Will first class disappear from airplanes?

Renamed by some, removed by others, are the first classes doomed to disappear from the sky?

There is no denying the facts: the number of airlines offering true first class has been decreasing over the last 20 years and, for those who have kept this product, it has become scarce on board their flights. Today, first class is the prerogative of Asian and Gulf airlines and a few European majors (Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways, Swiss to name a few). I’m not talking about the American airlines which, if they offer a “First Class” on their medium-haul flights, only offer a business class under this name, a term they reserve for long-haul flights.

The scarcity of first classes: a principle of economic reality

At this time I would speak more of rarefaction than of disappearance and this tendency is, unfortunately, of an implacable logic at the economic level. These cabins are expensive and take up a lot of space in the aircraft compared to the number of passengers they carry. And, logically, as soon as the sector experiences one of the cyclical crises of which it has the secret, it is the front classes that suffer in the name of the sacrosanct densification of the cabins. And in the first place, the 1st class.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that they left North American aircraft first, a market that has always favored ultra-competitiveness, even at the expense of the passenger experience.

But even for those airlines that have decided to keep this type of product, it has become much more rare. Again a totally rational choice. Again, this is an expensive product for both the airline and the customer and it clearly does not make sense on all routes. As a result, the number of seats offered in first class has been reduced on most airlines and the product is now only available on certain aircraft operating on routes where there is a market for such a product.

This is why, for example, you will see Air France operating Beirut or Dubai in 777s equipped with a first class cabin, while Amman, hardly far away, is entitled to an A321 equipped at best with a medium-haul business cabin (a polite way to designate an economy cabin with an improved meal). 1sts for Singapore yes, for Bangkok no, matter of customers.

The 1st class: a flagship and a matter of prestige.

In fact, not everything is rational in offering a 1st class product or not. The first one is the “flagship” of an airline, the demonstration of what it can do best, the incarnation of its know-how. Whether we like it or not, the passenger who has “seen” the first one uses it as a master standard for the rest of the aircraft. Even if he only flies in eco he will project himself on this inaccessible product.

More than 60 million people have seen this video. And people around me who had never flown on Emirates said to me “it looks great, next time I’ll go with them…. in economy”.

By the way, the youtuber in question must have had a hard time finding a date with a $21,0000 fare: I did a quick simulation and it’s usually around 12,000€ for a round trip and 8,000 for a one way. Inaccessible, but a little less inaccessible than $21,000. And I don’t find that his style enhances the product so much but that’s another topic.

The first class is therefore, understandably, essential to the Gulf airlines for the image they want to give. And moreover they have the clientele for! That’s where you’ll find the most.

In Asia this is already becoming more rare and in Europe even more so.

Moreover, few airlines communicate on the occupancy rate and, especially, the profitability of the product. That’s not the point, although they would prefer it to be profitable). The important thing is to have the product and to use it to sell the dream to passengers who will travel in eco or even business because they cannot access it. But as far as cars are concerned, a small Mercedes is still a Mercedes and it is the image of models reserved for a rare clientele that drives the sales of more accessible models.

When business class grows wings

Rarefaction but not disappearance. At least for now. In recent years, business cabins have made great strides and the most recent models offer passengers what used to make the 1st class exclusive: private suites.

TheDelta One Suitefor example.

One Suite at Delta
Delta One suite.
Source: Delta

China Eastern’s Business Class Suite, which uses the same seat as Delta.

China Eastern business class suite
China Eastern business class suite
China Eastern business class suite
China Eastern business class suite
china eastern business class suite
China Eastern business class suite

And, of course, the famous QSuite at Qatar.


And the latest one : the British Airways club suite just presented yesterday !

British Airways Club Suite
British Airways Club Suite
British Airways Club Suite
British Airways Club Suite

The announcement of British Airways came while this article was almost finished so we will come back to it in detail in a future article.

Anyway, we are not far from what we find in 1st class elsewhere (even if Qatar and British also offer a 1st class). The difference between these “business suites” and the 1st class? The size: in one you can lie down or sit, in the other you can take a step or two…or more.

What is the point of maintaining a 1st class when we can offer business products of this type which cost (a little) less to buy and are largely more affordable for the customer?

You can keep a 1st when you are able to maintain the gap between the business and the 1st. Which today means offering a totally exceptional product.

And here I can’t help but think of the new Singapore Airlines first.

Or at the Etihad Residence ( a product above the 1st)

We can keep a first class to give a less populated and more exclusive cabin. But on the other hand it is enough to split the business cabin into smaller modules to achieve the same result.

This is a bit of a calculation for Korean, whose business class on a B787 is an example.

Korean Business Class
Business Class on Korean B787

And here is the 1st on the same aircraft.

Korean First Class
1st Class Korean on B787

Shall we play 7 differences game? Simply more space and a bigger screen in the 1st…. as well as a better service.

And we can keep a 1st class to offer a product whose excellence goes much further than the simple seat. Because whether we talk about 1st or business, the seat is not everything. There is also the “soft product” that is to say :

– service: attention, passenger/crew ratio, service protocol.

– the food: more sophisticated, with more noble products and more great wines first.

• la prestation au sol : avec des salons et des services dédiés au sol comme le transfert depuis le s- ground services: with dedicated lounges and services on the ground such as transfer from the lounge to the aircraft by limousine…alon jusqu’au pied de l’avion en limousine…

And it is the soft product that contributes to increase the bill: when the wine is oimproved by 2 or 3 categories, when caviar is added, when the number of passengers per crew member is reduced, it is immediately more expensive.

With the race for better business classes cabins, the question of maintaining a 1st class is therefore raised in other terms: beyond the cabin, is the passenger ready to pay for a luxury soft product when premium or superior premium would be sufficient?

When 1st class disguises itself as business class

At Korean they think the opposite: almost identical seats but different services and prices as we have seen.

Same at Malaysia. It looks like 1st class, it smells like 1st class but ….. it’s a business class !

Malaysia business Suite on A350
Malaysia business Suite on A350
Malaysia business Suite on A380
Malaysia business Suite on A380

A Business class seat or more precisely a “Business Suite”. Malaysia has decided to keep its business cabin and replaced its first cabin by a cabin which will be, at the fare level, halfway between the business and the ex first. So halfway seat and halfway service as well. On the other hand, Malaysia surely could not afford a “luxury” product with a low load factor.

And no one will take me away from the idea that there is something else behind this movement: by renaming the products in this way I have no doubt that the airlines hope to pass through the scrutiny of their corporate clients Travel Policies or, by minimizing the gap between business and “business premium”, allow the business traveler to upgrade at his own expense at an acceptable price if his business only allows him “normal business”.

Worrying” signals at Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines?

But in any case we also see airlines starting to abandon purely and simply any product above the business. For example, the Lufthansa 777-9X will be delivered without a first class cabin.

No first class on Singapore Airlines’ A350s either. What future for the 1st when the A380 is out of the fleet? It’s still too early to tell but I don’t see an airline like Singapore abandoning this product. However, it is quite possible that in the future it will be reserved for the B777-9X, of which Singapore Airlines has already ordered 20. It must be said that even if the 350 is wide, the 777 lends itself more to this type of layout due to its width and length, which means that the space occupied will penalize the total capacity of the cabin less in proportion.

The future: firsts that make sense and even more fragmented premium cabins

What conclusions can be drawn for the future? I see three.

The first is that many airlines will no longer need first class to offer a superior premium experience without going to a hard-to-fill first class. A premium business class will suffice. The conclusion is that only the airlines that combine three things will be interested in 1stes: a clientele that can afford it, destinations that make sense for this product and a positioning, I would even say a “luxury” or “art of living” culture or DNA. I call this category “1st classes that make sense”.

Where ? I am thinking of the Gulf airlines, some Asian airlines like Singapore or Japan Airlines. In Europe we know that Lufthansa will not continue and will not go for a business/premium business segmentation. But if the airline has a reputation of reliability, it cannot be said that it has a luxury or liftestyle DNA. Swiss ? Why not by forcing it a little. British ? Why not too. But one can think that its new business product will reduce the number of destinations and aircraft on which first class makes sense. Air France: this is the airline that by definition embodies this positioning and needs this type of flagship, which corresponds to Benjamin Smith’s ambitious positioning. But you still need to have the means to achieve your ambitions and with the A380s leaving, the 777s aging and no 777X in sight, I can’t see on which aircraft to install a new-generation first class that meets market standards and that, in my opinion, wouldn’t fit well on a 787 or a 350 for exactly the same reasons as those given for Singapore Airlines

And my beloved little Garuda? Economically I see them better going to premium business than keeping a 1st one that they have trouble filling even if the service is exceptional.

The second is an even more fragmented booth for an increasingly granular offer. We had considered the possibility of a multi-tiered economy class. Now we are talking about the front. Premium eco / business / premium business or first….on will be able to adapt more easily to customer expectations and to the context of the different markets.

The last one, if some were wondering how to fit so many “premium” seats, is the global premiumization of the cabins of the majors.

Photo : La Première Air France Cabin (c)TravelGuys. Use prohibited without our agreement.

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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