First class travel is back, and it's more luxurious than ever...

First class travel is back, and it's more luxurious than ever...

First-class airline service has long been the playground of the fabulously famous and fantastically wealthy, with luxuries ranging from free-flowing Champagne and mountains of caviar in the early years to private cabins with a bed and shower on some carriers today.

But after British Airways in 2000 introduced lie-flat seats in business class for thousands of dollars less than first– an innovation that quickly spread throughout the industry – it was hard to argue that it’s worth the extra cash for a few more inches of legroom and a better wine list.

Bookings started to fall sharply as the 2008 financial crisis curbed corporate spending and made public displays of wealth unfashionable, so over the past decade scores of airlines have ripped out some or all of their cushiest and priciest seats.

Carriers today say they may have cut too far, especially as the ranks of the super rich continue to expand and the stigma attached to conspicuous consumption has faded.

With the global economy back in growth mode and the industry coming off three straight years of fat profits, airlines are reintroducing or revamping first-class cabins at a cost that can exceed $100,000 just to manufacture each seat.

Long-haul airlines say charging more than $10,000 for a round-trip ticket in the premium cabin is a profitable way to stand out in an industry that’s come to be dominated by discounters.

“First class is developing better than we’d imagined three or four years back,” Lufthansa Chief Executive Officer Carsten Spohr told staff in a recent briefing. “We’re looking at routes where it makes sense, where we have the customers who want it.” 

Air France says it’s seeing an increase in demand for its La Première first class (below) for the first time in years, prompting it to reintroduce the option on daily flights from Paris to Mexico City and São Paulo and increase its frequency to San Francisco.

British Airways, which in 2016 said it would scrap first class on many routes, plans to revamp the service. The Oneworld member has opened a new first class lounge at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport that features private dining booths where travelers can dig into dishes such as lobster bisque with crème fraîche or filet mignon with celery root gratin, each paired with the appropriate chardonnay, pinot noir, or cabernet sauvignon.

Photos: British Airways' new first class lounge at New York JFK

Emirates, which offers 29,000 first class seats a week across its network, is adding flourishes such as hardwood floors to its service, which had already set the industry standard with private cabins, onboard showers, and safari binoculars for window gazing.

Although first class is making inroads again, on some airlines it will offer fewer seats. Singapore Airlines is retooling the first class cabins on its new Airbus A380 double-decker jets, but with only six suites instead of the 12 that older planes have (although each looks more like a luxury hotel room than an airline seat, with a full-size wardrobe, bed, and leather chair from Italian designer Poltrona Frau).

Emirates will cut the number of such berths to 11 from 14 on its A380s, and Lufthansa’s Boeing 777 widebodies may get just four first-class seats, down from eight today.

The key is getting the balance right, says John Strickland, director of airline advisory firm JLS Consulting in London. One first-class ticket can generate as much revenue as a dozen in coach or two in business, but the berth occupies only about as much space as five economy seats and one and a half to two business class seats.

“First class has a value, provided it’s used judiciously – not sacrificing profitable sales in business class by taking up too much precious floor space,” Strickland says.

Even a diminished first class can help airlines buff up their image. Emirates and Etihad Airways sell first-class swag such as toys, vanity kits, and moisturizing pajamas on their websites or during flights.

And gauzy promotional photos of chauffeured limousines, opulent lounges, and white-glove service on board can make even passengers crammed into the back of the plane feel as if their airline is offering a standard of luxury beyond what low-cost carriers can manage.

First class is available on thousands of routes globally, though only about 20 of them attract more than 10 paying customers daily for the service, says Samuel Engel, an analyst at consulting company ICF International.

Still, he says, first class makes sense as it can be offered as part of a package for corporate clients or as an occasional upgrade to loyal passengers. And it can help manage occupancy and customer satisfaction in business class, where airlines earn the bulk of their profits. “First class acts as a buffer that allows airlines to overbook in business,” Engel says, “since nobody will mind getting bumped into first class.”

 

21 comments

  • Sula

    Sula

    29 Oct, 2018 12:47 am

    If only Emirates started to design cabins that didn’t looks if Trump himself designed them
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  • Vik Jay

    MarkivJ

    29 Oct, 2018 04:59 am

    Yeah, from the photos I’ve seen of various 1st class cabins, I like SQ, AF and EY the best.
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  • Andrew Wakefield

    anwakefield71

    29 Oct, 2018 08:13 am

    Being on south coast of UK, it's just as easy to go to CDG or FRA.
    BA only provide F as they are UK's (so called) national Airline.
    BA how no direction, bought Monarch slots (at LGW), and have no planes.
    BA were a leader with first seat/bed, and now are last. BA should have a J product like the Qsuite. Fitting an off-the-shelf J product just on A350 won't change anything as they need consistency across long-haul fleet.
    BA needs a new Managing Director with vision,
    and the money, to take Airline forward.
    Every national Airline should have an F product
    just like AF and LH.
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  • Tony D

    StarTeam

    29 Oct, 2018 08:33 am

    One does not need to be "fabulously famous and fantastically wealthy" to fly first these days, occasionally. And this is particularly true in Australia.
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  • tomJ

    tomJ

    29 Oct, 2018 09:49 am

    I found this to be the most interesting part: "First class is available on thousands of routes globally, though only about 20 of them attract more than 10 paying customers daily for the service".

    It seems to me then that aside from those routes with a high number of revenue F passengers, it largely exists now as a vehicle to encourage people to stay loyal to an airline and build enough points for a first class seat, and maybe pick up a revenue pax or two in the meanwhile.
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  • Rufus1

    Rufus1

    29 Oct, 2018 10:36 am

    If PER-LHR is as fantastically successful as we seem to hear, any chance QF could decide to fit first class to some of its 789s?
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  • David Flynn

    David

    29 Oct, 2018 12:37 pm

    I doubt it, if anything success of the current layout could be evidence not to change that, especially if high loads in business class would take a hit due to remove business class seats to make room for some first class suites. No, I think the next time we will see a new first class on any red-tailed jet will be on the ultra-long range 'Project Sunrise' fleet.
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  • reeves35

    reeves35

    29 Oct, 2018 12:38 pm

    There's no doubt about it, First Class is very nice. I recently flew First with QF between MEL and SIN on an A380 and it was lovely but it was also on points. The idea that it would ever make sense to spend around $4000 for the one-way flight is ludicrous however.

    For a daytime flight, Premium Economy has all you need and a modern J class is truly excellent for an overnight flight. The only reason for F class is because you can and someone else is silly enough to pay.
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  • michael blazewicz

    blaz

    29 Oct, 2018 02:33 pm

    I was given an upgrade from business to first class on Emirates once, and although it had all the bells and whistles including $300 bottles of Dom , it was a night time flight, so really just a luxurious sleep in a restrictive ,somewhat firm "bed ". All I could think about was what fantastic things could I expect for breakfast that could go with another glass of Dom. However, I did score a pair of Emirates much sought after pyjamas (yay). I suppose that if money is not an issue, flying first, takes most of the pain out of the flying experience.
    Members who gave thanks

    Flying mermaid, EY_platinum

  • Truie

    Truie

    29 Oct, 2018 03:39 pm

    It never went away. I can afford the tickets and so I pay for it. If that makes me silly or whatever, I don't care. I enjoy my flights and all that goes with them.
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    gazza48, EY_platinum, pointyendmark

  • Joe

    Joe

    29 Oct, 2018 03:40 pm

    reeves35 Qantas doesn't have a true first class even though they call it first while better than business class its really only a deluxe business class offering food, lavs, service, cabin and polish. It cant at all compete with EK, QR, LH or SQ.

    First Class is a refined way to travel. Sleep, food, transfers, service , lav access, check-in ease etc. It certainly makes a difference on a long haul night flight and for those who travel lots. Its the utlimate in commercial seamless travel, with very few problems that cant be solved.
    Member who gave thanks

    Truie

  • Rufus1

    Rufus1

    29 Oct, 2018 04:35 pm

    whatever...

    to call QF first a glorified business class suggests you're going to be disappointed next time you fly any business class. LH is the pick of those I've flown recently for the sheer smoothness and class of the whole experience. But QF is right up there.
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  • Carl Smart

    csmart

    31 Oct, 2018 03:14 pm

    QF first IS a glorified business class product, so the REAL disappointment lies in flying QF first when you've experienced the same on EY, EK, QR, SQ, etc (so many superior 1st products). "QF is right up there" with their first lounges, but that's pretty much it.
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  • Dan Ho

    djtech

    29 Oct, 2018 05:06 pm

    I find a fully flat business class to be sufficient for a good sleep and nothing more is needed that is provided in first class. For the meals, I don't need caviar and champagne every flight and find that a simple pasta will do me well. Maybe I'm just cheap, but I find that perfectly comfortable and don't want to aim any higher
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  • Adam T

    AT

    29 Oct, 2018 05:31 pm

    F in the air is like a Four Seasons or Park Hyatt on the ground, absolutely stunning with a price appropriate to that, but not for every city and not for every guest. But of course that F does has to be up there in service and product aka EK, EY, SQ etc etc and great to see top tier carriers investing in F. Looking forward to seeing new QF F too, I’m sure it will be stunning (I’ve only heard good feedback on current QF too).
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  • Michael63

    Metoo

    30 Oct, 2018 09:31 pm

    I think it depends where you are in life. Still working, paying a mortgage then you fly what you can. Retired (or well off) with money in the bank I suggest SPLURGE out on First every now and again, you've earned it. After 75+ you may or may not be flying as much. The service at the premium pointy end is excellent in most cases (Qantas, Emirates, Singapore, Cathay etc). is it worth it? First is good and getting better all the time. Business is good for couples but now First is offering joint suites. You can't take ($$$) it with you.
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  • Flying mermaid

    Flying mermaid

    31 Oct, 2018 02:35 pm

    We fly first when we can afford it, but have become picky about who we will fly. Pretty much SQ and EK at the moment. Qantas F is J+ and so is BA, but they charge the same (although you can pick up heavily discounted F tickets, which makes it a bit more acceptable). We are certainly not fabulously wealthy, just comfortable and at a time of life where we can afford to indulge. Just done an F trip SYD-DXB-NBO return with Emirates and all 4 legs were terrific. Haven’t tried the new F suites with either EK or SQ yet, but they look good.
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  • Russjking

    Russjking

    31 Oct, 2018 04:48 pm

    I like the idea that there is a First Class option although most
    Business class seats nowadays are universally good.
    I'll be flying BA or QF as soon as they have good single business class seats on the routes I use - BNE >LHR.
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  • Harry Theodore

    Harryt

    31 Oct, 2018 04:52 pm

    My better half and I have travelled BA in 2016 return Singapore to London return and twice on Qatar Singapore to Doha in 17 and 18 on a very well priced arrangement the later overnight. On Qatar we had First to ourselves not the qsuites. Impeccable attention (I like being attended well!!!), great wine list, tucked in and food on demand. At the right price it is worth it and regular indulgence is always something to look forward to.
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  • bl812

    bl812

    1 Nov, 2018 08:49 am

    yes few people who really flown on first class like SQ-EK-EY and Qf can feel and see the difference which is really big-so indeed QF is just a glorified business class try to push it as first but it isn't
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  • mike kearney

    Bonzer Mike

    13 Nov, 2018 05:08 pm

    i am not wealthy but comfortable with my wealth and my motto is if first is available then i will take it.i am up in the air every 2 weeks and i always fly SQ they are without doubt the best airline and the best FC.At times i have flown CX and QF becuase SQ not available and their FC offer is no where as good as SQ.The SQ new FC on the A 380 is stunningly good.
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26 Mar, 2019 01:55 am

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