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Contributors: Andrea Black, Anthony Dennis, Ben Groundwater, Julietta Jameson, Rob McFarland, Brian Johnston, Ute Junker, Guy Wilkinson
Believe it or not, there was a time when flying was considered an elegant undertaking. Airline photos from the 1950s capture the glamour. The passengers, dressed to the nines, recline in comfort – yes, even in economy. Instead of dining off meal trays, armed with plastic cutlery, they feast on generous serves of roast beef carved on a trolley, washed down with (what else?) champagne served in a crystal flute.
These days, things look very different. Instead of an elite activity, flying has become an everyday event, albeit one with some distinctly unpleasant aspects. Shuffling barefoot through security, peeling the lid off airline meals that can be not so much as inedible as unidentifiable; all too often, flying becomes a test of endurance.
What would the ultimate airline experience look like?
An airline with the best food, service and seats in the world? Traveller.com.au's writers name what their dream plane would feature.
And yet, it's not all grim up there in the sky. When the Traveller team challenged itself to create the ideal airline experience, drawing on our wide flying experiences with those who are doing it best today, we found a surprising number of things to admire.
Planes that are quieter and more comfortable than ever before. A dizzying array of entertainment choices, in-flight bars and on-the- ground lounges are little luxuries that can take the rough edges off even the longest trip. And it's not just happening at the pointy end of the plane.
Peruse our writers' pick of the best of what's on offer for every class of travel, and you will see that when it comes to flying, things really are looking up. Welcome aboard Air Utopia.
THE AIRCRAFT A380
Conventional wisdom would have it that Boeing's long-awaited and admittedly fairly sexy 787 Dreamliner is the world's best aircraft. It is, after all, extremely quiet, fuel efficient, has larger windows than any other commercial jet and a lower cabin pressure to reduce jet-lag. And yet, it's still not as good as the Airbus A380.
It's the feeling of spaciousness that really sets this behemoth apart. Sure, there might be something like 500 people on board with you, but the A380 never feels crowded. Favoured by Emirates and Qantas for their long-haul journeys, these Airbuses are like cruise ships of the sky.
Their spacious upper decks, unique to the A380, are reserved solely for business and premium economy passengers on Qantas, while on Emirates it's business and first class only, with a stand-up bar area at the back of the plane.
On the A380's lower deck, meanwhile, there might be more people crammed in, but there are still ample toilet facilities, windows that appear deceptively large and let in plenty of light, and low noise levels despite the four huge jet engines blasting away just outside. Plus, with the connection of multiple air bridges, the A380s tend to unload surprisingly quickly.
The sad news for fans, however, is that despite their popularity with passengers, worldwide demand for A380s is waning among airlines, due to the superior cargo haulage and running costs of Boeing's 777s (plus the fact many airlines are favouring smaller planes over shorter routes), meaning these huge jets could soon become a thing of the past. See airbus.com
THE INFLIGHT SERVICE Singapore Airlines
Singapore Airlines is so well known for high-quality service that it's almost a cliche to mention them here. But really it's impossible to avoid, because SQ's reputation for excellence is more than just a good marketing ploy: the Singapore experience is a cut above the rest.
It starts from check-in, where staff are friendly and helpful, and continues on through the whole flight. Unlike many other airlines, the "Singapore Girls" – and, given it's the 21st century now, Guys – seem to be genuinely interested in ensuring you enjoy your experience. Need help with your hand luggage? They're on it. Feel like a drink? It will arrive. Getting hungry mid-flight? They'll sort out a snack.
There are plenty of airlines that offer this sort of service up the front of the plane, but few who continue that attention to detail right the way back into economy. Singapore, however, does.
On SQ flights there's a dedicated drinks run as soon as the seatbelt sign has been switched off, so you'll be relaxing with a glass of wine – and, if you insist, a glass of water – before you know it. Food is served on large, spacious trays with proper cutlery and a real glass. Staff treat passengers like valued customers, rather than a source of annoyance.
In fact the entire flying experience is delivered with such professional courtesy and almost automaton-like efficiency that you're never left questioning why Singapore has earned its reputation as the clear leader in the field.
THE ECONOMY CLASS Singapore Airlines
This recommendation should come with a serious caveat: not all Singapore Airlines economy class cabins are created equal. If you're flying on one of the old 777s, which occasionally still operate out of Sydney, you'll wonder what we're on about here.
Those clunkers have tiny, low-res entertainment screens, limited facilities and fairly outdated cabin designs. Blergh. On the newer planes, however – the A380s and the new or retro-fitted 777s – life in SQ economy class is beautiful.
How beautiful? Start with the service. No need to wait hours for the meal run to get your hands on a cocktail – the SQ staff begin the flight with a lap of the drinks trolley, meaning you'll have a Singapore Sling in front of you as the opening credits roll on your movie of choice.
Those movies, too, are a pleasure to watch on Singapore's high-res 10.6- or 11.1-inch screens, and you can still track your flight mid-movie on a separate mobile phone-sized screen below. There are more than 1000 options to choose from on Singapore's in-flight entertainment system, including more than enough English and foreign-language TV shows and movies to get you through long-haul hell.
There's more good news, too: seat pitches on Singapore Airlines economy range from 32 inches to 34 inches, which is slightly more than standard on other full-service carriers. Those seats are also extremely comfortable for this class, and all on the A380s have AC power, as well as Wi-Fi access. The food is also excellent, with both Western and Asian options designed by SQ's "International Culinary Panel" of eight renowned chefs, including Australia's Matt Moran and Frenchman Georges Blanc. See singaporeair.com
THE PREMIUM ECONOMY CLASS Qantas
There aren't many airlines that have committed so fully to the premium economy concept as Qantas. Some offer larger seats, but with the same food as economy class. Some feature AC power outlets for laptops, but without enough space to get your elbows out and start working. Others still offer better entertainment than economy, but with the same lousy headphones as everyone up the back of the bus.
Qantas, however, has gone the whole hog. Seat pitches range from 38 inches on standard planes to 42 inches on the A380 – as opposed to 31 inches in economy. All seats have laptop power through an AC outlet. Passengers are allowed 10 extra kilograms of checked-in luggage, get priority check-in and boarding through a dedicated lane, begin the flight with a glass of sparkling wine just like the fancy people in business class, plus are given noise-cancelling headphones and a new Country Road amenity kit with eye-mask, socks, toothpaste and toothbrush.
The highlight of Qantas' premium economy offering, however, is the food. As well as being able to pre-order your meal through the Q-Eat system (Qantas's online food directory), there's a permanent snack bar available on the A380s, and on all flights the meals are inspired by Neil Perry (though admittedly we're not entirely sure what that means) and are served up on proper tableware, a la business class.
No more plastic containers with foil lids for you. And when those meals include dishes such as barramundi with yellow curry, and tagliatelle with grilled chicken, washed down with a glass of premium Australian wine, you'll never want to go back to cattle class again.
THE BUSINESS CLASS Emirates
There's plenty to like about Emirates' business class, starting with the complimentary limousine service to the airport, an efficient and courteous check in, and a good lounge with full bar service, tasty food and plenty of seating.
On board, multi-lingual staff tends to professionalism over overt friendliness, which results in quick response times and both cabin and loos kept clean and tidy. The brilliant in-flight entertainment system, with its choice of 190 movies and dozens of TV channels, can be accessed in any class, but A380 business-class seats are the most comfy in the skies in which to lie back and enjoy the show.
Seats extend two metres, allowing you to fully stretch your legs; have an in-built mini-bar and massage system; and come with a woollen blanket and down pillow. Useful little storage compartments allow you to have all your belongings within arm's reach. Meals are good, attentively dished up on Royal Doulton and never hurried through by flight attendants.
On the A380, a bar-lounge at the rear offers some rare alternative space in which to relax and chat to fellow passengers. And finally, it's hard to resist the amenities bag, one of the best in the skies, with Bulgari products and a decent toothbrush that doesn't bend at a touch.
In short, while no one aspect of Emirates' business-class service is necessarily better than that of some other airlines, it's the cumulative considerations that quickly add up, bringing you close to that unattainable goal, a pleasurable long-haul flight. See emirates.com/au
THE FIRST CLASS Qantas
If Air Utopia was a real airline, wouldn't everyone fly first class? If we did, we'd want to do so in Qantas First Class-style. Forgetting the gorgeous lounge experience and cutting straight to onboard, they have us at hello – the tip of Qantas' pointy end is also the zenith of its generally excellent people power.
Those perky back-of-the-bus attendants are charming, but there's an elite squad up here, who know your name and seem to be very much looking forward to attending to your every whim, starting with a glass or two of vintage bubbles and a discussion of the Neil Perry menu before take off.
That menu is among the best in the sky, with recipes lifted from Perry's much-lauded Rockpool restaurant offerings played out with intriguing high-end ingredients. The accoutrements: amenity kits, comfy pyjamas and on some flights, virtual reality goggles are top notch.
The space per passenger is, well, very spacious, with room to invite someone over to dine with you. The privacy level is highly adjustable and the seat/bed, with its swivel-capability, massage functions and quality sleep accessories including sheepskin underlays and warm Doonas do everything an inanimate object possibly can to ensure you arrive refreshed.
The large screens, plentiful entertainment, thoughtful touches such as an easily-found countdown to landing clock are all just so. And look, we know, lots of airlines have their versions of those things. But it's that crack team of flight attendants who elevate the experience above and beyond. They make you feel special with a way that is a deft mix between flawless silver service and friendly Australian character. And they are the reason Qantas First Class has won numerous awards. See qantas.com
See also: Why no one flies first class any more
THE IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT Emirates
Despite its slightly unfortunate slogan – "Enjoy ICE" – the Emirates in-flight entertainment system really is the one you would want on the journey of your dreams. There's a reason, after all, that Skytrax has awarded Emirates "World's Best In-flight Entertainment System" for 11 years running.
The system's name stands for "Information, Communication, Entertainment", and it features more than 2500 channels to keep you occupied through the flight. The information section has features such as the flight tracker, news and sports headlines, and three onboard cameras. In communication, you have "Wi-Fi in the sky" – all passengers get 10MB of free data – in-seat phone, SMS and email, and seat-to-seat messaging. However, it's the entertainment section that is the most exciting.
On selected Boeing 777s, passengers are able to watch live sport, as well as live news programs from the likes of BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. On all flights there's a huge amount to both watch and listen to, from new-release and classic movies from Hollywood and the world, to box sets of great TV shows, plus selected episodes of thousands of other programs, music videos, documentaries, radio stations and even podcasts. And passengers can navigate through all of this on Emirates' industry-leading 13.3-inch seatback screens (in business class those screens blow up to 23 inches wide, and it goes up to 32 in first class, which is pretty much the IMAX of the skies).
It takes almost 14 hours to fly from the east coast of Australia to Dubai, but you'll still walk off the plane wishing you'd had time to watch just a few more shows.
THE FOOD (ECONOMY CLASS) Emirates
Never underestimate the civilising effect of a scone. Halfway through a long flight, smoothing jam and clotted cream onto a warm cake transports you to a calmer, more Zen place. At least, that's the effect it has on me. And that's what I enjoy most about Emirates' economy food. More than their multicultural menu – ranging from chicken biryani to Szechuan prawns (yes, in economy) – it's the small indulgences. A dessert, cheese and crackers AND chocolate? Yes, please.
THE FOOD (BUSINESS CLASS) Cathay Pacific
For main meals, there's usually fresh salad followed by four main-course choices, including meat, fish and vegetarian options. Signature Chinese dishes such as tender braised beef are excellent. Cheese plates tempt with interesting choices (all-Swiss cheese on a Zurich flight, for example); chocolates and Illy coffee follow. Breakfasts, often a poor afterthought on flights, are worth waking up for: plenty of juices, smoothies, berries with cinnamon-flavoured muesli, and fluffy omelettes that actually taste like eggs. See cathaypacific.com/au
See also: Five secrets about airline food
THE WINE Cathay Pacific
Interesting wines in business class start with Billecart-Salmon champagne from a family-owned French producer, offered on boarding. Regular promotions highlight regional wines or certain wine styles, such as a recent Argentine promotion featuring three Malbecs and a Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon, with an informative accompanying leaflet describing both the wines and Argentine wine regions. The airline carries about 80 wines from other countries such as Australia, Austria, France, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.
THE IN-FLIGHT BAR Emirates
At the back of the plane in business class on an Emirates A380 there's a semi-circular bar with adjacent sofas and dedicated bar tender. At 38,000 feet, you can order a martini, served up in a proper glass, toothpick, olive and all. Striking up a chat with an adjacent passenger, you get to feel like Daniel Craig, probably minus the sharp suit. Or the physique. Or the license to kill. Oh, you get the idea...
THE IN-FLIGHT COFFEE Virgin Australia
Trust an airline run by an Italian-Australian, born in a small town near Rome, not to tolerate the sludge that has long substituted for in-flight coffee. John Borghetti's Virgin Australia has done more than most, if not any, airline by collaborating with Nespresso and B/E Aerospace to deliver, initially on its A330 domestic business class, a near enough to cafe-standard coffee in the clouds. The catch is that, internationally, you can only enjoy it on the carrier's business class Boeing 777 services as well as in the newly-introduced in-flight bar and in its "refreshed" premium economy. But, hey it's a start. See virginaustralia.com
THE CHECK-IN Virgin Atlantic
The modern frequent flyer might travel by air as often as people in the Golden Age rode in cars. But that doesn't mean we don't still want a sense of occasion. That's where Virgin Atlantic's fabulous Upper Class check in at Heathrow excels.
The theatre starts as soon as your chauffeur pulls into the drive snaking around a huge, gold, suspended sculpture and a concierge shepherds you and your luggage into the Upper Class Wing, a sexy gold- and red-accented private check in. Whiz through the private security channel and in no time and no stress, you're sipping Grey Goose martinis in the Clubhouse. See virgin-atlantic.com
THE FIRST-CLASS LOUNGE Cathay Pacific's The Pier First Class Lounge Hong Kong
Designed by Studioilse, the London-based design studio led by Ilse Crawford, The Pier feels more like a luxury apartment than an airport lounge. They deliberately chose art, plants, furnishings, music and considered lighting to help any traveller forget they are in a transitory state. There's also a complimentary foot massage, showers, day suites for snoozing and an a la carte restaurant. The only downside is looking at the screen to realise your flight is boarding.
THE BUSINESS LOUNGE LATAM Santiago
It used to be that you would dread a long layover in Santiago, Chile. It's far from the world's most exciting airport. However, Santiago is now a joy thanks to the recent opening of LATAM's new business class lounge, a two-storey monstrosity that's the largest in South America, and comes equipped with proper lie-flat beds in a darkened room, plus showers, dining rooms, meeting rooms, and even a video game and entertainment room. See latam.com
THE IN-FLIGHT ANNOUNCEMENTS LATAM
While flying around South America on LATAM Airlines there were always frequent announcements made by pilots revealing the day's soccer scores. These were invariably met with a cacophony of whooping, clapping or jeering depending on the result. In an age of increasingly serious air travel, such incidents provide a welcome injection of humour and a wonderful reflection of the culture of one of the world's liveliest continents.
THE AMENITIES KIT Qantas Business Class
The trolley pulls up and there's a moment of recognition on the face of the flight attendant. She shoots a glance at my frock and then hands me the Kate Spade amenity kit in the exact same pattern. No need to buy a clutch for a night on the town at my destination then. Inside the Kate Spade and Jack Spade (for men) kits are superlative Australian-made ASPAR by Aurora Spa products, plus all the essentials including toothpaste and brush, earplugs, eye mask and travel socks.
THE ONBOARD SAFETY VIDEO Air New Zealand
It all started in 2009 with air crew in body paint. Air New Zealand has turned safety videos into an art form, collaborating with the likes of Peter Jackson, Bear Grylls and the All Blacks to produce a succession of entertaining instalments. The result? Passengers actually watch them and the all-important safety message is delivered with wit and panache. Many other airlines have tried to follow suit, but Air New Zealand still sets the benchmark. See airnewzealand.com.au
THE IN-FLIGHT MAGAZINE Qantas
Since a significant, much needed re-design last year, Qantas is the leading in-flight read. The editorial content is an engaging mix of inspiring travel, business and culture pieces with a clean, classy design that places a heavy emphasis on strong photography. The publication has also been well integrated with its corresponding app, website and social media portals.
THE PYJAMAS American Airlines
Scoot around eBay, and you'll see American Airlines' PJ sets for sale alongside other fashion items. Undoubtedly, the airline doesn't condone the on-sale, but the fact that there's a black market for them – black being the operative word – is testament to the appeal of AA's new sleepwear. While some in-flight PJs of lighter hues can be a tad revealing of what lies beneath, AA's version is a flattering black with a red trim and comes with matching slippers and a drawstring bag. Tempting as it may be to deplane wearing these stylish garments, we recommend Air Utopia passengers remember their decorum. See aa.com
THE TOILETS Emirates
We types who like to change from street wear to comfy flying gear inflight know a thing or two about what makes a good plane loo. So too, do parents with infants and other small children who might need nappies and full sets of clothes changed. The main thing is space. And the Emirates A380 business class loos have it in spades. You could hold a conference in one of those cubicles. Combine that with frequent cleaning, nice-smelling amenities, great lighting and a pretty bunch of fresh flowers, and we have our Air Utopia toilet sorted.
See also: The 20 secrets to enjoying economy class