Is the death knell sounding for long-haul first class?

Is the death knell sounding for long-haul first class?
Countless airlines have ditched their long-haul first-class option, prompting fears from some quarters that this definition of luxury could be dying out

It was once upon a time that flying in first class offered a certain level of luxury that many could only dream of experiencing. 

For passengers there was something oh so special about enjoying the very finest food and drink that money could buy from the comfort of their own private quarters, safe in the knowledge that the standard of service would be nothing less than exemplary. 

The fact this was all happening at 35,000 feet succeeded only in making the whole thing even more exciting. 

It must be pointed out that flying in first class remains an exclusive pursuit and those standards have continued to improve, with carriers constantly competing with each other in a never-ending game of one-upmanship.  

What has changed, however, is that air travel’s decades-old definition of luxuriousness seems to be slowly dying out – at least in name, anyway. 

Over the past 20 years, first-class travel has gradually been disappearing from the long-haul market, with various airlines focusing their attention elsewhere and spending their money more wisely. 

British Airways, for example, had more than 550,000 first-class seats across its fleet in 2008; by 2018, that figure had plummeted by about 100,000. In fact, BA was responsible for a pretty seismic moment in the context of air travel when it completely dropped first class from its A350 aircraft. Instead, the company invested in its long-haul business class cabin, Club World which, to all intents and purposes, could be considered a ‘first-class’ offering. 

A further significant moment for the industry came in 2022, when American Airlines announced it was scrapping first-class seats on international flights, becoming the last of the big three US carriers to do so. United Airlines had already phased out long-haul first class in the mid-2010s and Delta did the same several years prior. 

Vasu Raju, CCO at American Airlines, explained at the time that customer bookings had dwindled dramatically. 

Turkish Airlines and Qatar Airways are among scores of other carriers to have ditched the service. 

Gap narrowing between business and first class

To get to the bottom of the decline of first-class international travel, it’s pretty much impossible to look past the extraordinary evolution of airlines’ other premium offerings.

BA’s game-changing introduction of lie-flat seating in business class at the turn of the century was a sign of things to come and, while a few differences remain, the modern-day business class offering resembles something similar to our traditional idea of first class.

“From an economic perspective, first-class travel hasn’t been profitable for many airlines, even before COVID-19,” says Philipp Bensel, Partner and Global Aviation Lead at Kearney. 

“From a product perspective, business class has become more competitive. Flat, comfortable beds have been one of the main features of first class travel, especially for executives, but this has become standard in modern business class, accompanied by improved food and service.”

Regardless of the individual’s wealth, one has to wonder why anyone would pay thousands of dollars more to sit in first class, or the equivalent, when they can expect to be treated like royalty in business.

David Huttner, who has three decades of airline industry experience behind him and now serves as Commercial Aviation Lead at PA Consulting, agrees, pointing out that the gap between classes is narrowing. 

“High-quality, flat-bed business products have become more ubiquitous among long-haul carriers, resulting in a differential product quality that may not be as stark as it was before,” adds Huttner, who previously worked for the Virgin Group and was a Director at Virgin Blue (now Virgin Australia). 

“For certain routes and markets there is only a limited number of people with the budget to justify the exceptional service offered in first class.”

While in Europe carriers like Air France and Swiss Air have sought to enhance their traditional first class seating, Bensel believes the level of privacy and comfort offered these days by airlines like Lufthansa goes a long way towards explaining why passenger attitudes have changed. 

Spending on first class increasingly tough to justify

Organisations in all sectors have endured a punishing few years, leaving it up the finance function, among others, to assess where costs can be cut and sacrifices made. 

Business travel remains an integral part of company operations, especially for those with clients and partners across the globe. But, while jetting abroad won’t be getting the boot altogether, executives shouldn’t be surprised at the prospect of being bumped down from first to business. 

Some firms are even taking the drastic step of banning first class business travel as they try desperately to make savings. 

“The pandemic and current economic climate are playing into the decision processes of both individual and corporate buyers,” says Huttner.

This shouldn’t be a problem for executives, he adds, given the work airlines such as Virgin Atlantic and KLM have put into enhancing their business class offering. 

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for executives to justify a first-class ticket,” Bensel continues. 

“Flat-bed seating used to be one of the main reasons to argue for first class on intercontinental flights. High net-worth customers are looking for privacy; well-off leisure travellers want a great experience. Modern business class is trying to offer all the above.”

Will first class bounce back?

It’s difficult to imagine a world where that classic, transatlantic business route between London and New York no longer offers a first class option.

In truth, though, a ‘first-class’ service will likely always exist in nature, even if airlines are advertising it under a different name. 

While COVID-19 led to a boom in private aviation, this trend carries with it the potential for plenty of negative press in today’s environmentally-aware society. There remains a chance, therefore, that we could see high-profile figures reverting back to first class travel in the coming years. 

“If more airlines that offer first class can recreate the ‘executive jet experience’,” adds Huttner, “the more likely they are to get a portion of significant figureheads and high-profile individuals back on scheduled flights.

“The glamour and convenience of walking off your own private jet now comes with greater PR risk for individuals concerned about their public image, so an elevated first-class experience could be the answer.”

Bensel adds that there will always be a market for exclusive travel options, with the difference in future being that airlines will offer a more tailored service which improves the experience on the ground. In the air, carriers will continue to innovate when it comes to seating, catering and entertainment, as they always have done.

The reality is that the discerning business traveller will always be able to sniff out a first-class experience if they really want it. 

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