First class secrets

Inside one airline’s quest to build the world’s most luxurious plane
First class secrets
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to the rarified world of first class flying, the global airline industry has historically engaged in an arms race measured in centimetres. Who offers the widest seat? The most reclined? Whose personal TV screens are the biggest? But Lars Kroeplin, a Lufthansa executive who headed up cabin development of the airline’s flagship Airbus A380 double-decker planes, says the German carrier decided to jettison conventional wisdom during a recent overhaul of its first class offerings, which cater mainly to high-powered CEOs and celebrities—basically anyone who can afford to pay in the neighbourhood of US$10,000 for a one-way ticket.

So while competitors are touting personal “suites,” Lufthansa surprised many by giving the A380’s first class cabin a more conventional layout. Lufthansa’s “lie-flat” seats are still arranged in pairs down the middle of the plane, and only a movable privacy screen separates passengers. The idea was to give the cabin an open, airy atmosphere, which is reinforced by a lack of overhead bins. “In some airlines, they try to build a suite with a wall that’s as high as possible,” says Kroeplin, who recently took over the job as Lufthansa’s regional director for Canada. “But our surveys of passengers told us they didn’t want to be completely concealed for the full eight to 10 hours.”

It’s a bold—some might say risky—gambit when you are chasing a handful of deep-pocketed people who aren’t above sniffing about the on-board wine cellar: “Very few decent whites and all heavy New World reds,” wrote one perturbed British Airways first class flyer on a popular travel forum. But airlines have reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to things like lie-flat seats, which can only get so horizontal. And that, Kroeplin says, has caused Lufthansa to focus on improving the less visible aspects—he calls it a “wellness approach”—of flying.

Like the cabin air. Kroeplin says Lufthansa’s engineers have figured out a way to increase the humidity of the A380’s first class cabin—a change more difficult to achieve than it sounds because the extra moisture has to later be captured so it doesn’t soak the plane’s insulation. Customer surveys done aboard a test plane revealed those who flew in the humidified cabin, but weren’t told about it, consistently rated their overall experiences more positively.

Lufthansa, which opened an entire first class terminal in Frankfurt six years ago, also ditched the option of using the A380’s considerable girth to offer a bar area and on-board showers. The bar was deemed too noisy, and the showers, which can only be used for a few minutes at a time, a novelty. “Our passengers said it wasn’t such a good idea, but to instead get more showers into our lounges on the ground,” notes Kroeplin. Lufthansa instead created a supersized bathroom with a separate toilet and wash basin area—a feature that reviewers have suggested is among the most luxurious features of the plane.

Lufthansa’s business class cabin is scheduled to get its own overhaul by late next year. While the details are being closely guarded—the only sure bet is that the existing seats, which recline on an angle, will be replaced by lie-flat models, now the industry standard—Kroeplin says passengers should expect a similar focus on the overall experience, “not to just follow a trend.”