York to Singapore via Frankfurt in business class aboard Singapore Airlines’ A380, and from Newark, New Jersey to Accra, Ghana via London Heathrow in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class seating.  While both were pleasant experiences, there were some difference worth noting

Here is my comparison:


Comfort is all anyone cares about when flying for more than four hours. Legroom (seat pitch) and seat width are paramount. Singapore Air’s plush leather seats claim to be the widest in the industry at 34 inches. The fold-down beds boast bedding, from sheets to duvet and down pillowcases designed by Givenchy.

Virgin Atlantic’s foldout flatbeds in their upper class suites/cabins are comfy. Besides a mattress pad and down comforter, passengers are offered complimentary sleep wear.

Winner: Singapore Air for fantastic seat width and passenger ability to toss and turn with ease.


Personal space is second to comfort when pampering passengers. Sleeping next to a stranger isn’t easy. Those flying suite classaboard Singapore Air score serious privacy. The 12 single and double seating Pullman train car style seats close off from one another. But at $18,000 a seat, more people opt for business class seats, which while wide, aren’t private.

Virgin Atlantic’s cabins nearly close off the world around the passenger. The cabin walls are high and those seated next door must peer over the wall for conversation. Those seated across are carefully staggered to avert private viewings

Winner: Virgin. The privacy is impressive and if anything, frustrating for those who might want to speak to one another. Solutions: Join your travel companion by taking a seat on the footrest ottoman turned-guest-seat, or, meet at the walk-up bar.

Customer Service: The Singapore Girl vs. the flight attendant/bartender

The service of the Singapore Girl sporting the sarong kebaya is legendary. It's excellent service has long been the recipient of awards from magazines, travel and tourism industries.  Training for the job of Singapore Girl is almost twice as long as the industry standard. From etiquette classes they learn food plating, wine tasting, grooming, how to walk, and how to delicately deal with passengers who “souvenir” their Givenchy cutlery.

On Virgin Atlantic, the walk-up open bar and generous bartenders are less rehearsed, and more instinctual. Service is personal and customized to the passenger. On my flight I was offered extra bedding for comfort, served food when I wanted it, and along with fellow passengers was encouraged to “pinch” their salt and pepper shakers --as the unique salt and pepper pots will soon be phased out. (Not to worry Virgin Atlantic fans. The new two-in-one martini shaker is even easier to pocket)

Winner: Virgin Atlantic. Singapore Air is iconic, but not as warm and friendly as Virgin, which tends to go beyond the call of duty to accommodate requests and desires from the complimentary limo service to and from the airport to ticketing and on-board services.

Style and Design

Singapore Air's leather sofa-style seating is sophisticated, and it’s absolutely cool to be seated in the upper level of an airplane. Sixty business class seats are on the upper deck. The twelve private cabin suites are down below. Window seats have deep enclosed storage bins that fit most carry-ons. The KrisWorld entertainment system boasts a bevy of movies and TV shows for Western and Eastern interests and there are USB ports conveniently at every seat. L'Occitane toiletries outfit impressively spacious bathrooms. (There is even space to put a purse down without getting it wet.)

Virgin Atlantic assaults the passenger with its hip factor. Amy Winehouse croons over the speaker system. Seating up to 45 Upper Class passengers, flight attendants greet with an immediate flute of champagne. The mirrored nightclub-lit bar is lined with swivel seats and top shelf spirits. Flight attendants don innovative wine carriers for those seeking seat service. Cabins have convenient nooks and pop out features for bag and water storage. A mini cocktail ledge is cleverly convenient. A sturdy table folds into and out of the cabin wall for more formal dining, and the foot rest/ottoman doubles as a second dining seat so passengers can dine together while still belted in.  In flight entertainment features every nominated and Oscar winning film, along with on demand top cable shows.

Winner: Virgin Atlantic. Where Singapore Air excels in well-stated luxury, Virgin Atlantic dominates with design for aspired living. (Even with design flaws like the dim seat light and difficult to access headphone socket.)

Food and Drink

On Singapore Air an international culinary panel of celebrity chefs is responsible for daily special menus. Cuisine is kept local and seasonal to the departure and arrival cities with valiant attempts at staying green and minimizing carbon footprint. Besides Dom Perignon or Krug champagne, there are two Singapore Sling recipes to choose from, caviar, nine different types of rolls, and eight varietals of wines.

Virgin Atlantic pulls out some charming stops with it’s dining and brand new grazing menu. The highlights of food service are the cheese, dessert and afternoon tea trolleys. Think: cake stands and crustless finger sandwiches! Focusing on the sleep experience most for passengers, Virgin Atlantic accommodates those who prefer to sleep with their chicly- packaged express meals to go.

Winner: Singapore Air. The quality and taste of food far surpasses Virgin Atlantic charm. Singapore Air's choreography of dining service is an experience in itself.

Hub Airport Lounge

Both Singapore Air’s Changi Airport SilverKris and Heathrow’s Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse lounge are heavenly respites from airport waiting chaos.

At SilverKris, the food options seem endless and are notably tasty. The pampering possibilities include a nail and hair salon and massage available for those with a decent amount of layover time. Changi Airport on its own is impressive. There’s a swimming pool and nature trail among other quirky attractions.

Heathrow’s architecturally and design-heavy Clubhouse is such a scene, replete with billiard and entertainment room, and a romantic viewing deck, that if the Clubhouse wasn’t at an airport, it would be a hot destination.

Winner: Both. The Clubhouse is cool and fun enough where passengers wish for a longer layover. Families especially, flock to Changi, making a day adventure of the airport.