“If it don’t make dollars then it don’t make sense.” – Mos Def
Thanks to record low fares, the economy cabin is more accessible than ever, but it’s a lot tighter. For travellers who relished the old level of economy comforts, there’s now premium economy. It’s pretty nice, and offered at prices which were once standard for economy for an experience which mirrors what was once expected. Think: $800 for a transatlantic flight, rather than the $300 round trip airfares now found in economy.
But life in front of those curtains is simply a different level.
In fact, it feels like a different plane altogether.
On most international flights, business class has gone from comfy living room furniture to private suites with doors, some of which even offer refined dine on demand and wine cellars in the sky. With such high standards of living permeating the business class cabin, airlines are ditching first class at an alarming pace.
By the way – by first class, we’re talking about the big cabins on international flights, not the few extra inches of legroom on a short regional flight from Tuscaloosa to Muskogee. Despite what airlines may wish to call that lazy boy seat, it’ll forever just be business class and not one worth talking about.
2019, the year we said goodbye to first class…
The trend started last year, but 2019 has seen an acceleration in the demise of first class like no other. Despite booming economic growth in Asia, and an absolutely bursting aviation market, most of the retreat is actually coming from Asia as well.
In South Korea, the retreat from opulence has been fascinating. Korean Air debuted its most decadent first class suite in the nose of the Boeing 747-8 “Queen Of The Skies” in 2016, yet only years later, it launched a new “first class”, which was quite literally the same seat as business class on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The move stunned speculators at the time, who believed the first class boom was going nowhere.
Last week, Asiana, another South Korean airline announced that it would no longer sell first class at all. Which is odd, because it will still feature seats which can only be described as first class. Instead, planes which currently have the massive first class suites complete with privacy doors installed will be rebranded as “business suites”, and sold at a price point in between the two.
For Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific, it’s still there, but not everywhere. Like most airlines, Cathay has opted to grow with more surgical “point to point” route openings operated by smaller planes. People don’t like to connect, despite more attractive stopover programs than ever. For most long haul Cathay flights, that means you’ll now enjoy the Airbus A350, which Cathay designed without a first class at all.
Further South, it’s much of the same. Malaysia has ditched first class, even on brand new planes where the seats actually exist. The airline now sells them, much like Asiana as “business suites” a level just above business class.
And to the West – things aren’t all that different either. Delta has never offered first class, but has bridged the gap with many new business class seats offering doors. British Airways newest plane orders are a mix of planes without first class at all, or small first class cabins consisting of just 8 seats. Lufthansa and Swiss are on the same page.
In a world of increasingly glaring eyeballs and oversight, well heeled executives enjoying Dom Perignon behind closed doors versus slumming it in business class with some Moet was ringing many of the wrong bells, and many corporate travel policies banned first class travel.
At the same time, business class has become so good on many airlines, few reasonable people could require more. Of course, require and want are completely different things, but that’s a different conversation. With business class becoming so palatable and direct flights taking precedence over connections, sales of first class declined dramatically.
Unfortunately for airlines, that didn’t mean that first class cabins did not need to be staffed, stocked with fine booze or lined with trays of caviar though. Frequent flyers and points collectors relish every opportunity to upgrade from business to first, or to cash in hard earned points for first class flights.
Many airlines have noted that most people enjoying the finest rare pleasures on their flights weren’t strictly paying for them. Caviar, nor vintage champagne are cheap and without enough fully paying customers, it just doesn’t make much sense.
Crunching the numbers
If you think airlines are transport businesses, think again. Airlines are lifestyle, hedge fund, fuel speculating behemoths slowly learning to maximise every inch. Qantas has invested millions in flight planning software to calculate how to save fuel by doing complex weather calculations.
Until the Boeing 777X launches, the Airbus A380 remains the last aircraft large enough to remotely justify the space requirements of an industry leading first class experience. As airlines go the way of smaller and more versatile planes, which put less pressure on filling seats, we’ll see fewer of them.
First class is nearing extinction, no doubt, but the game isn’t over yet. While most airlines retreat, Singapore Airlines and Emirates are doubling down with their largest and most spacious cabins yet. Not only that, but they’ve upped the wine budget. There’s still a market out there for true luxury, it’s just not everywhere.
Fine dining and showers in the sky aside, there’s never been a better time to fly first class and a big part of that is because your opportunities to experience the very best are dwindling, and fast.