Luxury lounges: how the other half flies

NOBODY wants their flight to be delayed.

NOBODY wants their flight to be delayed. But there's one group of travellers who respond to that "we apologise for any inconvenience caused" announcement with a nonchalant shrug, maybe even a smile.

Those are the travellers ensconced in the first class lounge where that extra hour can mean time for a second course of restaurant-grade food, another glass or two from a fully stocked bar, or even a last-minute visit to a beauty spa for a pre-flight facial.

Some first class lounges offer the ultimate escape for weary globetrotters: a private room.

First class lounges are less about simply waiting for your flight, and more like a five-star escape from the masses.

These spacious and stylish sanctuaries are a cut above the business lounges favoured by most frequent flyers and business class passengers. As the name indicates, first class lounges are aimed at the well-heeled high flyers who travel in the pointiest end of the plane.

However, many first class lounges also welcome top-tier members of an airline's frequent flyer scheme.

For example, a platinum member of the Qantas Frequent Flyer scheme can luxe it up in the Qantas First Lounge at Sydney and Melbourne international airports - even if they're flying in economy.

And, as first class lounges go, the Qantas First Lounge in Sydney is easily among the world's best.

Designed by Marc Newson, the architecture is stunning. Dramatic wooden spars cambered like the inside of an aeroplane wing square off against full-length windows with views over the runway and to the city skyline beyond.

The gourmet food, wine and service are what you'd expect from an up-market bistro, and many dishes share ingredients from Neil Perry's restaurants, such as Australian wagyu beef.

Visitors can avail themselves of a free session in the Payot day spa offering treatments such as moisturising facials, manicures and massages.

Spas are the hot ticket at first class lounges, with many airlines offering their own twist.

The swish Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at Heathrow combines its day spa with a Bumble and Bumble salon for hair styling.

Thai Airways' Royal Orchid Spa Lounge at Bangkok lays on the full Thai spa treatment with elegantly appointed treatment suites and choice of oils for a full-body massage.

Finnair's international lounge at Helsinki has a truly Scandinavian spa with four types of sauna, an icy plunge pool and two warm pools.

Some first class lounges offer the ultimate escape for weary globetrotters: a private room.

The British Airways Concorde Room at Heathrow has a handful of hotel-like "cabana rooms" with a day bed, bathroom and room service.

Lufthansa goes one better than a first-class lounge, with a terminal dedicated to passengers flying first class from their home base in Frankfurt. Lufthansa's First Class Terminal is less like a lounge than a private luxury hotel, with its own check-in desk and security checkpoints. And when it's flight time, passengers are chauffeur-driven to the plane's first-class stairway.

And in this highly competitive end of the market, airlines can't afford to lounge around when it comes to putting their deluxe digs on show.

Cathay Pacific's The Wing First Class Lounge at Hong Kong will reopen in February, after a six-month renovation.

Singapore Airlines begins a worldwide refresh of its SilverKris Lounges in March, with Sydney the first to receive a highly stylised makeover.

Yet for all their appeal, first class lounges aren't the final word in airport snob value. That honour belongs to the even more rarefied world of the VIP lounge.

These are strictly invitation-only affairs to stroke elite egos: politicians, A-list celebrities and the upper ranks of Australia's largest companies, especially those who shovel a substantial amount of their travel budget towards an airline.

Qantas operates the super-elite Chairman's Lounge, which its chief executive, Alan Joyce, once described as "probably the most exclusive club in the country".

The Chairman's Lounge is aptly named: the chairman of Qantas, Leigh Clifford, personally signs off on each membership application. Virgin Australia is building an equivalent network of lounges known simply as The Club.

However, airlines are loath to discuss these lounges beyond acknowledging their existence and it's rare to even see photos of what lies beyond those frosted glass doors.

It all seems a bit like Fight Club: the first rule of belonging to a VIP lounge is that you don't talk about it.

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