Following the storylines, it’d be easy to repeat the soundbite that first class is dead. Long live the caviar, champagne and private suites. But it’s not, and airlines are taking the great pause to rethink, reinvigorate, and with any hope – improve on the already wowing offerings. You just might not see them for a while.
Singapore Airlines sent the luxury travel message boards alight this week, when it pulled its first class suites, the largest first class spaces in the skies from sale through the end of the calendar. Airlines typically operate a 330-365 day calendar, so first class is currently “off” entirely through August of 2021.
While other airlines haven’t gone quite as far as removing the first class cabin from sale entirely, those which still operate the ultra indulgent offerings, rather than just a refined business class have slashed away at routes and availability.
Etihad, the airline with the second most square footage in first class hardly has any flights showing first class in action at the moment. Cathay Pacific, a beloved airline for first class is operating most flights with more fuel efficient Airbus A350 aircraft sans first class, until demand for their larger, first class equipped Boeing 777’s returns.
When British Airways retired the Boeing 747, they also retired the majority of their airplanes with first class seats. Most new arrivals offer “Club World” business class as the top level of service. Air France, which offers first class on select Boeing 777-300ER aircraft has also reduced its first class footprint. Qantas, another first class favorite simply doesn’t have any long haul flights scheduled at all through mid 2021.
So what’s happened to first class?
Basically, uncertainty, and as a result, lack of need for massive aircraft. Coincidentally, massive aircraft tend to be the ones where you find first class. To save money, airlines are flying the smallest and most fuel efficient planes they can right now, in attempts to curb key costs. Plus, who likes to pay $10,000 for economy wine in a plastic cup?
Until airlines know when borders will open, most first class equipped planes will stay out of the skies.
Space wise, first class was always a fortunate problem for most airlines, and most seats were designed during booms in large aircraft orders. The Airbus A380 became such a mammoth success in terms of passenger numbers from the lower deck alone, chances could be taken to create bold and daring spaces up front on the upper deck.
And chance they did. Etihad, Qatar, Emirates, Qantas and Korean each designed unique social spaces to accompany their stunning first class cabins, with lavatories the size of many home bathrooms, and some featuring shower suites too.
On the Boeing 777, another first class legend, the story was much the same. The plane was so long, there was plenty of space to juice economy to the max, add premium, and business class and still leave some room for the suede curtains.
Airlines simply aren’t generating the passenger numbers to justify these mammoth birds flying through the skies, nor the fuel costs that come along with them. A modern, more fuel efficient plane such as the Boeing 787 or Airbus A350 can cut operating costs for airlines in half, compared to some older models.
In a statement, Singapore Airlines told media that removal of first class seats for sale was simply a temporary move while uncertainty around fleet planning exists. Many airlines have removed the A380 from service either permanently, or temporarily.
For Singapore Airlines, an airline operating in a country which only recently opened to transit traffic, and still offers virtually no tourism, committing 500 seat planes to key routes is too much of a gamble right now. Until more is known, aircraft selections will remain on hold, or be defaulted to smaller Airbus A350 or Boeing 787 flights.
And then there’s the service.
Some airlines maintained pre covid-19 levels of service throughout virtually the entire duration of the pandemic, with fine china, glassware and a selection of booze. Others, including British Airways, took the opportunity to cut costs, removing first class booze in favor of mini bottles of wine from economy, and pre packaged meals. Fortunately, the worst of those days seems to be in the rear view mirror now.
Airlines which have enjoyed halo’s around their unrivaled first class service are also weary of putting anything but their best effort forth during these challenging times. The only thing worse than customers with their wings temporarily clipped is losing customers over mistakes.
First Class Will Come Back Strong
We’re living in a world of unprecedented fear. For those benefiting from the increasing concentration of wealth in the world, first class offers 2m of distance on the plane, and in most cases – a door between you and the next person.
With some airlines, like Air France, or Lufthansa, it also means a private terminal, and private car ride to the plane. While $10,000 may seem wild to most, it’s a lot cheaper than the $100,000 to charter a jet on a long haul flight, and provides arguably better comfort.
With an uphill battle to lure corporate travelers back in, first class is also a fantastic sales tool for business class clients. Few key decision makers can resist that extra level of service, seclusion, Champagne or sleep in first, and keeping a few upgrades on deck for big clients never hurts. Basically, demand will be remain strong in fewer markets, but may be stronger than ever.
For airlines, this extended break offered a chance to figure out which routes actually make money in first class, and what can be done to make the cabin more attractive. It may mean fewer flights wide open using points for aspiring travel bloggers to snap the ultimate travel goals photos, but there was always a balance. First class won’t be dead forever.