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Nation/World

February 28, 2014

Latest airline perk: Safe distance from the masses

NEW YORK — On flights from San Francisco to Hong Kong, first-class passengers can enjoy a mesclun salad with king crab or a grilled USDA prime beef tenderloin, stretch out in a 3-foot-wide seat that converts to a bed and wash it all down with a pre-slumber Krug “Grande Cuvee” Brut Champagne.

Yet, some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else.

The idea is to provide an exclusive experience — inaccessible, even invisible, to the masses in coach. It’s one way that a gap between the world’s wealthiest 1 percent and everyone else has widened.

Many top-paying international passengers, having put down roughly $15,000 for a ticket, now check-in at secluded facilities and are driven in luxury cars directly to planes. Others can savor the same premier privileges by redeeming 125,000 or more frequent-flier miles for a trip of a lifetime.

When Emirates Airline opened a new concourse at its home airport in Dubai last year, it made sure to keep coach passengers separate from those in business and first class. The top floor of the building is a lounge for premium passengers with direct boarding to the upstairs of Emirates’ fleet of double-decker Airbus A380s. Those in coach wait one story below and board to the lower level of the plane.

London’s Heathrow Airport took a private suite area designed for the royal family and heads of state and in July opened it to any passenger flying business or first class who’s willing to pay an extra $2,500.

“First class has become a way for a traveler to have an almost private jet-like experience,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Hudson Crossing. Airlines “will do everything but sing a lullaby.”

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