Is First Class Still Relevant in 2019?

Seeing more than a few airlines upgrade their business class products over the past few years has raised the question: What will the future hold for First Class?
Two airlines have effectively ditched their first class products in recent months. First was Malaysia Airlines, who now sells their first class seats as Business Suites on their recently delivered Airbus A350 aircraft as well as on their current Airbus A380’s. Whilst the name has changed, the airline still offers upgraded amenities in the way of food, drinks and First Class lounge access to those on Business Suites tickets. The one difference however is the price point. Whilst it does cost more than a standard business class ticket, it is significantly less than what was being charged when it was first class. For those collecting miles, I suspect that those fares will no longer earn at first rates, and instead earn at business rates. If everything is virtually identical to First in these new business suites, then why change the name? Corporate customers. With a lot of companies making the pinch with regards to business travel, this is the airlines way to tempt a few of them to pay a slight premium for a class above regular business but still isn’t quite first.
In May 2019, another airline announced a similar concept. Asiana, who only offered First Class on their A380’s anyway said that on 1st September 2019 they will drop the highest level of class and instead sell it as business class. This will also be branded as Business Suites. Unlike Malaysia Airlines however, Asiana will not continue to offer the previous First Class service in its new Business Suites class. The only First Class perk that will be offered is access to the airlines First Class Lounge at Incheon Airport. Asiana’s reasoning is somewhat different to Malaysia Airlines. Their reasoning is purely financial, as it is far more economically viable to extend their business class product rather than offer a completely separate first class product. It is expected that fares will be somewhere between the current average business class and first class, so again, the airline is hoping to attract corporate customers with “No First” policies.
Other Airlines are cutting first class services in less conspicuous ways. Cathay Pacific have had their latest next generation Airbus A350 aircraft delivered with no first class cabin installed. Their previous generation 747’s had probably one of the best first class cabins fitted to any 747. Those were retired a few years back meaning only a number of the airlines 777-300ER’s now feature a first class cabin.
It’s a similar story further South in Singapore. Much like Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350’s were delivered without a first class cabin installed. Whilst the airline has unveiled a great looking new first class suite on its A380, the number of seats onboard the super jumbo has shrunk by 50% from twelve to six. It’s a similar story with their 777’s too. When the airline introduced their premium economy cabin, it was the seats in the first class cabin that got the chop, again, shrinking by 50% from eight first class seats to four. It’s not a trend limited to Asian carriers either. American Airlines has removed international first class from its entire fleet with the exception of its flagship Boeing 777-300ER, whilst at the same time has introduced a premium economy cabin further back. The same has occurred at United, where the introduction of its Polaris Business Class has resulted in the airline discontinuing its international first class offering in mid 2018. Meanwhile, Delta has never offered an international first class product, instead offering it’s Delta One product which is the airlines international business class product.
Even the mighty Emirates have made a minor cut back in this area. Back in 2015, the airline took delivery of a batch of Airbus A380’s with no first class cabin installed. In its place were 130 more economy seats.
Whilst falling corporate revenues are partly to blame for the cutting back of first class cabins, another reason is the fact that the current generation of business class products are getting far better. Within a week of each other in 2019, both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic unveiled their long awaited new business class products. Whilst both airlines had ground breaking products back in the day, these days both are a little outdated compared to the competition. Especially in the case of British Airways, who’s Club World featured eight abreast seating on board most of its aircraft and more or less lacked direct aisle access. Virgin Atlantic was a little better with a three abreast cabin, set out in a reverse herringbone layout. Whilst Virgin Atlantic attempted a refresh when the bulk of their Airbus A330 aircraft that were delivered in 2012, it backfired spectacularly and the Upper Class Dream Suite as it was called has now vanished. Replacing the current generation seat will be a reverse herringbone product when the airline receives its Airbus A350 aircraft in mid 2019, although it should be noted for the time being the new product will be exclusive to the A350 as there are no current plans to retrofit the airlines Boeing 787’s and Airbus A330’s.
British Airways have offered more of a revolution with their new business class product, dubbed the Club World Suite. Gone is the eight abreast ying-yang config, and in comes the seemingly industry standard 1-2-1 layout. Many observers have pointed out the new product now looks a little better than the airlines’ current first class offering. Obviously, going from eight seats across to four would ordinarily create a bit of a capacity loss. However, British Airways have solved this by ditching first class altogether on their soon to be delivered A350’s. On the 777’s due to receive the new product before the end of 2019, economy class has lost a few rows but the numbers have been made up by going to ten abreast from the current nine. The remainder of the space needed has come once again from cutting the number of seats at the front of the plane.
One of the most publicised business class launches over the last few years has been Qatar Airways QSuite. Widely regarded as having the strongest business class out there anyway, the airline went one step further by introducing a fully enclosed suite complete with a door. The airline itself bills this as “First in Business”. What remains to be seen is what will happen to the airlines’ first class product. Currently only offered onboard their A380 aircraft, from what I’ve seen (I haven’t flown Qatar Airways first class) it looks a little lacklustre in comparison to the airlines latest business class offering. As they’re due to retire their A380 fleet from 2024, one can only assume that the airlines first class product will be going with it – assuming that they haven’t re-purposed it as a business plus product by then.
Taking a look from another angle, while many airlines have improved their business class product to be almost up there with some first class offerings, a few airlines have upgraded their first class product to another level completely. When Etihad took delivery of their Airbus A380 aircraft, it featured the so called Residence, a three room apartment comprising of a living room, bathroom and bedroom at the front of the upper deck complete with a butler. Fellow UAE carrier Emirates has also recently introduced a new first class on their latest Boeing 777 aircraft featuring private cabins. The same goes for Singapore Airlines on their A380.
Emirates ‘Game Changer’ First Class Suite. © Emirates
Emirates ‘Game Changer’ First Class Suite. © Emirates
My own personal opinion is that there is a future for first class onboard. However I think it will take more of a niche role and as were seeing already with a number of airlines scaling back. Whilst the business class hard products are getting better these days, there are still other factors to differentiate between the two classes. For starters, if I take British Airways as an example, if you’re travelling in their Club World product from London Heathrow, you’ll be using the regular fast track, the Club lounges, which can often be extremely overcrowded and you’ll be handed group 2 for boarding. If you were to travel in their First cabin, you’ll gain access to the private First wing security and the Concorde Room which is more or less exclusively for First passengers. If you fly First Class with Lufthansa from Frankfurt, you’ll be treated to their first class terminal, followed by a private transfer to the plane. These are perks you simply do not get with business class, at least where the airline offers a first class product.

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