The best premium cabins for onboard social distancing
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Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing you, our readers, with the information you need to make educated decisions about travel and your travel-rewards strategy. This is not the time to travel, domestically or internationally, but we are sharing this content to help you plan for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided. This post also makes reference to a number of routes that are currently suspended due to the coronavirus but expected to resume flying in the future.
The ongoing spread of the coronavirus has pretty much eliminated the demand for travel in many major markets. While no one knows when exactly it will be safe to return to the skies, it is all but certain that a lot of things about the way we travel are going to change. As social distancing becomes the new norm in grocery stores and public spaces around the world, travellers are going to need to prioritize a little bit of extra space on board as well, and many might even splurge for premium cabin seats and suites that offer the most privacy onboard. Here are some of the most private first- and business-class cabins in the skies, offering an unparalleled amount of privacy and making it easier to socially distance onboard.
Singapore Airlines (as well as Singapore Changi airport) have won awards from across the aviation industry for many years in a row, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to innovate. A few years ago Singapore released its redesigned Suites class on select A380 aircraft, which saw the better-than-just-first cabin halved from 12 suites to six and moved to the upper deck. The new suites offer a whopping 50 square feet of space to each individual passenger, and come complete with a chair that can swivel to face the windows or the TV and a separate bed. Passengers travelling together can combine their suites and dine together or even enjoy a double bed.
You won’t find the newest Suites flying to the US just yet, as Singapore’s only A380 route to North America (its fifth-freedom flight from Singapore via Frankfurt to JFK) features the older but still incredible Suites design. The new Suites do, however, fly to London Heathrow, as well as Zurich. Given how hard award space is to come by in the new smaller cabin, your best bet to fly this product is on a shorter flight around Asia. Singapore generally doesn’t release any premium-cabin award space to its partners, so you’ll need to book these awards through the carrier’s KrisFlyer programme. One-way awards in the new suite class cost the following amount:
Further Reading: Review: Singapore’s New A380 Suite, the World’s New Best First Class
Etihad holds the honour of being the first airline to introduce a single-aisle cabin on the A380, which is an impressive feat when you think about the monstrous size of the jumbo jet. On the top deck of Etihad’s A380s you’ll find nine first class “apartments” as well as “The Residence,” in ultra-private and expensive three-room suite that costs several million miles to book.
While not quite as spacious as Singapore’s new Suites, Etihad Apartments feature a similar layout with a chair for lounging and a separate bench that can convert into a partial double bed if you’re travelling with a companion. When I flew in Etihad Apartments earlier this year it was one of the best flights of my life, from the amazing food and stunning cabin design down to the single best flight attendant I’ve ever encountered.
Like Singapore, Etihad’s only A380 destination in North America is New York-JFK, where you’ll find 1-2 daily flights to Abu Dhabi (AUH). The best way to book these awards is by redeeming 115,000 AAdvantage miles each way, though sometimes American Airlines agents have trouble finding Etihad award space. While these awards should be bookable online now, if you’re trying to book over the phone you may need to call a foreign call center like the Australian one to get everything ticketed. If you don’t have any AAdvantage miles sitting around, you can also book directly with Etihad. A one-way award booked with Etihad Guest costs 136,090 miles, and while that’s a lot to pay for a one-way flight, it still represents a great value for the product. The product also flies to London and Paris.
Korean Air first class on the 747-8
Korean Air has a relatively diverse long-haul fleet, comprised of A380, 747, 777 and 787 aircraft, but the crown jewel rests in the nose of the carrier’s 10 747-8 aircraft. The spacious six-seat cabin feels more like a private jet than a double-decker commercial widebody, with three fully enclosed suites hugging each wall in the curved nose. While the first row might be the most exciting spot to sit on any plane (and is still incredibly private) rows 2 and 3 are actually even more spaced out as the cabin opens up in the back. I even had the cabin to myself when I flew with Korean, making the space feel even more private.
Korean Air used to be one of the easiest airlines to book with points and miles, but things have gotten much trickier since Chase dropped SkyPass as a transfer partner a few years back. Now your only way to earn a meaningful amount of SkyPass miles quickly is by transferring points from Marriott Bonvoy. Points transfer at a 3:1 ratio with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points transferred. A one-way first-class award between the US and Seoul (ICN) costs 80,000 SkyPass miles, meaning you need to transfer 195,000 Marriott points.
While I normally prefer to use my Marriott points for hotel stays, this redemption is one time when I think transferring to airline partners instead is a no brainer. If you have your sights set on this incredibly aspirational redemption you should act quickly (as soon as it’s safe to do so), as SkyPass is set to change its award chart in November and move to distance-based award pricing.
Cathay Pacific is the only airline that makes this list without offering fully enclosed suites, but the carrier’s exclusive first-class cabin still offers an incredible amount of privacy and personal space. For starters, the unique 1-1-1 layout means there are only six seats in a space where most airlines fit eight. Add in the privacy wall to the left of the middle seats (which you can see in the photo above), and seats 1A and 2A on the left side of the plane end up with an extra layer of privacy beyond what’s afforded by the curved, high wall of the seat.
Cathay Pacific has had an awfully tough time as of late, between the protests in Hong Kong last year that depressed demand and the fact that the airline derives much of its revenue from flying to mainland China where the coronavirus originated. As such, expect to see a significant reshuffling of Cathay’s long-haul route network once flights start to pick up again. The carrier flies a mix of 777 and A350 aircraft to the US, though you’ll find a first-class cabin only on select 777s (some only feature business class). Cathay has been known to fly its first-class equipped jets to LA, San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago, but again a lot can change. It also flies the aircraft to London.
If you’re looking to book Cathay Pacific first class from London to Asia, you have options. The first is Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, which charges only 70,000 miles for the ticket and allows a free stopover in Hong Kong. Next up is American Airlines AAdvantage which charges 110,000 miles, and last up is Cathay’s own Asia Miles programme which charges either 110,000 or 125,000 miles depending on the length of the flight.
ANA’s “The Room” business class on select 777-300ERs
While ANA has long been considered a luxury carrier, it didn’t always have the hard product to match that reputation. Its standard long-haul business class seat is perfectly fine though nothing special, and even its first class on most 777s features a boxy design that prevents you from looking out the window or talking to your seat mate.
Last summer ANA quietly introduced new premium cabins on select 777 aircraft which can be found flying from Tokyo to London (LHR), New York (JFK) and soon Frankfurt (FRA) as well. These planes feature an updated first-class cabin dubbed “The Suite” and a new business class called “The Room” that TPG’s Zach Griff said in his review sets the new gold standard for the industry. While business-class suites with closing doors are becoming much more common, none can rival the sheer amount of space, both for lounging and sleeping, that The Room offers.
As mentioned above, this updated cabin is only available on two North American routes from New York JFK to both Tokyo Narita (NRT) and Tokyo Haneda (HND). Star Alliance travellers tend to have the most different options for booking awards, and here’s how much a one-way ticket would cost:
- Avianca LifeMiles: 75,000 miles
- Aeroplan: 75,000 miles
- United MileagePlus: 80,000 miles
If your travel plans allow you to book a round-trip ticket instead of a one-way, you might be able to score a much better deal. Virgin Atlantic Flying Club has an incredible partner award chart for ANA, with round-trip business class tickets from New York to Japan only costing 95,000 miles, barely more than most other programmes charge for a one-way ticket.
Qatar Airways Qsuite launched with the slogan “first in business,” a fitting description for a cabin so good that it rendered first class obsolete for many travellers. Fine dining and luxury amenities aside, Qsuite is a perfect option for solo travellers who can cocoon by the windows or families who can enjoy one of the quad setups in the middle of the cabin. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Qatar flew to a lengthy list of North American airports, including:
- Boston (BOS)
- Chicago (ORD)
- Dallas (DFW)
- Houston (IAH)
- Los Angeles (LAX)
- Miami (MIA)
- Montreal (YUL)
- New York (JFK)
- Philadelphia (PHL)
- Washington Dulles (IAD)
By far the best way to book these awards is by shelling out 70,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles for a one-way business class flight to Doha (DOH) or the Indian subcontinent (including the Maldives). You could also connect on to anywhere in Africa for just 5,000 miles more, meaning you could fly from the US to Cape Town and get two long-haul Qsuites flights for just 75,000 AAdvantage miles.
While the seat itself isn’t as groundbreaking as some of the others on this list, Delta gets a nod for being the only major U.S. airline to offer fully enclosed business-class suites. While I thought the doors were a bit of a gimmick at first, I’ve found over time that I sleep much better when I can shut the door and enjoy some added privacy. You’ll find the flagship Delta One Suites on all of the carriers newly delivered A350s and A330-900neos, as well as all of Delta’s 777s which have now completed the retrofit process.
Of course, booking them is another matter entirely. Delta has a bad rep among award travellers because it was the first major airline to pull its award chart and switch to fully dynamic pricing, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t deals to be had. With Delta One Suites flying primarily to Europe and Asia, you can turn your attention once again to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and the incredible savings it offers. While award space isn’t always the easiest to come by, Virgin Atlantic charges just 60,000 miles for a non-stop Delta One award to Asia or 50,000 miles to Europe, an absolute steal considering Delta will often charge two, three or even four times as much for the same ticket.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a halt, many airlines were introducing new premium cabins that, often for the first time, included closing doors. When travellers return to the skies they’ll be more conscious than ever before about their personal space, and these airlines will be eagerly waiting to great them with some of the most spacious and comfortable premium cabins imaginable.
Featured image by G Tipene/Shutterstock.
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