Flying has come a long way since the Wright brothers first took off at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Flying captured the world’s imagination and commerce and industry quickly aligned to bring aviation to paying passengers.
Aviation entered a golden age in the 1920s and 1930s, as elite travelers boarded flights with lavish amenities and services. Pan American Airways operated luxurious flights on its Clippers, a kind of large seaplane, that emulated first-class ocean-liner travel. Passengers could sit down to hot meals served on fine china and drink from crystal glasses.
Indeed, a Clipper made the first trans-Pacific airmail flight in November 1935. The China Clipper made the trip from San Francisco to Manila in six days. The following October, the Philippine Clipper made the first passenger flight to Hong Kong.
After the golden age
Some 70 years later, commercial aviation looks quite different. Budget airlines have made flying more like taking a bus than boarding a luxury cruise. But airlines continue to innovate with both cabin facilities and in-flight service.
Airline food has long suffered a reputation for blandness, but last month, Air France began offering something decidedly more appetizing: meals catered by the South Beauty Group. The group is known for its chain of designer Sichuan restaurants in China. Dishes like Sichuan-style chicken, sauteed beef with vegetables and grilled beef with orange peel will be available on Air France flights on the Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou routes. It certainly sounds better than a dry roll and a tea-bag.
Passengers will have even more reason to hoard airline amenity kits with Qantas’s new offering. Last month it introduced a collection by top Australian designers like Akira Isogawa and Colette Murphy available in first and business-class on all its international routes.
Singapore Airlines’ new first-class “seats” should rightly be called beds. The SkySuites, which were introduced on some long-haul flights last October, offer a glimpse into the luxuries of golden-age air travel. The seat reclines into a flat bed with an inflating air-mattress and a matching duvet designed by Givenchy. Passengers also get a 14-inch video screen, a stationery drawer and individual laptop power supplies. Not that you would be doing much work ensconced in such comfort.
For Shanghai Airlines’ short but well-traveled Shanghai-Hong Kong route, seating is more utilitarian. Shanghai Air is one of the more well regarded domestic airlines, and it has started to upgrade its cabin comfort offerings. It recently started using Boeing 767s for its Hong Kong route, allowing it to increase seating space to 33 inches in economy and 57 inches on business class. You won’t be lying in the lap of luxury, but those extra inches are certainly welcome.
Asian airlines serve one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse regions in the world. But meeting passengers’ linguistic requirements can be daunting. Cathay Pacific, however, offers its inflight movies with audio tracks in nine languages, from Cantonese and Mandarin to Hindi and German. Its inflight television programs come in five languages.
Similarly, German carrier Lufthansa offers a range of Chinese newspapers, magazines and inflight entertainment programs on its China routes. It also employs Chinese flight attendants and Chinese-speaking ground staff on routes to and from the country.