Earlier this season we launched a new Skift Travel Trends Report, The Future of the Aircraft Cabin.
Below is an extract. Download the full report here.
The bell tolls announcing the imminent death of the First Class cabin have been ringing long enough to give us tinnitus.
It has been the source of much debate in the industry for decades. In many ways, those who argue that First Class is (or will soon be) dead are right: In certain markets, First Class has been replaced by Business Class.
In others, First Class has reached unprecedented levels of luxury. More importantly, the two classes have intermingled become entangled and been repackaged, rebranded, and, well, reclassified.
It only takes a quick peek at cabins past to note that what was First Class twenty years ago, couldn’t pass for Business Class today. Business Class today, also comes so close to First Class that, in the cabin designs of some airlines, it’s virtually indistinguishable.
Why would these airlines bother to include a First Class when the product itself is so close to the product offering in the Business Class section? Why would passengers purchase a First Class ticket when what they get for their money is so very close to what they would have gotten in Business Class, for a lower fare?
“Airlines’ main revenue comes from Business Class passengers. This has led to airlines providing those customers better products in Business, sometimes better than other First Class products,” says Nigel Goode, Co-Founder of Priestmangoode.
“There’s been a blurring between these two classes. They are different for different airlines because, to offer First Class, those who offer very comfortable Business Class have to do even more, and sometimes the use of space on the aircraft doesn’t allow for this. Airlines respond to this challenge by providing two-class cabins on many routes, and three class cabins only on select routes. The 777 and A380 have made including an enhanced First Class more possible. Even so, some are opting for a Business and Economy Class configurations, where the Business Class will be a very fine service. All that said, First Class is difficult for airlines to drop, even if it is not profitable. For many Flagship Carriers, it is part of their image, especially for long-haul routes. Their passengers may expect to have a First Class product available.”
Devin Liddell, Principle Brand Strategist at Teague, points to a different reason for the blurring of the lines between First Class and Business Class: the expense report.
“Following the recession, there was increased scrutiny on high-end service,” Liddell says. No one wanted to explain why they were paying for a First Class ticket, when people in the company were being laid-off. Enter the upscaled Business Class product. It’s just as good or better than the First Class products of the past, but it looks nicer on the books.
“The success of the Business Class cabin is so pronounced, that airlines are encouraged to continue to add to it,” Jenny Ruegamer, associate creative director at Teague tells us. “It becomes harder and harder to distinguish between them.”
But some travelers don’t have an accounting department or a board to answer to. Certain individuals want to stand out from the crowd in the cabin, especially on long-haul routes.
“Some cultures need First Class,” Liddell explains. “They need to see themselves at a different level—more exclusive. Business Class is just not enough.”
Rows, by any other name, may still be First Class. The marketing label applied to the cabin product, on many of today’s aircraft, becomes just that: a matter of marketing strategy. While in some parts of the world the approach has been to disguise First Class as Business Class, making it more palatable (with great success and increasing demand), others do better by going over the top—catering to the needs of those for whom nothing less than First printed on the ticket will do.