NEW YORK – On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy a Mesclun salad with king crab or a grilled USDA prime beef tenderloin, stretch out in a 3-foot-wide seat that converts to a bed and wash it all down with a pre-slumber Krug "Grande Cuvee" Brut Champagne.
Yet some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else.
The idea is to provide an exclusive experience — inaccessible, even invisible, to the masses in coach. It's one way that a gap between the world's wealthiest 1 percent and everyone else has widened.
Many top-paying international passengers, having put down roughly $15,000 for a ticket, now check-in at secluded facilities and are driven in luxury cars directly to planes. Others can savor the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent flier miles for a trip of a lifetime.
When Emirates Airline opened a new concourse at its home airport in Dubai last year, it made sure to keep coach passengers separate from those in business and first class. The top floor of the building is a lounge for premium passengers with direct boarding to the upstairs of Emirates' fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s. Those in coach wait one story below and board to the lower level or the plane.
London's Heathrow Airport took a private suite area designed for the royal family and heads of state and in July opened it to any passenger flying business or first class who's willing to pay an extra $2,500.
"First class has become a way for a traveler to have an almost private jet-like experience," says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Hudson Crossing. Airlines "will do everything but sing a lullaby."
The front of the plane has always been plusher than the back. But in recent years airlines have put a greater focus on catering to the most affluent fliers' desire for new levels of privacy.
There's a lot of money on the line. At big carriers like American Airlines, about 70 percent of revenue comes from the top 20 percent of its customers.
The special treatment now starts at check-in. American and United Airlines have both developed private rooms, located in discrete corners of their terminals in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, that allow for a speedy check-in. Boarding passes in hand, travelers exit through hidden doors leading to the front of security lines.
Some foreign airlines have gone further.
Lufthansa offers first-class passengers a separate terminal in Frankfurt. There's a restaurant, cigar lounge and dedicated immigration officers. For those who choose to shower or take a bath, the private restrooms come with their own rubber ducky — an exclusive plastic souvenir for the international jet set. When it's time to board, passengers are driven across the tarmac to their plane in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Porsche Cayenne.
"That sort of exclusivity plays to the ego of people who are in a position to spend that much money on airline flight," says Tim Winship, publisher of travel advice site FrequentFlier.com.
At Heathrow's private suites, designed for up to six people, fliers pass swiftly and privately through their own immigration and security screening. While they're waiting, hors d'oeuvres and Champagne are provided. Steak, sushi or other meals can be delivered from airport restaurants. When it comes time to actually fly, passengers are driven to their plane in a BMW 7 Series sedan and escorted to their seat.
U.S. airlines have copied a bit of that touch. United started in July and Delta Air Lines in 2011 driving their top customers who have tight connections at major airports from one gate to another in luxury cars. No need to enter the terminal, let alone fight the crowd on the moving walkway.
Want to board first? No problem. Want to be the last one seated, moments before the door closes? Sure. Airlines will even save room for your bags in the overhead bin.
International first class has long been distinguished by gourmet meals, wide seats and giant TVs preloaded with hundreds of movies and TV shows. But in recent years, airlines also upgraded their international business class sections, ripping apart cabins to install chairs that convert into lay-flat beds. That left very little to differentiate first class from business class.
So some airlines scrapped the ultra-premium cabin. Others have cut the number of first-class seats in half, thereby creating a more intimate experience that commands the higher price. For instance, a roundtrip flight in July between New York and Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific costs $1,600 in coach, $7,600 in business class and $19,000 in first class. Other airlines charge similar price differences among their passenger classes.
Besides privacy, that extra cash provides an outsize seat, attentive service and superior wines and liquors. Austrian Airlines, Etihad Airways and Gulf Air are among the carriers to staff planes with their own first-class chefs. Instead of having flight attendants reheating meals cooked on the ground, these chefs prepare the meals at 35,000 feet.
Sometimes, that smell wafts back to the rest of the plane.
"You know they've got something good up in front of the curtain, and you know you don't have anything close to it," Harteveldt says. "When you fly coach, you are reminded of the fact that you are unimportant as a traveler."
In the ultimate show of indulgence, Emirates has offered an onboard shower for first class passengers on its A380s since the plane joined the fleet in 2008.
Once back on the ground, that luxury treatment continues. At airports in Paris, London, Istanbul, Bangkok, Sydney and elsewhere, airlines offer their top passengers fast-track cards allowing them to speed past immigration lines.
And then, while other passengers wait in lines for buses, taxis or shuttles, chauffeurs in suits meet these fliers ready to — once again — whisk them out of the chaos.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott .