Airline business and first class pyjamas: Why travellers are obsessed with them

"Pyjamas sir?"

The cabin crew member is leaning over my seat proffering a neatly folded pair of jim-jams, navy blue as I recall. That was on a Gulf Air flight at least 20 years ago, and I was tickled pink. Pyjamas? Whatever next?

When you're flying overnight on a long-haul sector and you're one of those lucky sods with a comfy bed, why not a pair of PJs? They keep your plane clothes fresh. The lie flat bed is all very well but waking up in crumpled up clothes you've just slept in – not so great.

Once, during his stint as Foreign Minister, Bob Carr had to suffer the indignity of flying business class instead of first on a trans-Atlantic flight. "Business class. No edible food. No airline pyjamas. I lie in my tailored suit," Carr grumbled in his memoir, Diary of a Foreign Minister.

As Carr observed, airlines reserve them strictly for those at the pointy end of the plane, but what began as a first-class perk has percolated into business class although some airlines retain the class distinction, offering them only to the nobs in first.

British Airways pyjamas, which used to come tied up with a white ribbon, had the word "First" printed on the breast. Just so everyone knows. Cathay Pacific also keeps them as a first-class privilege. Singapore Airlines is mulling whether to allow its business flyers to wear the airline's PJs in the airline's forthcoming makeover of the class.

Etihad, meanwhile, provides first-class pyjamas to its economy class passengers - but you have to buy them. The Christian Lacroix branded sleepwear costs $US35 ($A50.75)

The comfort zone

Airline pyjamas are really comfortable. Loose, shapeless, elastic waistband, 100 per cent soft cotton usually – what's not to like? Team them up with the airline slippers and you've got a little bit of home comfort at 35,000 feet. You'll probably sleep better than you would if you stick with whatever you've worn when you boarded. You're not going to win any fashion awards, but some airlines make a stab at stylish sleepwear.

Peter Morrissey designed the original Qantas business class pyjamas (first introduced in the late 1990s), Akira Isogawa was the designer for the posh first-class PJs, while those of pampered pussycats currently flying first-class overnight with Qantas slumber in sleepwear designed by Paris-based Martin Grant.

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Dee Poon, the name behind popular Hong Kong brand PYE, did the sleepwear for Cathay Pacific Airways and the organic cotton outfits come with a smart button-up top and a mandarin collar – but only first-class passengers get to wear them.

Virgin Australia's nightwear is tailored by another Aussie designer, Juli Grbac while Qatar Airways employs London-based luxury homewares brand The White Company.

Emirates' first-class flyers get something truly different, hydrating pyjamas, designed to release tiny beads of kelp while you sleep, gently moisturising the sleeper and helping prevent dehydration. You could possibly achieve the same result by drinking a glass of water, but who am I to stand in the way of marketing hype? Known as Hydra-active Sleepwear, they're also available from the Emirates online store.

Is it any wonder therefore that some flyers are mighty particular about their airline pyjamas? Back in 2012 a pair of Aussie medicos travelling first class refused to fly aboard their Qantas flight from LA to Melbourne because the airline didn't have their XL size. They were offered a pair from business class but – heavens – it was first class PJs in the right size or we ain't going.

Passengers had to sit and wait in the loaded aircraft for 30 minutes while the couple left the plane in a huff, and wait still longer while their baggage was offloaded. Although the captain was kind enough to inform passengers of the exact reason for the delay, which lightened the mood somewhat, especially in the economy cabin.

The protocols

Exactly when one dons one's pyjamas is a matter of opinion. Some march off to the restroom as soon as they board and are already lounging back in their sleepwear when the bubbly comes around. Others suggest before takeoff might be unwise. What if you have to leave the aircraft for any reason? Pyjamas in the gate lounge – not a good look. Still others wait until after the seatbelt sign goes off, or even after meal service, and then there are those who just don't bother.

From personal observation, at least half of all business class passengers who are given pyjamas don't change into them. Might be because they're already wearing tracky-dacks and a T-shirt, and for those who don't know, the dress standard among business-class travellers is not as high as you might expect.

The mechanics of changing are tricky. Swapping clothes and pyjamas in the sardine can that airlines call a toilet requires the contortionist abilities of a yoga guru. How Clark Kent managed it in a phone booth is beyond me, but then he didn't have to worry about bare feet coming into contact with whatever the hell is on the floor mat in an aircraft toilet.

You can try doing it under a blanket but there's much writhing while trying to keep the private bits private. Don't even think of doing this if you're in one of those business class cabins where seats face one another.

At the end of your flight should you shuck your pyjamas and leave them behind? They won't get recycled, at least not to any flyers who might come after you. There's every chance they'll get thrown out, so why not take them with you? They're pretty comfortable, and there are plenty of flyers who keep a set to wear on long business-class flights when the airline does not extend the pyjama privilege to its business flyers.

Or you could always sell them on ebay. Currently selling, a pair of Emirates First Class Hydrating Pyjamas still in their plastic wrapper for $45, or, from someone travelling first class aboard Singapore Airlines, a Lalique branded set at $40.

See also: The five coolest new business class seats in the sky

See also: World's best airline named as Qantas soars into top 10

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