http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5c3b5ab8-988f-11e0-94d7-00144feab49a.html#axzz1PogyAsO7 If there was ever a golden age of travel this is surely it. There are unrivalled frequencies to a breathtaking range of destinations, and, for those in the front of the aircraft (or upstairs on the A380), quite astonishing levels of comfort. In the face of economic uncertainty and the high price of oil, airlines have continued to invest in their onboard product to attract premium travellers. Global premium air travel jumped 6.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2011, according to the International Air Transport Association, faster even than the overall 5.9 per cent increase in traffic, and airlines are responding by increasing competition. The improvement in the seating offered to business and first-class passengers means that today, whether in Asia, Europe, the Middle East or the Americas, airlines both old and new are offering the most comfortable and luxurious seating yet seen. Cathay Pacific presents a good example. Strategically placed to take advantage of the huge existing and potential demand from China, it is quickly increasing its fleet of aircraft while at the same time ensuring that the seating it offers its business and first-class passengers is the best in the world. The carrier recently announced “next-generation” business-class seats only four years since its last reinvention. In part, this is recognition that these seats had not proved popular. The airline listened to feedback, and is now quickly ripping out the seats and putting in new ones. Cathay’s competitor, Singapore Airlines, meanwhile introduced new business and first-class seating, and in addition has increased the number of business-class seats on its new-delivery Superjumbo A380s by 13 per cent. Now the whole upper deck of the A380 will be premium seating, as will that on the just-delivered Korean Air version of the Superjumbo. Korean Air has said it is targeting 50 per cent of passenger sales from premium classes (business and first) by 2019. Asiana has fully flat beds in business in a staggered layout allowing all passengers to have direct access to the aisle. For those who have flown only occasionally in business class, the differences between these seats and services may seem small – surely fliers just book the airline that flies directly from A to B? In some sense, yes, although even on those routes there is usually competition. The importance of seating is twofold, however. All airlines face the problem of making the most of the “real estate” of the aircraft – how many seats they can fit into a small space while giving as much room as possible to the passenger, yet at the same time not pricing themselves out of the market. British Airways in its ClubWorld seating adopted a backward and forward facing arrangement (called ying yang), while Virgin Atlantic went for herringbone, named because, viewed from above, the seats look just like that. This latter design has been adopted by airlines as diverse as Air Canada, Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific, although there are differences as to whether the seats face the windows or look away from them (the former is now preferred in the new designs). The lead set by BA and Virgin for fully flat beds on lucrative – and competitive – North Atlantic routes was one American carriers struggled to match for many years, but no longer. Continental now has fully flat seating in business on all its B777 and B757 narrowbody aircraft, while Delta has completed its full-flat business-class seating on all its Heathrow flights. United Airlines has completed its new business and first-class seating on the Boeing 767 and 747, with the 777s to be finished by the end of 2011. In Europe, Swiss International Air Lines has an upgraded cabin, featuring a 2m-long flatbed, available on all its long-haul routes from July, and Lufthansa has introduced not only a new first-class seat, but a separate bed alongside it. Along with price, the seating allows for important marketing differentiation. The advent of the Gulf carriers – particularly Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways – has tempted many fliers to use their services and take advantage of their huge route networks from their home hubs of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha respectively. Having new fleets of aircraft, and new impressive seating on board helps persuade premium fliers that the extra time taken to get to their destination will not be time wasted, or uncomfortable. Throw in the number of flight frequencies, and it becomes a compelling option. The improvement has also put new life into first class. British Airways is completing its rollout of its First product by the end of the year, and airlines such as Lufthansa and Air France are continuing to offer first class on selected routes. For the Gulf carriers – with the notable exception of Qatar Airways, which says it will not introduce a new first-class product, though it continues to offer it on certain routes such as London-Doha – Emirates and Etihad have continued to invest in first-class suites, as have Asian carriers such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air. Japanese carrier ANA has a suite product in first class with a 23-in touch screen LCD TV, which ANA says is the largest in its class. Washrooms in the premium cabins will also feature warm-water bidet-toilets, with ANA claiming to be the first airline to install such facilities.