Aviation

Are the days of first class travel numbered?

Philipp Laage - DPA

The predictions about first-class air travel could hardly be more contradictory. Some insiders call first class an “endangered species,” while others talk about a “renaissance of luxury”.

What’s undisputed is the fact that many airlines have recently reduced cabin space on jets for first-class seats, but at the same time say that what’s left is all the more luxurious.

This sets a clear delineation from business class, where more comfort is also being added.

So the answer to the question whether the days of first class are over can only be answered: yes and no.

The Swiss aviation industry magazine Aerotelegraph recently took a close look, observing that Qatar Airways is expanding the top class of many of its planes, while Asiana Airlines has completely done away with its first class.

American Airlines and United Airlines have likewise reduced their first-class offerings, as has Qantas.

The explanation is simple – it’s all about money.

According to Christoph Bruetzel, an aviation expert at the IUBH School of Business and Management in Bad Honnef, Germany, revenues from first class haven’t kept up with cost of the resource.

“Business-wise, (first class) makes no sense,” he says. When an airline squeezes in more economy-class seats, it can actually sell them, whereas first class is such a hard sell that the seats tend to fly empty.

The fact is that many of the people you see wallowing in the luxury of first class haven’t paid the first-class price, but have been given a complimentary upgrade from business class by the airline.

“It is quite likely that there may be more upgraders sitting in there than full-price bookers,” professor Bruetzel reveals.

At the German carrier Lufthansa, however, officials argue that the question of economic viability shouldn’t be measured by revenue alone.

First class also stands for the promise of delivering a great product, of being qualitatively Europe’s leading airline. So first class is also a question of Lufthansa’s image.

The Gulf carriers Etihad and Emirates have won attention by setting the standards very high in their first-class operations.

A year ago, Etihad introduced “The Residence” – a luxury suite where the passenger is made to feel like being in a hotel: three rooms, including a private bathroom with a shower. The Residence is a notch higher than first class, which Etihad also continues to offer.

Emirates has upgraded its first-class seating in the Airbus A380 into mini-suites which have a bed, a table, a 32-inch monitor and a minibar. The airline is also currently working on providing completely private suites.

Bruetzel says first class has its greatest importance on routes between Europe and Asia via the Middle East. In this market, the question of image matters a lot.

Which begs the question, who actually pays for a first-class ticket? Bruetzel says it’s often an image-oriented top business executive, or else super-wealthy private passengers. Considering the prices involved, it’s no wonder.

At Lufthansa, for example, a round-trip first class seat Frankfurt-Miami costs about $US5,420 ($A7,739). A round-trip first-class seat with Emirates Frankfurt Dubai costs about $US5,860 ($A8,367).

If you book a Residence cabin suite on Etihad for the London-Abu Dhabi route, be prepared to shell out about $US40,700 ($A58,000)

First class is being forced to become more and more exclusive because business class has gradually evolved into a top-quality product that meets the needs of most well-heeled air travellers, Bruetzel says.

“Business class is replacing first class,” he says. “And what used to be business class is now called premium economy.”

In summary, nominal first class is indeed not as widely available as it used to be, but the quality of service available has risen as the market evolves.

Image credit: iStock

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