World’s most glamorous airlines conjure memories of travel’s golden age

Once upon a time, air travel was glamorous.

In the 1950s, air travel’s so-called golden age, flying was an occasion. Passengers dressed up, flight attendants served meals on china, standard seats were roomier, and everything about the experience felt dignified.

Today flying is associated with overbooking, cramped quarters, badly behaved passengers and inevitable delays. But for travelers with the means to fly first or business class, the skies are often next-level luxury.

What qualifies as glamorous in the world of air travel “is not as cut and dried as one might assume,” says Steve Wooster, managing director of services and air operations at luxury travel consultancy Virtuoso. “For some carriers, style means holding onto the airline’s cultural heritage, while others embrace more conventional glitz and shine. Ultimately, it comes down to quality as defined by the traveler.”

Of course, luxury is subjective.

And yet a number of international airlines are committed to upscale glamor as part of their brand mission. There’s competition among this lot too, with “some one-upmanship happening in the industry as airlines continue to raise the bar,” says Wooster.

Independent pilot and airline consultant Mike Arnot told CNN Travel “airlines are investing heavily in their in-flight entertainment and so-called hard product, such as seats. Each of those seats can cost the airline upwards of $100,000 for business class. But it makes a big difference to passengers who care, particularly those who have a choice on how to fly across the Atlantic or to Asia.”

From arrival and lounge experience, to in-flight service, amenities, interior design and hardware, the sky’s the limit for the following carriers.

Turkish Airlines

Entering the business-class lounge for Turkish Airlines at its hub in the new Istanbul Airport, it’s clear luxury is a priority. The carrier’s lounges were designed with undulating solid wood panels to reflect the breezes and movement of the region’s Aegean Sea, a theme that permeates the brand’s identity.

The 60,000-square-foot business lounge comprises 13 private suites with showers and seating for 765 guests, along with meeting rooms, a library, a prayer room and a museum created in conjunction with the Istanbul Modern.

The carrier is investing in hardware in a big way too, with plans to add 30 new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners over the next four years. Each aircraft will feature a business class cabin in which all 30 fully-flat-reclining seats will have direct aisle access. The seats will be outfitted with adjustable mirrors and 18-inch entertainment screens.

Once on board, travelers enjoy Denon noise-canceling headphones and an amenity kit designed by Versace and accessories brand Mandarina Duck. There’s also a dedicated bar and hot towel service before mealtime.

There’s dinner by candlelight too — thanks to high-end catering firm Flying Chefs. And once it’s time for some shut-eye, passengers enjoy turn-down service complete with bedding designed specifically to support air flow and more restful sleep.

Cabin crew uniforms have been designed by Milan couturier Ettore Bilotta, with colors and shapes said to be found in the Istanbul Bosphorus strait, bringing the flow theme, and the energy of Turkey, full circle.

Emirates Airlines

“You can’t talk about luxury in the sky without mentioning the Middle East,” says Nick Ellis, an editor at aviation-focused travel website The Points Guy. “Dubai’s Emirates has one of — if not the most — highly regarded first-class products flying today.”

That regard is born out upon arrival at the airline’s Dubai International Airport business class lounge, where staff will be popping any and all four Moët & Chandon Champagne vintages: Moët Impérial, Rosé Impérial, Nectar Impérial and Grand Vintage 2008.

Emirates has invested in hardware too, recently refurbishing its Boeing 777-300ER aircrafts — and the resulting first class suites, the carrier says, are “game-changing.”

The fully enclosed private suites have sliding doors, virtual windows and interiors inspired by Mercedes-Benz — soft leather seating and stitching, touch-screen control panels and mood lighting — with a zero-gravity seat position mimicking those created by designers at NASA.

On the other Emirates aircraft, the AirBus 380, each first-class suite is also fully private with a sliding door and ambient lighting, seats that convert into fully flat beds, and regional food paired with craft cocktails, Dom Perignon and Emirates Vintage Collection wines.

British company Bowers and Wilkins created exclusive noise-canceling E1 headphones, and when it’s time for bed, passengers receive a pair of moisturizing pajamas (the sleepwear releases argan oil and shea butter with a passenger’s every toss and turn).

An amino-acid rich skincare kit from Byredo provides extra hydration, and a sleep oil and pillow mist complete the bedtime regimen promoting maximum restful sleep.

Once awake, it’s off to one of two on-board shower spas with heated floors. Stocked with amenity kits created by Bvlgari and featuring Voya skincare products, travelers have another opportunity to arrive refreshed, and smelling luxurious.

Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways, the second largest carrier in the United Arab Emirates, is so keen for travelers to consider an Etihad flight their home away from home, they named their highest travel class The Residence.

For its daily JFK to Abu Dhabi route, Etihad offers an Airbus A380-800 with four classes of service: Economy Smart, Business Studio, First Apartments, and, yes, The Residence.

The Residence, offering a private bedroom with a double bed and custom-made mattress with Duxiana bedding and custom loungewear constructed from antibacterial and hypoallergenic materials, is a three-room suite designed for one to two guests. The en-suite shower is stocked with Luciana linens and robes and Acqua di Parma toiletries.

There’s a separate living area on the upper deck, and lucky guests will be served by a VIP travel concierge and in-flight butler. Residence travelers also have access to a dedicated Residence lounge at the airport, and private chauffeur at all Airbus destinations.

One class below The Residence at Etihad is no slouch either.

The Airbus has nine first-class areas known as First Apartments that provide a private sanctuary, mini-bar and vanity unit and on-board shower. Travelers can lounge in either the Poltrona Frau leather recliners, or stretch out in the full-length ottomans that convert to 80-inch beds, enjoying the carrier’s signature Cognac service — a Remy Martin Cellar Master ’28, in a stemless Normann Copenhagen glass.

Etihad prides itself on its luxury partnerships: This past New York Fashion Week, the airline partnered with Swiss luxury watchmaker Breitling to create an exclusive limited edition watch crafted with gold Arabic numerals — there are 500 watches available.

Singapore Airlines

“Outstanding service is the ultimate luxury,” says Singapore Airlines spokesperson James Boyd, and the company invests resources accordingly.

SIA’s inflight crews undergo the industry’s most stringent recruitment and training, the brand says, surpassing the industry average by weeks, to include instruction in foreign languages and wine appreciation, among other disciplines.

French couturier Pierre Balmain custom-designs the brand’s sarong kebaya uniforms for each crew member.

From the moment passengers arrive at Singapore Changi Airport, they’re welcomed in by a brand “known for its opulence,” says The Points Guy’s Ellis. The exclusive experience begins with the Private First Class check-in pavilion, and continues at The Private Room, an enhanced lounge experience with a pre-flight private fine-dining restaurant.

The in-flight experience epitomizes old-school glamor: caviar service, starched linens, Wedgwood bone china to plate meals designed by renowned chefs, and the traveler’s choice of three Champagnes to start — vintage Dom Perignon, Krug or Taittinger. “Second-growth” Bordeaux wines, the second best in the region, according to the Bordeaux wine classification created in 1855, are on offer as well.

In the Airbus A380s, first-class suites have armchairs and separate twin beds, and adjacent suites can be combined so that couples traveling together can share one larger space and a double bed.

Guests are treated to turn-down service with Lalique sleepwear and linens, and if restlessness is an issue, they can turn to guided stretching exercises and relaxation techniques developed by Canyon Ranch Wellness Architects for SIA, via their personal entertainment systems.

Air France / KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

Air France, meanwhile, and its sister airline KLM, have been “investing heavily in lounges,” according to Air France communications director Arturo Diaz. In 2019, Air France revamped its business class lounge at Washington Dulles, and at New York’s JFK it added a new La Prairie beauty treatment center.

Passengers in business class and in La Premiere, Air France’s first class, can retreat into the 30-square-meter space for free massages and 20-30-minute facials. For those with less time between connections, there’s also an area for rapid beauty treatments.

Last year Air France unveiled a new flagship lounge at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, complete with an Instant Relaxation area with mini-suites and loungers, a detox bar, private saunas and a suite serving facials by Clarins-trained aestheticians.

The carrier is prioritizing its focus on in-flight food as well; La Premiere and business class customers can now enjoy meals designed by Michelin-starred chef Daniel Rose of NYC French eatery Le Coucou and Paris restaurants Chez la Vieille and La Bourse et La Vie.

KLM will open the final phase of its new flagship lounge, the KLM Crown, at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at the end of 2019, with separate areas for work, relaxation, entertainment, food and drink, fine dining and sleep pods.

All Nippon Airways

In summer 2019, the carrier rolled out 12 new Boeing 777-300ER aircrafts, designed by architect Kengo Kuma and British designer Acumen to meld Japanese heritage with Western design principles.

For All Nippon’s first-class area, aka The Suite, the design “takes inspiration from high-end Japanese hotels,” explains Acumen brand experience director Mike Crump. “Dark rosewood is used throughout the suite to give it a luxurious feel, the carpet has an earthy color and print, while the cabin walls feature an original gray cloud pattern inspired by traditional Japanese paintings.”

In addition to being soothing aesthetically, chairs in The Suite are “the most spacious fully enclosed seating arrangement yet on an ANA aircraft,” says All Nippon’s VP of Americas, Shigeru Hattori. The large flatbed surfaces, Crump adds, reflect how Japanese people relax using padded mattresses and tatami mats.

The redesigned aircrafts have privacy doors, 43-inch viewing monitors on what an ANA spokesperson calls the “world’s first 4K personal screen on a commercial airliner,” and movable partitions to pair seats to create larger seating and sleeping spaces.

Business class, known as The Room, was also redesigned this fall and has expanded to double the width of the previous business class seats. The design is inspired by modern, multifunctional Japanese living spaces — flexible doors offer both privacy and the chance to pivot the seat and share space with fellow travelers.

Both classes feature new custom lighting by Panasonic, intended to mimic the natural sunrise.

Japan Airlines

The first-class lounges at Japan Airlines (JAL) are a quiet sanctuary from the chaos of the surrounding city. On arrival travelers will find shower rooms, medical massage chairs, libraries and gallery rooms.

At the recently renovated first-class lounge at Narita, dining options include made-to-order sushi hand rolls and ramen from popular Tokyo shop Afuri and eye-pleasing Japanese set meals. These can be paired with three different kinds of sake or a selection of sommelier-curated wines and Champagnes.

Once on board, JAL First Class offers just eight private suites with wood grain interiors and generous storage spaces. Travelers can choose from hard or soft Airweave pillows and can change into slippers and organic cotton pajamas.

The “Anytime You Wish” restaurant option allows travelers to dine, yes, anytime they wish, on seasonal ingredient-sourced menus with thoughtful wine and Champagne pairings. Italian apparel label Etro has created the amenity kits, which include a steam eye mask on all flights to Japan.

Other standout carriers

When it comes to design, service and brand-partnered amenities (moisturizing PJs and Cognac service, anyone?), the airlines above are second to none.

Many more have stellar industry reputations, too, though and are not to be overlooked.

Bucket-list worthy Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, for example, takes lounge life seriously, with six first-class lounges at Hong Kong International, housing temperature-controlled cabanas, rain shower bath suites and day beds.

Qatar Airways, according to The Points Guy’s Ellis, “has developed an outstanding business-class product,” including Qsuite, Qatar’s proprietary seat design with forward- and backward-facing seats, each with a fully closing door, that combine to form double beds and even quads.

Germany’s Lufthansa “may not be the flashiest in the sky, but it’s likely the most consistently great product that’s flying,” Ellis adds, welcoming first-class guests with their signature single rose and a glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne. And Australian carrier Qantas is executing a multimillon-dollar upgrade to all 12 of its A380 Airbuses by 2020, adding 27% more room in premium seats.

All great reasons to get booking.