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With the recent announcement that American Airlines is dropping first class on long haul international flights, no major US airlines now offer such a cabin. This is a stark reminder that the first class product is undoubtedly on the decline. Many other airlines have removed the cabin, and others remain uncertain as to its future post-COVID and with new fleets.

First class disappearing from airlines

American Airlines may be the latest to drop international first class, but it is not alone. After some speculation, the airline confirmed in October 2022 that it would remove first class from all long-haul services (by re-fitting its Boeing 777-300 aircraft with an expanded business class).

It follows a number of other airlines that have done the same over recent years – including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, South African Airways, Air New Zealand, Malaysian Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and LATAM. Others have significantly reduced offerings of first class. British Airways, for example, reduced its first class seats available by around 100,000 (from 560,000) over the 10 years from 2008 to 2018. As another example, Singapore Airlines reduced its offering from around 150,000 to 90,000.

There have been massive reductions in first class offerings after the pandemic too – from airlines including Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, El Al, and Qanats. Some of this is slowly returning but is likely to remain limited (especially as some only offer the cabin on the now unpopular A380).

Looking forward, while many airlines still operate first class, its future remains uncertain with some. Qatar Airways, for example, only offers first class on the Airbus A380 and the future of this aircraft is far from certain. It was grounded during the pandemic, and has since returned to service but the airline CEO has made it clear that he does not see a future for the aircraft with his airline.

This raises the question of which airlines you can still fly first class on. It remains popular with the Middle Eastern Airlines (with Emirates and Etihad Airways maintaining strong first class offerings, and Qatar Airways at least for the moment). In Asia, many airlines still offer first class. In Europe, it is limited to British Airways, Lufthansa and Swiss.

Economics of first class

Airlines would certainly not be removing first class if there were plenty of people willing to pay for it. The reality is that first class has always been a tough product to sell. Airlines rarely release sales details. Of course, some passengers will pay for first class but in many cases, it is used more as a marketing and aspirational tool. Upgrades can be offered to frequent flyers as part of maintaining loyalty, offered to businesses in corporate contracts, and for staff travel. They also form part of airlines brand and image – Emirates is one example that uses this well.

The economics of aviation was different when first class, business class, and economy class became standard decades ago. We have since seen more and more people flying, significantly increased competition, and a race to pack in ever more passengers. Airlines strive to earn more per seat and, in many cases, first class just doesn’t fit in with this. Add in the slowdowns seen during the pandemic and the continued decline in business travel, and first class loses its appeal even more.

Improvement in business class

A major driving force for airlines dropping first class is simply that business class has improved considerably. Business class has changed a great deal since British Airways introduced the first flat bed to the cabin in 2000. To stay competitive, airlines have continually innovated and improved business class products since then. This has narrowed the gap between the business and first cabins – what more can airlines offer?

Many of today’s business class seat products rival first class. British Airways has this “problem” with its excellent new Club Suite product, for example. With a full bed and closing suite door, it is arguably better than its current first class product. There is still some differentiation of course with service, catering and privacy, but it is harder to justify the much higher price.

It’s not surprising too that American Airlines’ announcement that it was dropping first class came only after it had released a new business class (or Flagship Suite) product.

First class still has a place – as does private flying

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker made an interesting statement about first class when discussing the future of first class with the airline. The airline is eagerly awaiting the new Boeing 777X (delayed in delivery until at least 2025), but has not yet unveiled the cabin configuration.

As reported by Executive Traveller in 2020, Al Baker explained his view of the continued, but diminished, need for first class. He said:

“We have huge demand here in Qatar for two or three European destinations such as London and Paris, so we may introduce a very small first class cabin for our local passengers who want a very exclusive first class product… We are studying the possibility of having a very exclusive first class cabin of just four seats, for example.”

Qatar Airways also offers Qatar Executive – private jet flying with a fleet including several Gulfstream G650 aircraft. There is no doubt an opportunity to link this with the premium first class cabins – offering first class long haul combined with private jets.

This sums up very well where first class is these days. It is rapidly becoming a more niche product, available for the exclusive groups on key routes where it is needed, but less of a mass product or upgrade offer. Etihad Airways demonstrated this too, with its A380 Residence product, offering exclusive space and privacy in a multi-room suite aboard the A380.

Final Thoughts

First class remains a great experience for anyone lucky enough to fly it. It is clearly on the decline though, with improving business cabins now taking its place. There remains a place for top end luxury and privacy though, and limited first class offering along with private flying will support this.

 

Sources:

First class numbers pre-pandemic: https://simpleflying.com/first-class-disappearing/

Qatar Airways CEO on A380: https://www.ch-aviation.com/portal/news/117855-qatar-airways-ceo-eager-to-exit-a380-fleet

Qatar Airways CEO on 777X first class: https://www.executivetraveller.com/news/qatar-boeing-777x-first-class

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