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Mile High Bars

Libations reach new heights with six airlines that carry luxury service above and beyond

June 29, 2019

Real estate in an aircraft is highly precious. Installing anything other than the basics – seats, galleys and lavatories – is a costly luxury. Perhaps this is why airlines have been taking their time to introduce mile high bars or lounges, in any real sense.

Air France and Japan Airlines once boasted of “onboard bars,” but these were nothing to write home about, especially compared to the existing six bars that fly today.

These outposts of cheer are manned by crew at all times, are exclusive to passengers flying business class and above, and make for interesting spaces to network or work in solitude. Comparing layout, beverage choices, service, seating and roominess, each has its own appeal.


Swanky is the first word that comes to mind when we talk about Emirates’ bar aboard its A380. Located at the back of the upper deck, it is accessible to business and first class passengers.The horseshoe-shaped bar’s underlit counter is crowded with nuts, cheese and bread sticks, cut fruit and small bites. Opposite is another buffet with more finger food. Hot snacks can be ordered from an a la carte menu. Bottles packed on two shelves are an indication of the choices here. A 55-inch flat screen displays live updates of the flight.With interiors in cream and gold hues trimmed in glossy dark wood trim, the lounge bar feels more or less like a living room. Fresh flowers are placed in a wall-mounted vase, and tall floor lamps are positioned beside both window seating options. It is brightly lit, even when the window shades are pulled down at sunset. A crew member is always available even in the middle of the night, should we fancy a cocktail or need a night cap. The space is large enough to accommodate 26 passengers at a time, with padded bench seating options for eight. Soundproof curtains divide the lounge from the rest of the aircraft, keeping the lounge chatter from drifting into the other cabins. The back end of the bar opens into the galley, which means crew members walk through here frequently, sometimes making it feel more crowded than it is. There are no power outlets, but that’s a problem only if you plan to work here long.

Etihad Airways 

This A380 doesn’t have a bar, but has a self-service lounge instead. It is accessible to passengers of Etihad’s Residence, first and business class and is situated between the first and business cabins. Called The Lobby, the lounge looks a lot like a living room dressed in dark wood, mood lighting and a big screen on which one can watch a live sports. Windows are missing here, which means for a dose of natural light, we must head back to our seats. Designed more like a sit-down space, standing by the bar can be awkward if the sofas are occupied; unless mingling with strangers comes easily.The Lobby has a circular seating area that seats six on two Poltrona Frau leather sofas placed around a circular coffee table. Foldable armrests (two per sofa) are placed between the individual seats, each with power outlets, including a USB charging port.The offerings include a premium collection of champagne, wines, whiskies, beers, spirits and liqueurs. Bottles are neatly arranged in a cabinet with a cooler, and equipped with glasses, bottle openers, napkins and cutlery. In fact, the Etihad Airways cellar is known for its extensive choice of fine wines, and a tasting can be arranged by the crew. For snacks, just ask the attentive crew member who appears as soon as you enter the lounge. There is a delicious assortment of bakery items – sweet and savory – as well as small plates, traditional bites, tea and coffee.

Korean Air 

Located at the back of the A380’s upper deck, Korean Air’s entry is called Celestial Bar and is the result of a partnership between the airline and Absolut vodka. Hence, the only drinks available here are vodka-based cocktails. The bar doesn’t stock other alcohol varieties, however on request the crew will bring other choices from the adjoining galley; luckily no restrictions apply on what can be consumed at Celestial Bar.Exclusive to first and business class passengers, Celestial Bar has a spaceship feel. In the evenings, it is dressed in blue light; tiny lights on the grey patterned wallpaper twinkle brightly, like starlight. During the day, natural light from the three windows behind the sofa floods the bar. White lighting gives the almost all-white interiors a pristine appearance.There is a sofa for three people accompanied by a single seat without a backrest. Diagonally opposite this cluster is a padded L-shaped divider – the two seats on it aren’t very comfortable to sit on, unless you’re using them for support when standing. Additionally, there is enough room for passengers to comfortably stand at the bar (manned throughout the duration of the flight) or around the lounge area. A flat screen displays live flight details. Below it are books on various subjects.The counter is populated with savory snacks and bite-sized desserts – nuts, cheese sticks, chocolate cake, fresh fruit and canapés to name a few – the selection varies for each flight.Toward the aircraft’s nose is a self-help lounge of sorts, smaller than the Celestial Bar, with a sofa that can accommodate four people in a narrow, windowless space with a screen for the in-flight entertainment. Coffee-table books are placed below the television. There are cup holders between the second and third seats, with counter space behind the backrests. Here, passengers can help themselves to soft drinks, vodka, coffee, tea and nibbles arranged in a corner.

Qatar Airways 

Follow the purple mood lighting toward the back of Qatar Airways’ A380 upper deck. It leads to a cozy, yet spacious set-up that is the airline’s onboard bar. A chandelier-like light fixture brightens up the muted cabin dressed in a palette of caramel and burgundy. The bar counter with foot rest is cleverly shaped like a question mark. Bottles – beer, champagne, gin, liqueur, whisky, wine and vodka – are arranged on two backlit shelves. Leather lounge sofas, each large enough for four people, flank the bar. Lamps are placed on the end tables. Those sitting toward the middle of the sofa also have access to a tabletop placed between the second and third seats. There is one more sofa for two people in the bar’s tail end. Though the onboard lounge bar is situated between the business class and the upper economy class cabin, it is available exclusively to business and first class passengers.Guests can help themselves to a fruit basket, cheese platter, amuse bouche, bite-sized desserts, chocolate pods and nuts placed on the counter. The bar is usually quieter at night, and if we’re flying across time zones it’s a nice place to buckle up on the sofa and get some work done. Charging outlets are available at the ends of both lounge sofas. Alternatively, this is also where we can network with other guests when most people are awake.

Virgin Atlantic 

The bars on board all Virgin Atlantic aircraft (747-400, 787-9, A340-600 and A330-300) are restricted to the airline’s upper class passengers. The compact bar is situated at the back of the upper class cabin and there’s no separation – not even curtains. When the bar is crowded, don’t expect a quiet moment as the sounds of inebriated chatter are audible all the way to the front of the cabin.During the day, it looks like an ordinary bar. High stools line one side of the bar crowded with bottles – top brands of wines, champagne, spirits, beers, liqueurs and whiskies. Munchie choices are nothing fancy; fruits, nuts and pre-packaged snacks are placed in bowls on the counter.The overall vibe of the bar is casual. In the evenings, mood lighting changes to the carrier’s signature red and purple, adding some character to the otherwise plain looking set-up. The chrome finishes sparkle, adding a touch of glam. If it isn’t too crowded, we have the option of eating dinner here too.Luxurious is not how one would describe Virgin Atlantic’s onboard bars. With roughly four bar stools and little space to stand, this wouldn’t be a place to relax as a change from your seat on long-haul flights. There is a high probability of jostling for space when the bar is crowded. During the day it can easily reach its full capacity, forcing the crew to turn people away. And unlike other airlines, when the seat belt sign is switched on, our only choice is to buckle up back in our own seats, rather than at the bar.

Virgin Australia

Simply named The Bar aboard its 777-300, Virgin Australia’s offering is exclusive to and is situated within the business class cabin, between rows seven and eight. It is as wide as the middle row of the cabin, and can accommodate up to ten guests. There are four bar stools and a banquette for two people, upholstered in black leather, leaving enough room for four more to stand around comfortably. A good-sized table is available at the banquette. Above it is a backlit Flying Maiden, the airline’s logo. The ceiling has a leaf pattern like the one in Virgin Australia’s domestic lounges.Visitors can enjoy wines, spirits, whiskies, Australian beers and cocktails, as well as finger food during the flight. The counter has a bright white backlight, with bottles displayed across two shelves. When it gets dark, the cabin lights are dimmed, making The Bar look strikingly attractive with only the basics lit up — counter, logo, shelves and outline of the pattern on the ceiling. In the mornings, The Bar turns into a nice, bright place to enjoy breakfast with freshly brewed Nespresso coffee. Just inform the crew to serve you there.Charging outlets are missing here, and should the seat belt signs come on, we’re expected to walk back to our seats until it is safe to crowd The Bar again. Built right in the middle of the cabin, The Bar can get noisy for the rest of the passengers who would rather enjoy a quiet time in their seats. Attenuating this are thick curtains; they don’t altogether obliterate the sound from The Bar, but they do a good job of toning down most of it.