Is this the end of First Class flying?

Close up shot of champagne glasses that business couple is holding inside the private jet aeroplane.

Last week, Qatar Airways unveiled its revolutionary Business Class, with CEO Akbar Al Baker claiming it gave passengers “a First Class experience in Business Class”.

Qatar will soon be the first airline to offer couples seated in Business a double bed on its Boeing 777s and A350s as well.

Qatar follows a number of airlines that are going hard on the Business Class front, reasoning that the oversized seat setup and exorbitant service is no longer relevant.

According to an article on Skift, this could very well be the end of an era for First Class offerings.

While some carriers have cut first class completely, Skift reports others have only given it the chop on poorly performing routes. Several have even cut the size of cabins to less than six seats.

Speaking to Skift, president of passenger airlines for Air Canada, Ben Smith, said, “With these suites that you see on some luxury carriers, the demand for that is pretty limited.

You look at the value proposition and the cost differential, and the amount of real estate it takes up can hardly be justified.

“There’s a very small market that sits between business class and a private jet that wants to fly in first class. From the biggest financial centres, perhaps.”

By comparison, the jazzed up Qatar Business seat can accommodate a family of four in one pod.

“The living space in the Q Suite is as large as you can have,” Al Baker told media in Berlin.

But the aviation industry has seen much change in the last 10 or so years. Back just a decade, passengers wanting a lie-flat seat only had First Class as an option, with Business just having a decent recline.

Now almost every Business you see on international flights has a flat bed in Business. No, they’re not as long or wide, or come with as much storage as First, but it’s hard to justify paying such a high price just for a few more inches.

Even the reliable First Class passengers – the corporate executives – are turning to Business instead, meaning just a few people on flights between major business hubs are left booking First.

“You see a lot of carriers starting to phase out first class because the only difference really between business class and first these days are you get a little bit better food and better wine onboard,” Andrew Yiu, Air Canada’s managing director for product design, told Skift.

“But most of customers are just looking for that lie flat seat to be able to sleep so they can function when they arrive at their destination.”

Per Skift, in North America, only American Airlines can see a long-term future for international first class offerings, and even they’ve stripped it to just on 20 Boeing 777-300ERs that fly to major financial centres like London and Hong Kong.

Lufthansa, which according to Skift is the world’s biggest buyer of caviar, is removing its First Class cabin from all aircraft but the Airbus A380s and Boeing 747-8s.

Singapore Airlines is also culling cabins, and while its A380s are hanging on to larger cabins, many of its other aircrafts including new Airbus A350s don’t come with a First Class at the pointy end of the plane.

“In the context of business class becoming so good, the incremental reason for most travellers to travel first class rather than business is not as compelling as it perhaps used to be before full lie-flat beds, before very, very wide seats, before the privacy and all of the other attributes that now come with our business class,” Campbell Wilson, Singapore’s senior vice president for sales and marketing, told Skift.

“It’s more of a niche product than perhaps it used to be. That’s why the cabin has been adjusted slightly.”

But from the perspective of keeping First Class, even if only for a small market of flyers, Cathay Pacific’s chief operating officer Rupert Hogg, told Skift, it’s about “having your own personal space, being acknowledged, feeling that you are someone who is important” are big factors for passengers with disposable incomes, willing to pay.

Just look at Etihad, for example, which introduced its Residence offering in 2014. Have a squiz at the dreamboat here, if you need a reminder.

The Residence had a number of rooms, including a private bathroom, included in the suite, with Nicole Kidman the face of the flying experience.

Etihad also started spruiking “first class apartments”, with both a bed and seat on offer.

“The halo effect is considerable,” Etihad Group CEO James Hogan told Skift last year.


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