We’re witnessing the slow death of first-class cabins – unless you’re flying to Dubai

·7-min read
American Airlines’ first class cabin on its on Boeing 777-300 aircraft – the carrier is phasing it out on international routes
American Airlines’ first class cabin on its on Boeing 777-300 aircraft – the carrier is phasing it out on international routes

With $4,000-a-night hotels opening to much fanfare in Manhattan, and Mayfair restaurants that serve steaks wrapped in gold leaf reporting record profits, it’s safe to say the super-rich are weathering the current economic storm just fine.

When it comes to flying, however, it may be time to start playing your tiny violin. That’s because the mega wealthy may soon have to start slumming it in business class with the merely very affluent. American Airlines has just announced that it’s ditching first class on international routes, and it’s not the only carrier phasing out its most expensive cabins.

At a time when the gap between the haves and have nots is only increasing, the move may surprise some. But after a bruising pandemic, airlines are making radical moves to shore up their bottom lines.

Explaining the decision, American Airlines chief commercial officer Vasu Raju said: “First class will not exist on the 777, or for that matter at American Airlines, for the simple reason that our customers aren’t buying it. The replacement of first class with additional business offerings will allow the carrier to provide what our customers most want or are willing to pay for.”

The question then becomes, why aren’t the ultra-rich booking first-class seats? And given the incredibly high prices, why aren’t the seats a money-maker even when the cabin isn’t fully booked?

A high-stakes cabin

“First class is a complicated product to offer in this day and age, with huge expectations and huge cost if it goes empty,” says Gilbert Ott, aviation expert and founder of God Save The Points.

Certainly the costs involved are hefty. First-class food is, on average, 20 times more expensive than economy meals according to Mike Arnot’s 2019 book Chefs at 35,000 Feet: The Secrets Behind Airline Menus. So even if you start with a sky-high fare, the profitability soon decreases. First-class flights to New York in February next year, for example, start at around £4,100, while economy comes in at around £375. The more than 10-fold increase may at first glance look significant but if you factor in those pricey meals, plus fine wines, beauty amenities and lounge facilities, it’s not hard to see how it may not prove a guaranteed money-spinner.

Demanding customers who have been exposed to increasingly luxurious travel experiences expect a truly extravagant product, as evidenced by the double beds offered by Etihad and Singapore Airlines, which describe their first-class seats as ‘residences’ and ‘suites’. The latter even has a separate bed and swivel chair for its top-tier ticket-holders. Emirates, meanwhile, provides caviar on tap, vintage Dom Pérignon and the opportunity to have a shower at 35,000 feet. All of this comes with a huge outlay and other airlines may not feel it’s worth the investment, particularly if the cabin is not fully booked on every flight.

Emirates’ fully enclosed first class cabins on board its Boeing 777 aircraft - Emirates Airlines
Emirates’ fully enclosed first class cabins on board its Boeing 777 aircraft - Emirates Airlines

Ott also points out many business travel policies no longer allow first-class travel, due to economic pressures and the significant improvement in business-class cabins. Given that one of American Airlines’ most popular routes is the classic transatlantic business hop from New York to London, it follows that first-class cabins could regularly lie empty and that opting for more business-class seats instead would increase revenue.

Ben Mutzabaugh, senior aviation editor at The Points Guy UK, agrees but says the shift could be purely a question of labelling. “The premium cabins on long international flights are most frequently bought by corporate travellers flying at their company’s expense. Of the big firms that allow employees to fly in the premium cabin, many have policies that allow them to book in business – but not first. So, by shifting the title of their offering from ‘first’ to ‘business’, this allows airlines to keep their premium cabins in policy for corporate clients.”

Indeed, some airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic, already don’t distinguish between first and business, with its top product simply called ‘Upper Class.’

The irresistible rise of business-class suites

A key reason first class is on the decline is the luxurious evolution of business class, or more specifically, the arrival of doors. Qatar Airways changed the game when it launched its Q-Suites back in 2017 – essentially little pods with sliding screens for maximum privacy. White Company pyjamas, fancy skincare products and dining on demand are other perks of the product, which outshines many airlines’ first-class offerings.

The QSuite business class of a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 - AFP
The QSuite business class of a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 - AFP

To stay competitive, other airlines have been forced to raise their game. Delta, Etihad, All Nippon Airways and China Eastern are among those who have introduced ‘mini-suites’ with doors in business class, with more airlines planning on introducing the product in the coming years. American Airlines will install mini-suites by 2024, while confusingly British Airways has introduced doors in business but not first class, which perhaps indicates where its priorities lie.

And it’s not just privacy that has improved in business class. Emirates has its on-board bar, where smiley staff will make you a breakfast martini whether you have a first- or business-class seat and across the board fine wines are served as standard. Inevitably, these upgrades have somewhat cannibalised first class. What is the need to spend thousands more for a few more inches of space or a dollop of caviar when business is of such a high standard?

Jenny Southan, founder and CEO of travel trends forecaster Globetrender, summarises this point neatly. “Business class just keeps getting better and better. The question is – why pay for first class when business class offers everything you need? For many airlines it doesn’t make sense to have a first-class cabin that isn’t always booked when they could instead install more business-class seats – hence they are scrapping it.”

A pandemic-cheapened offering

The weakening of first class could also be put down to pandemic protocols. Covid measures stripped away the unfettered luxury of first class – think meals with plastic covers to avoid contamination, masks required to be worn throughout and less personal service. During the height of the crisis, Virgin Atlantic refused to serve alcohol in its Upper Class cabin, while others including Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa stopped selling front-cabin tickets altogether. The memory of this less than premium experience may have lingered in the minds of ultra-rich travellers and indeed some airlines still require masks to be worn on flights. Others might have become more accustomed to travelling via private jet during the last two years and may not be rushing to return to commercial flying.

A disjointed global picture

The collapse of first class isn’t total – in fact, the product is still thriving in certain markets: particularly Asia and the Middle East.

“Singapore Airlines has its most ambitious first-class seats yet, and Emirates continues to set new standards,” says Ott. “In Europe, Air France and Swiss have also done a remarkable job of creating exclusivity with these cabins. I’d say first class isn’t dying, it’s just shrinking – but even then, not everywhere. There may be fewer seats, but the seats that are launching are nicer than ever. Airlines are just getting smarter about waste. No airline wants a single seat to go out without a bottom.”

A double bed in Singapore Airlines’ first class suites - Singapore Airlines
A double bed in Singapore Airlines’ first class suites - Singapore Airlines

For Southan, first class will continue to thrive in certain regions of the world due to entrenched class divides. “There will always be a need for first class on some airlines for some markets such as the Middle East and Asia, where there is a stronger sense of business hierarchy and societal privilege. First class is not necessary – it purely functions as a way of showing others you are richer and more powerful than them.”

And that may be what ultimately saves first class – the enduring human quality to want to feel superior, or more special, than others. Across travel and hospitality we have always found ways to order ourselves, be it by booking bombastic hotel suites, ordering those gold-dipped wagyu steaks or paying for access to lounges or clubs. All-inclusive hotels increasingly have special cordoned-off sections reserved for high-rollers, where the only difference might be extra-fancy canapés at 5pm. But it’s not about those tasty canapés or the caviar of first class – it’s knowing that others behind you aren’t tucking in