Does first class have a future?

2 May 2024 by BusinessTraveller
British Airways First (image supplied by British Airways)

With ongoing improvements in business, first class needs to outdo itself to survive.

Some might consider the mid-20th century as the real ‘golden era’ of travel, when jet aircraft came to the fore. With the launch of the Boeing 747, high-flying passengers could leave their seats to explore sizeable onboard bars and lounges. But despite the era’s glitz and glamour, one reality remained true: flying first class across oceans still meant merely reclining in a seat – not lying down.

Over time, first class evolved from that comfortable chair into an actual bed. In the early stages, there was little focus on privacy. The very novelty of having a bed in the sky was a drawcard, with no need for sliding doors or showers.

Meanwhile, business class made its grand debut back in 1970, but it wasn’t until 2000 that an airline dared put a bed anywhere other than the first class cabin. We can thank British Airways for setting that standard, which so many travellers now expect of a business class flight.

Business class has even come to surpass the first class of yesteryear. Seats became beds, meals and wine lists became more lavish, and passengers grew accustomed to direct aisle access. It hasn’t stopped there. On some airlines, the privacy previously reserved for first class is now becoming standard in business class with closing doors at every seat.

It’s clear that business class is no longer just a ‘practical’ product where you’ll do some work and get some rest. It’s now more of a luxury experience: and not just about ‘business’. After all, those double beds in Qatar Airways’ Qsuite weren’t exactly designed with work trips in mind. But where does this all leave first class? Are we at a point now where business class is so evolved that first class just can’t beat it? Let’s have a look.

First class or second best

Many airlines continue to push business class to new heights, but there’s less room to innovate in first class. For airlines already offering palatial private suites with all the trimmings, how much further can the envelope really be pushed? Instead, it’s more common to see incremental improvements: wider privacy doors, longer beds, 4K TVs and so on.

Arguably, the first class journey isn’t even so much about the seat. Factors such as separate lounges on the ground, supreme service in the air and better perks all round are part of the enticing offer. I’m mindful of a recent journey of my own, in British Airways First from London to New York. On a plane offering BA’s closing-door Club Suites in business class, I still happily parted with even more miles to fly BA First instead. It wasn’t the seat that enticed me: let’s be honest, Club Suites offers greater privacy. It was the whole experience, including a much-anticipated visit to Heathrow’s exclusive Concorde Room.

Now to BA’s credit, closing doors are starting to appear in First to balance the playing field. But the point remains true. Mileage redemptions are one thing, but why would somebody really spend thousands of pounds extra for first class when business class is good enough? It’s a question that’s clearly been mulled over the years by BA rival Virgin Atlantic – and evidently, without reaching a good answer. Instead, the carrier cheekily brands its best cabin as ‘Upper Class’, perhaps in attempt to woo any traveller who sits forward of premium economy.

To carriers across the pond, long-haul first class is on the way out. It’s already gone from the fleets of Delta and United Airlines. For American Airlines, it’s not quite extinct, but it’s getting close. Some admire the way AA’s Boeing 777 Flagship First seat can transform into a window-facing office. But its days are numbered, with AA replacing its current long-haul business and first class offerings with just one product: Flagship Suite. Before you ask, yes, it has a closing door, gazumping today’s Flagship First. In fact, in the US, it pays to check your ticket closely. There, ‘first class’ often refers to those cushy recliners on shorter flights, not the palatial suites between continents. Buyer, beware.

Emirates first class (image supplied by Emirates)

First class in the Middle East

First class had long been a hallmark of service for the ‘Big Three’ Gulf airlines: Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. For Emirates, first class is a staple on the majority of its flights. Closing doors are the norm, and on its newest Boeing 777s, those doors extend to the cabin ceiling for the ultimate in privacy. On its Airbus A380s, the doors don’t stretch as far – but that’s neither here nor there when you can shower on the plane instead.

Not to be outdone, Etihad’s first class Apartments offer adjoining suites with privacy doors and an opening partition between pairs, not to mention a shower. For those with even more cash to splash, a flight in The Residence by Etihad takes things further. This three-room, better-than-first-class experience combines a lounge, bedroom and en suite bathroom and shower to rival a private jet.

And then there’s Qatar Airways. While Qatar’s national carrier has been on the front foot in business class with its famed Qsuite, first class is another story. The carrier positioned Qsuite as a way of making first class obsolete. Qatar’s tagline “First in Business” underscores that philosophy – and is still used by the airline today. Initially, Qatar’s plan was to keep a separate first class cabin only on its flagship Airbus A380 flights – and those suites don’t have closing doors. On all other long-haul flights, Qsuite would be a catch-all for pointy end flyers.

At least, that was the philosophy of Qatar Airways’ then-CEO, the outspoken Akbar Al Baker. The airline’s new chief executive, Badr Mohammed Al-Meer, has a different idea. Rather than retiring first class, Al-Meer plans to breathe new life into the cabin: making it something that truly stands out.

Speaking with CNBC in March, Al-Meer boasted, “No one can develop a first class cabin better than us. We are combining the experience of flying commercial and executive jets to develop something new.” The move isn’t one hinged upon vanity, either. “Based on the demand from certain sectors, we see a high demand for first class,” he says – and the new suite will be “unique to Qatar Airways.”

Who is – and isn’t – booking first class?

For most companies, first class is a very tricky sell. Entities that do book staff in premium cabins most commonly cap that at business class. When the traveller already has space to work, a bed and, often now, good privacy as well, splurging on anything more becomes an unnecessary luxury.

For that reason, it’s quite standard for corporate travel policies to make first class off-limits when employees fly for work. Some companies make exceptions for the CEO and other senior executives: but certainly not for the rank and file. For the airlines, when your highest-spending clients aren’t routinely buying your best product, keeping that in the air gets harder to justify.

Clearly though, some airlines have worked out the magic formula – or they benefit from geography. The greater the distance of a traveller’s journey, the more likely they are to be tempted by first class on their own dime: or for a company to approve the extra cost. This is where carriers such as Singapore Airlines and the Gulf trio benefit significantly. The chance of a business traveller being approved for first class merely from London to the Middle East is low. But, if that same flyer ventures from London all the way to Sydney via somewhere like the Middle East, it could be more justifiable.

Other airlines with a notable first class offering tend to be based in key business hubs. Think London for British Airways, Singapore for Singapore Airlines, Tokyo for All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines, Sydney for Qantas – the list goes on. The appeal of first class gets even stronger when you combine a major global financial centre with an airline hub. It could be said that much of Lufthansa’s success in the first class space stems from its home base in Frankfurt. Equally, that of Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong. At the end of the day though, passengers flying first class aren’t always buying first class tickets. Some will book using miles, while others will upgrade from a paid ticket in a lower cabin.

Singapore Airlines A380 first class suite (Credit Flashfilm)

Where first class stands out

To truly go beyond the bounds of business class, airlines must think outside the box. The game plan for first class can’t be the same checklist expected in business class – a good seat, a good meal… you get the idea. Instead, the challenge is this: make first class such an experience that passengers will remember the flight for the rest of their lives. Make the journey such a departure from the usual grind of travelling that people will talk about that indulgence for years to come.

I’ve taken close to 800 flights. You might think they’d all blur together at this point, but I still remember the first time I took a shower on a plane. How it felt to close those doors and enter my own little world above the clouds. You can absolutely guarantee that when I’m asked about some of my favourite travels, it’s these journeys that are front of mind – and that’s because the airlines clearly met the real challenge of first class.

The very best first class cabins need to be truly ‘extra’. They must take any notion you have of what it’s like to travel, turn it on its head, show you what you’ve been missing in life – and get you hooked on the euphoria. That’s where Singapore Airlines steps in, as one of the only airlines globally to offer a full double bed on a commercial flight. It’s so over the top that Singapore Airlines calls this Airbus A380 experience ‘Suites’ – not ‘first class’, a term used for the airline’s more subdued forward cabin on its Boeing 777s.

Air France instead focuses its efforts on exclusivity and a real ‘wow’ factor. At its Paris hub, 29 Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid vehicles sit on standby purely to ferry passengers between the lounge and the aircraft. Once on board, guests experience the utmost privacy with full-length curtains not merely between the galley and the single-row cabin, but also between each suite and the aisle.

More recently, the Japanese carriers have pushed the envelope to bring more ‘firsts’ to the air. ANA’s ‘The Suite’ introduced the first 4K personal television screen to a commercial flight. Japan Airlines’ new Airbus A350 first class, meanwhile, marks the first time a commercial carrier has ditched headphones in favour of personal speakers at each seat. Initial reports are that the magic of this future-forward design largely avoids disrupting other passengers. If that weren’t ‘wow’ enough, JAL’s first class sofa is large enough for two.

Lufthansa, SWISS, BA, Cathay Pacific and Qantas are among others with new first class suites in the pipeline. As for Emirates, which already has showers on some aircraft and fully enclosed suites on others? “We have other products coming to the market that are going to have [their own] wow factor,” hints the airline’s divisional senior vice president Dr Nejib Ben-Khedher. Evidently for Emirates, it’s ‘challenge accepted’.

Words: Chris Chamberlin

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The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
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