French airline Air France has launched its new first-class section in Shanghai in an attempt to capture a slice of Asia's rising number of high fliers.
The airline's "haute couture" suite will feature a seat that reclines into a bed stretching 2.01 metres long and 77 centimetres across (6 ft 7 ins and 30 inches) -- one of the most spacious in the world.
A total of 76 of the seats will be fitted into the airline's 19 Boeing 777-300 jets at a cost of 50 million euros ($70 million), the company said as it showed off the new offering in an expenses-paid trip for journalists to China's commercial hub.
"In 2012, we made a promise to identify which products (we needed to improve) to push Air France up into the ranks of the major airlines," said the company's CEO, Frederic Gagey. "Those 50 million euros were needed to propel Air France to the top of those companies."
"It's our clients who will judge the product. We are extremely proud of the result and extremely confident. The improvement in the range affects all of our classes and not only first," he said.
Air travel in Asia is set to take off as growing middle classes take to the skies, prompting increasing competition for well-heeled passengers, and industry expert Didier Brechemier, of the Roland Berger Strategy consultancy, said that "first class is a tool in terms of image".
The launch came days after the Emirati airline Etihad revealed a first-class sofa that converts into a bed extending 2.04 metres long and 66 centimetres wide, which will go into Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 planes.
Singapore Airlines currently boasts the most spacious first-class seat, which it revealed in July last year at 2.08 metres by 90 centimetres.
First class occupies just a sliver of the air-travel market, with Air France's 52,000 such customers a year representing an occupancy rate of 38 percent, 0.3 percent of total long-haul passengers and 1.8 percent of long-haul revenue, said Bruno Matheu, head of Air France's passenger business.
But with return ticket prices averaging 9,000 euros ($12,500) across the company's network the luxury seats are highly profitable and he said they "generate more revenue than if we filled that space with economy or business-class seats".