True international first class, where flight attendants may serve caviar or write notes by hand for passengers, is probably no longer necessary outside of a few routes from global banking centers such as New York, Tokyo, and London, Air Canada’s president for passenger airlines said Tuesday at the Skift Global Forum.

Air Canada was among the first global carriers to remove first class, instead adding flatbeds with aisle access for long-haul passengers flying to business destinations. That’s a strong enough product for nearly all of Air Canada’s customers, most of whom prefer to have a good night’s sleep at an attractive price point rather than receive over-the-top service at an outrageously high fare.

“For the bulk of the world, the best business class product offerings are very, very good and usually adequate for what the top-end business or leisure customer is looking for,” Air Canada’s Ben Smith said. “We view our product as superior to anything else coming out of North America.”

Smith said customers generally want three things from Air Canada’s business class. First, they value consistency, so the service they receive from Toronto to Shanghai will be similar to what they had from Vancouver to Hong Kong. Second, they want a quiet, clean cabin where they can sleep well. Third, they want a low stress travel experience on the aircraft and at the airport.


Air Canada believes its business class seat is so good that the airline doesn’t need first class.

“The customers that choose our business cabin don’t like to have surprises,” Smith said. “They like to have as much control as they can with their experiences.”

In North America, American Airlines soon will become the only airline with international first class, and it will have it only on a small portion of its fleet —20 Boeing 777-300ERs mostly assigned to the longest routes. United is retiring its first class within the next few years in favor of its new Polaris business class, while Delta long ago abandoned its first class cabin.

Larger international airlines, such as Lufthansa, Swiss, British Airways, Air France, Asiana, ANA, and Japan Airlines, still have first class, though many are removing it from some aircraft, or shrinking the sizes of their cabins as they take new deliveries or retrofit aircraft.

“When you look at the amount of real estate these products take up,” Smith said of international first class, “it’s unrealistic to think that the size of the market… is large enough to sustain a separate cabin.”

But Smith downplayed the trend, saying first class cabins are only shrinking because business class is getting so much better. Most business class cabins, he said, are too luxurious to justify an airline installing an even more opulent first class.

“If you look at the first class products from 10 or 20 years ago, they weren’t as good as they are today,” he said.

Photo Credit: Air Canada President Ben Smith (R) with APEX CEO Joe Leader at the Skift Global Forum. Air Canada believes its business class is luxurious enough to attract premium customers. Skift