Time for U.S. Carriers to Make First Class Better

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- If you traveled over the holidays in business class or even first class, you probably realized that the trickle-down economics of more profitable airlines has yet to make its way inside the airplane.

The experience on the ground is nothing to boast of either. Long lines in the airport and irritable ticket agents as well as dated cabin interiors have made traveling at the front of the plane simply a matter of having more space rather getting top-notch service and flying with style. But now, with airlines such as American Airlines ( AMR) taking more control of their booking and retail business -- and likely with it a bigger profit -- it may be the perfect time for U.S. carriers to start innovating a better and likely more profitable product for business-class and first-class passengers.

Virgin Atlantic could show U.S. carriers a thing or two about flying first- and business-class passengers.

Premium-class terminals
Most carriers operate three-line check-in systems where economy-, business- and first-class counters are separated by retractable rope. Why can't airlines offer a dedicated check-in area, especially in their hub cities, for business-class and first-class passengers?

If traveling internationally, why not also provide pre-printed customs and immigration forms, since airlines have already collected most passenger information for FAA regulations? Add to the equation a few bottles of chilled water or fresh fruit and a dedicated security screening and you will likely have a lot more people willing to pay for a premium product.

Upgrade your lounges
Between credit cards that get anyone through the door for free and the dwindling freebies offered across the board, the traditional terminal first-class lounge is sometimes best skipped for the Chili's ( EAT) next door. Airlines have forgotten that the thing that makes the lounges so special is that fact that not everyone can get in. Once inside, however, let's roll out a better selection of food than the prepackaged sandwiches (on a good day) and thirsty-looking fruit picked through by so many unwashed travelers' hands.

But don't just stop there. Dress up the bathrooms a bit, fluff up the decor -- by firing whoever is picking those horribly uncomfortable chairs -- and try to create spaces tied to the cities hosting them. And take a cue from Virgin Atlantic's London Heathrow upper-class lounge: How about spa services or even a barbershop?

Bigger planes, please
It wasn't long ago that it required more than two engines to take a transatlantic flight, but now the A330 and 777 are regulars on the circuit, with even a few narrow-bodied 757s being used for the journey. Having recently completed a transcontinental flight on an Airbus A320 that took six hours -- with an additional hour delay to figure out a weight overage that had flight attendants scrambling bags and weary passengers begging to disembark -- it became clear that long journeys feel even longer on smaller aircraft. Let's try to relegate smaller aircraft such as the Embraer/Canadair, 737s and A320s to commuter flights shorter than four hours and pull out more of the big guys with full three-class service for anything longer.

The first-class seat
The best thing about a first-class seat shouldn't be merely its ability to flatten into a bed, as it is on most domestic airlines. Instead, they should embody the "suite" labeling pursued by airlines such as United and American. First, upgrade the technology. Televisions should be widescreen LCDs and play digital on-demand content on all flights, not prehistoric tapes. And can we not build in noise-canceling headphones instead of begging to have them passed out an hour into the flight and collecting them so long before arrival?

Both sides of the seats should offer a privacy screen so a sleeping face isn't exposed to travelers passing en route to the bathroom or a flight attendant's occasional knee. Duplicating great amenity kits with some designer collaborations (who wouldn't love a Ralph Lauren tote?) or just offering such things as the Emirates Airlines in-seat minibar with full-size snacks and upgraded alcohols goes a long way toward satiating service-hungry passengers.

Ditch the flying port-a-potty
Why is it that the typical airline bathroom hasn't changed since the advent of the jet age? If you're seated in first class you sometimes get a wider selection of toiletries such as those facial sprays on United, but other times not so much -- like on a certain rival airline that didn't even replace the paper towels on a recent eight-hour flight.

While we understand that some airlines will never be able to offer the showers offered on Emirates, would it be too much to offer a wider sink with better fixtures, or a color other than beige for travelers often paying 10 times the median economy-class ticket for the same trip?

It's all about service
Annoyed by the ticket agent, visually sickened by the first-class lounge and perplexed by the dated plane, many travelers simple expect that even an international first-class flight will be a long one. But then came the Sunday edition of The New York Times even before takeoff, still crisp and relevant, and efficient flight attendants that never forgot a drink or let empty trays linger too long.

Astute service can switch a traveler's focus from the dated seat to enjoying service that should be the norm, not the exception. Even if you don't change a single physical thing for first-class travelers, at the very least bring the service mentality back to airline travel. Flying should be more like checking into a hotel and less like getting onto the bus, especially in first class.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.