At Heathrow's private suites, designed for up to six people, fliers pass swiftly and privately through their own immigration and security screening. While they're waiting, hors d'oeuvres and Champagne are provided. Steak, sushi or other meals can be delivered from airport restaurants. When it comes time to actually fly, passengers are driven to their plane in a BMW 7 Series sedan and escorted to their seat.
U.S. airlines have copied a bit of that touch. United started in July and Delta Air Lines in 2011 driving their top customers who have tight connections at major airports from one gate to another in luxury cars. No need to enter the terminal, let alone fight the crowd on the moving walkway.
Want to board first? No problem. Want to be the last one seated, moments before the door closes? Sure. Airlines will even save room for your bags in the overhead bin.
(Read more: High fliers: The world's fastest-growing airlines)
International first class has long been distinguished by gourmet meals, wide seats and giant TVs preloaded with hundreds of movies and TV shows. But in recent years, airlines also upgraded their international business class sections, ripping apart cabins to install chairs that convert into lay-flat beds. That left very little to differentiate first class from business class.
So some airlines scrapped the ultra-premium cabin. Others have cut the number of first-class seats in half, thereby creating a more intimate experience that commands the higher price. For instance, a roundtrip flight in July between New York and Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific costs $1,600 in coach, $7,600 in business class and $19,000 in first class. Other airlines charge similar price differences among their passenger classes.
Besides privacy, that extra cash provides an outsize seat, attentive service and superior wines and liquors. Austrian Airlines, Etihad Airways and Gulf Air are among the carriers to staff planes with their own first-class chefs. Instead of having flight attendants reheating meals cooked on the ground, these chefs prepare the meals at 35,000 feet.
Sometimes, that smell wafts back to the rest of the plane.
"You know they've got something good up in front of the curtain, and you know you don't have anything close to it," Harteveldt says. "When you fly coach, you are reminded of the fact that you are unimportant as a traveler."
In the ultimate show of indulgence, Emirates has offered an onboard shower for first class passengers on its A380s since the plane joined the fleet in 2008.
Once back on the ground, that luxury treatment continues. At airports in Paris, London, Istanbul, Bangkok, Sydney and elsewhere, airlines offer their top passengers fast-track cards allowing them to speed past immigration lines.
And then, while other passengers wait in lines for buses, taxis or shuttles, chauffeurs in suits meet these fliers ready to—once again—whisk them out of the chaos.
—By The Associated Press