Goodbye First Class, hello Business Class

Once hailed as the epitome of aviation opulence, First Class now bids a subtle adieu, as other cabins ascend to fill its role.

The First Class Cabin has long reigned supreme as the peak of luxury in the skies, entrancing passengers with its unparalleled extravagance and enticing airlines to outdo one another in elevating their offerings and curating unforgettable VIP experiences.

Nevertheless, the winds of change are blowing across the industry, as airlines navigate the ever-evolving landscape of customer demands, prompting a departure from the once-revered travel class.

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An Obsolete Offering?

The Qatari flag carrier, Qatar Airways, recently made headlines by announcing it will phase out its signature First Class seats in the next-generation long-haul aircraft, deeming the investment in the premium cabin “unnecessary.”

“Why should you invest in a subclass of an aeroplane that already gives you all the amenities that first class gives you!” Qatar Airways CEO, HE Akbar Al Baker questioned.

The move marks a momentous shift in the Gulf carrier’s business strategy, after years of cultivating a prestigious five-star airline brand.

Al Baker firmly believes that the future lies in business class, which Qatar Airways has branded as its “Q-suite” product. Thus, the carrier’s forthcoming Boeing 777X fleet will not include first-class seating.

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Once the airline eventually retires all of its Airbus A380s— which still feature eight first-class seats— the 777Xs will claim the crown as the largest aircraft in Qatar’s fleet.

Although Qatar Airways’ decision to remove First Class is revolutionary, it is not the first of its kind in the industry.

In October, American Airlines confirmed plans to eliminate its First Class cabin from all long-haul services by re-fitting its Boeing 777-300 fleet with an expanded Business Class.

Similarly, other airlines including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, South African Airways, Air New Zealand, Malaysian Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and LATAM have made similar moves in recent years.

Public sentiment

While it is true that First Class has lost some of its glamour during the pandemic, particularly with a sizeable portion of first-class travellers shifting to private aviation in search of convenience, reliability, and flexibility, the recent changes do not necessarily reflect a unanimous sentiment within the industry.

Airlines including Lufthansa, Qantas, and Air France have responded to the growing demand by bettering their high-end offerings, introducing sleep pods, double beds, and lie-flat premium economy seats to provide a more luxurious travel experience.

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In contrast, some airlines have adopted a hybrid approach. Dubai’s Emirates Airlines, renowned for its high-end offerings, has maintained the First Class product across its fleet, despite introducing the new Premium Economy cabin to bridge the gap between Business Class and Economy Class.

However, the airline’s future A350 aircraft, scheduled for delivery by 2024, will feature a three-class configuration with Economy Class, Premium Economy, and Business Class.

Complex economics

Despite being a standard component of airlines’ offerings, First Class has always been a challenging product to sell.

According to industry reports, although many passengers pay full fare for First Class, the premium cabin is often used as a promotional tool to enhance the customer experience, maintain customer loyalty, and uphold the airline’s luxurious brand image.

First Class upgrades are often offered to frequent flyers and as part of corporate travel contracts.

The aviation landscape has substantially evolved over the years, especially with air travel becoming more affordable, and new segments of travellers emerging. This, in turn, has fuelled competition as airlines strived to fill more seats and generate more revenue.

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To top it off, the pandemic has driven a sharp decline in business travel, compounding the challenges faced by First Class.

The emerging successor

With numerous carriers gradually phasing out or, at best, reducing their First Class offerings, Business Class has emerged as the rightful heir to the once revered cabin, particularly with airlines enhancing their Business Class experiences with high-end amenities that rival those of First Class and introducing expanded suite-style Business Class offerings. These upgrades have further narrowed the gap between the two classes, further spurring airlines to drop their first class altogether.

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Looking ahead

While it’s hard to predict the definite future of airlines’ First Class offerings, the industry is clearly undergoing a major shift towards improved Business Class products. Nevertheless, there will always be ample room for luxury in air travel, especially among those prioritising privacy and convenience, whether in First Class, Business Class or private aircraft for the select few who can experience it.

Credit: Aviation BUSSINESME.COM

Wole Shadare