"Nowadays, business class is a lot better than first class used to be."
Or so says Philippe Kjellgren, cofounder and CEO of Hotel Insider -- a resource for upscale travelers to research, book and experience luxury hotels. And he should know: Kjellgren travels about 150 days every year for work and is a connoisseur of everything from flat beds -- which the 6-foot-2-inch executive considers essential -- to in-flight drinks and dining.
Gailen David, a former flight attendant-turned-travel expert with Savvystews.com, can also speak to airlines' business-class transformation.
"When I started in the industry, a big seat, legroom, cocktails and upgraded meals were pretty much all that you could expect. Now expanded menu choices and infinite entertainment are pluses I've quickly become accustomed to." David also gives points to airlines that strive to create a convivial onboard atmosphere. "If an airline has a bar at the galley it makes the flight a little more fun."
The business-class experience also now extends beyond flying time. Frequent travelers weigh lounge options and add up additional perks such as chauffeur service to and from the airport. "One really important element is what I call anticipatory service," Kjellgren says. "It makes a big difference when airline staff know what travelers want and are prepared to customize."
In compiling this list Executive Travel established certain baseline criteria, like fully flat beds, something each of the airlines on the list offers. Many also have ample space between seats and easy access to the aisle -- configurations that certain airlines, like Swiss and Singapore, have mastered. We consulted several sources, from SeatGuru.com to London-based Skytrax, which operates the World Airline Awards, a global benchmark of airline excellence based on extensive customer surveys. We also scanned reader surveys from trusted sources like Travel + Leisure magazine (a fellow American Express Publishing publication) and intel from industry insiders like veteran flight attendants and savvy travel bloggers.
So who's the best in business class? Here are 10 of the top airlines:
This much-awarded airline tops the list in many crucial areas, not least its impressive seats, which, according to SeatGuru, are the world's widest, a generous 34 inches on its Airbus A380-800, which flies from Singapore to London and Los Angeles, among other destinations. The cabin also features ample room between each seat, and, thanks to the 1-2-1 layout, gives every passenger direct access to the aisle.
The culinary offerings are similarly stellar: There's Givenchy tableware and a special "Book the Cook" option that enables passengers to preorder their main course from a lengthy online menu. Then there are the famously delightful flight attendants known for their thoughtful and intuitive service.
Hotel Insider's Philippe Kjellgren is a fan: "Singapore's business class is better than first class on most other airlines," he notes. "You get an almost queen-size bed, turndown service and proper linens. If they can do it, why can't everyone else?" singaporeair.com
Flagship airlines out of the Middle East -- showcasing increasingly luxurious cabins and services to keep pace with their deep-pocketed clientele -- have been giving traditional players across the globe a run for their money in recent years. This relative newcomer, established in 1981, has quietly been working its way up the ranks, coming in third for Best Business Class Airline Seat (length 77.5 inches, pitch 82 inches) and nabbing the No. 2 slot for business class overall in the 2013 World Airline Awards survey.
The service is exemplary as well: A warm welcome with Arabic dates and coffee greets business passengers (you'll have to upgrade to first for caviar service); a solid Champagne and wine selection follows when country law allows or once passengers are in flight. Another highlight: Oman Air offers door-to-door service with complimentary chauffeur-driven airport transfers in select destinations such as Paris, London, Muscat, Oman, and Mumbai, India. omanair.com
Established in 1993, the national carrier of this tiny, prosperous Arab state is already one of the world's most lauded, winning Skytrax's Best Business Class Overall award in 2013 and ranking second in Best Business Class Lounge for its luxe facility in Doha, Qatar. The business-class service has also racked up a number of firsts: Its B787s have the world's first dual-screen interfaces, which enable passengers to play games on handheld devices while waiting for movies to load.
The airline was also the first to offer different wine selections (handpicked by two Masters of Wine) going East and West out of Doha, Qatar, so that frequent fliers enjoy different selections on each leg; and it's the only airline to offer rosé Champagne in business -- Billecart-Salmon, no less. Having star chef Nobu Matsuhisa oversee the in-flight menu hasn't hurt either. qatarairways.com
This veteran airline is still going strong, consistently polling well with business travelers thanks to features like its Elemis amenity kits and an onboard "Club Kitchen," where fliers can graze between meals. Its lie-flat seats also have a distinctive "Z" position that extends to 6 feet, 6 inches and is ideal for watching movies.
The carrier's lounges also garner top marks -- the Heathrow Club World Lounge nabbed the third slot in the 2012 World Airline Awards Best Business Class Lounge category -- with special mention going to the Galleries Arrivals lounge, which features an Elemis Travel Spa, 94 shower rooms, cabanas with infinity bathrooms and a garment-pressing service. britishairways.com
This precocious youngster, launched in 2003 as the flagship carrier of the United Arab Emirates, has been busy winning the hearts of well-heeled travelers, not to mention several awards, including top-10 ranks for food, lounge and business class overall, according to Skytrax. The Pearl business-class cabin features 6-foot-1-inch flat beds with privacy shells and direct aisle access from every seat; food and beverage managers for each passenger; and thoughtful touches like mood lighting to help ease jet lag.
On the ground, meanwhile, expect to be pampered in the business lounge's Six Senses Spa. There's also a library stocked with papers and magazines and speedy services—ironing and shoe polishing—you can cue up while you shower. etihad.com
Swiss International Air Lines
Attention to detail is what sets this airline's business cabin apart: Expect out-of-the-box touches like all-veggie menus from Zurich's Haus Hiltl, the world's oldest vegetarian restaurant. The new angled seats and seating configuration (1-2-1/2-2-1, offering better access to the aisle) are also innovative, and the airline keeps the middle seat in three-seat rows empty on all European flights. "The seating configuration is one of our favorite options right now," writes Robeel Haq on the well-regarded travel blog The Aviation Writer, "providing privacy when you need it and the ability to travel and talk with a partner if you desire, plus it solves the dreaded 'step-over-a-sleeping-stranger' maneuver for the usual 2x2x2 seating configuration." swiss.com
Business travelers love this perennially popular carrier for all the reasons you'd imagine -- modern planes, an upbeat staff and loads of perks in the cheekily named "Upper Class" like 22-inch-wide beds that convert to 33 inches when it's time to sleep. Night owls can also head to the onboard galley bar to throw back a cocktail and mingle with fellow passengers.
It's back on earth where this airline really shines, though, largely thanks to its flagship London Heathrow Clubhouse. Here you can sip a Champagne cocktail at the buzzy, futuristic-looking glowing bar, have a facial or a close shave at the Cowshed Spa, tuck into a full English breakfast or catch a movie in The Den's state-of-the-art screening rooms. virgin-atlantic.com
This beloved airline no longer has the skies to itself when it comes to luxe service (it last won the Skytrax Airline of the Year award in 2005), but the Hong Kong carrier still stands tall when it comes to providing passenger comfort, with one of the world's widest business-class seats at 32 inches and a side storage compartment that doubles as extra knee space for those who prefer sleeping on their side. Cathay's highly regarded food and beverage program and legendary service also top the charts: In 2013, the airline came in No.1 in Skytrax's poll for World's Best Cabin Staff. cathaypacific.com
Given that its transpacific flights are some of the longest in the world, we're thankful that Australia's pride and joy has committed to a superior flying experience in business class. Passengers recline in award-winning Mark Newson-designed Sky Beds with massage options, and airline staff members do a turndown service with a mattress and duvet on request.
Amenities are courtesy of Kate Spade and Jack Spade, while dishes are conceived by Sydney's star chef Neil Perry and are served on Marc Newson-designed tableware. (There's even a "Select on Q-Eat" service that lets business fliers choose their preferred meal online 72 to 24 hours prior to departure.) The airline is also known for its wines: Qantas won Best Business Class Sparkling and Best Overall Cellar in the 2013 Cellars in the Sky Awards. Finally, the recent introduction of Chauffeur Drive gives business travelers on eligible international flights luxury car transfers both ways. qantas.com.au
One of the first Middle Eastern airlines with a cult following, this Dubai-based player continues to shine. Travel + Leisure readers ranked it No. 2 in the world in the magazine's 2013 survey, thanks to lie-flat seats (on all A380 aircraft) and restaurant-quality meals that start with Arabian mezze platters and end with gourmet cheeses, all served on Royal Doulton fine bone china with exclusive Robert Welch cutlery. The fact that Emirates also has one of the youngest fleets in the sky doesn't hurt its reputation as one of the luxury airlines to beat. emirates.com