Why International First Class Is Slowly Disappearing From Airlines

  • Skift Take
    There is still a market for international first class. It’s just not big, and its generally on flights between financial centers. Qatar Airways is making the right decision in focusing on business class, rather than first.

    For years, Akbar Al Baker, the brash CEO of Qatar Airways, promised he would introduce a business class seat so revolutionary it would make most first class products obsolete.

    Last week, after many delays, Al Baker finally unveiled his patented cabin, and by most accounts, he has succeeded. Soon, on its Boeing 777s and A350s, Qatar Airways will be the first airline to offer couples seated in business class a double bed. Previously, only the most opulent first class seats, such as Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A380 suites class, offered that feature.

    Qatar is the latest airline to bet big on business class, calculating the massive seats and over-the-top service of first class no longer makes sense in a competitive market.

    Most North American airlines gave up on true international first class several years ago, but elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, it has persisted, with carriers chasing wealthy travelers who buy tickets that can cost $15,000 or more.

    Now, however, even many of those airlines are deciding it’s no longer prudent to invest in six to 12 suites when the space could be better used by more business class seats. Qatar’s chief rivals still invest in first class — Emirates and Etihad generally have suites on widebody aircraft — but many other airlines are examining whether they still need it, or whether business class is good enough.

    Some carriers have cut first class completely, while others have removed it on poorly performing routes. Several have cut the size of cabins to four or six seats.

    “With these suites that you see on some luxury carriers, the demand for that is pretty limited,” said Ben Smith, president of passenger airlines for Air Canada, among the first global carriers to remove first class. “You look at the value proposition and the cost differential, and the amount of real estate it takes up can hardly be justified. There’s a very small market that sits between business class and a private jet that wants to fly in first class. From the biggest financial centers, perhaps.”

    The new Qatar Airways seat can accommodate a family of four in one pod.

    Qatar’s Seat

    Al Baker, a natural showman, has a tendency to embellish. And since he had been saying he would introduce a new business class with double beds for more than two years, some wondered whether the seat would be as good as promised.

    But the seat, unveiled at ITB Berlin, a tourism trade fair, appears as good as advertised. Most of the innovation comes from the cabin’s adjustable nature. Two seats center seats can join together, allowing for the double bed. And four seats can even be put together to allow a family of four to enjoy a meal, or allow business travelers to conduct a meeting.

    Even better, Al Baker said the new seats will not take up any more space than the airline’s existing business class seat.

    “The living space in the Q Suite is as large as you can have,” Al Baker, the CEO, told reporters in Berlin.

    Seats, which will be among the longest in the industry, will also feature doors for privacy, as well as a ‘do not disturb’ button. Plans also call for special pillows and blankets, and flight attendants will conduct turndown service

    Brian Kelly, founder of The, said the seat was large enough to comfortably accommodate his 6-foot-7 inch frame.

    “A lot of press conferences fail to deliver,” he told his readers after trying the new seat in Berlin. “Today did not. They announced their new ‘Q suite’ and honestly guys, it feels like first class.”

    The seat is likely as luxurious as Qatar Airways’ real first class, a cabin the airline has only on its six A380s. They will keep their eight-seat cabins, but Al Baker said this week the airline may update the seats to ensure it remains more opulent than the new business class.

    First Class Often Not Needed

    As recently as a decade ago, passengers on most airlines who wanted a flat-bed often had one option — international first class. In business class, airlines usually had a cradle-style seat, or an angled flat-seat. Both are comfortable, but neither is as conducive to a good-night’s rest as a flat seat.

    Now, nearly every international airline has an adequate flat bed in business class. Most have some drawbacks — they’re usually not as wide or as long as first class beds, and they often don’t have as much room for storage or a passenger’s feet as flyers would like — but they are sufficient. And business class seats, even the most generous ones, take up less space than first class, so carriers can sell more of them.

    Over time, even the most flush companies started requiring executives to fly in business class. Now, airlines with first class are chasing a small segment of passengers who see value in a larger seat with more personalized service. From some destinations, like Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, London, Dubai, and Hong Kong, enough customers exist. But on others, few passengers will pay a premium.

    Keeping an industry-leading first class can be expensive. With the gap in seat quality narrowing, airlines often make up the difference by offering over-the-top amenities passengers don’t need. Many serve caviar and expensive champagne, even though the New York Times recently noted that $100 (or more) per bottle champagne doesn’t taste great at altitude.

    Some airlines, like Lufthansa, have dedicated first class lounges and car services that whisk passengers from one gate to another, so they need not walk through the terminal. Others, like Emirates and Etihad, have onboard showers.

    Another first class bonus: Passengers usually can eat when they want, instead of at set times. But many airlines now offer dine-on-demand in business class.

    “You see a lot of carriers starting to phase out first class because the only difference really between business class and first these days are you get a little bit better food and better wine onboard,” said Andrew Yiu, Air Canada’s managing director for product design. “But most of customers are just looking for that lie flat seat to be able to sleep so they can function when they arrive at their destination.”

    Singapore Air’s first class on a Boeing 777-300ER

    Smaller Cabins But Not Gone Yet

    In North America, only American Airlines expects to have international first class long-term, and just on 20 Boeing 777-300ERs that fly to major financial centers, including London and Hong Kong.

    Other airlines are also culling first class. Lufthansa, which says it is world’s biggest caviar buyer, is removing the cabin from all aircraft except the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8.

    Even Singapore Airlines is reducing first class cabins. While its A380s retain large cabins, many other aircraft, including new Airbus A350s, do not have first class. And some of the airline’s Boeing 777-300ERs have as few as four seats.

    “In the context of business class becoming so good, the incremental reason for most travelers to travel first class rather than business is not as compelling as it perhaps used to be before full lie-flat beds, before very, very wide seats, before the privacy and all of the other attributes that now come with our business class,” said Campbell Wilson, Singapore’s senior vice president for sales and marketing. “It’s more of a niche product than perhaps it used to be. That’s why the cabin has been adjusted slightly.”

    Still, despite recent trends, many airlines, including Singapore, Etihad, and Emirates, are retaining first class, believing it still makes fiscal sense in some markets.

    “Having your own personal space, being acknowledged, feeling that you are someone who is important to the people that are serving you, not important in terms of status but important as an individual, is a big factor, and there is disposable income and people that are prepared to pay for that,” said Rupert Hogg, Cathay Pacific’s chief operating officer.

    There are other reasons to keep first class. Some airlines have profitable deals with credit card issuers, like Chase and American Express. The banks buy frequent flyer miles and give them to credit card customers, who redeem them for travel. Card-holders could redeem the miles for economy class, but many apply because of the aspirational nature of the programs. Some travelers apply for credit cards for only one reason — to someday fly international first class.

    Loyalty is another factor. Some airlines permit business class customers to upgrade into first class using frequent flyer miles or other chits. Customers may remain loyal to an airline — and buy lots of business class tickets — just for an occasional upgrade to first class.

    “People that travel a lot in business class aspire maybe to use points or something to get into first class,” Hogg said. “It’s the next level of luxury. It’s pampering that they might aspire to, at least initially.”

    Marketing can be important, too. Take Etihad Airways, an airline unknown to many American consumers as recently as five years ago. But in 2014, Etihad introduced its Residence —a multi-room compartment, complete with a private bathroom — for ultra wealthy travelers. Concurrently, Etihad started selling “first class apartments,” a smaller compartment more akin to first class, with both a bed and a seat.

    Etihad has only eight A380s, and usually they fly only to London, Mumbai, New York, Sydney and Melbourne. Yet the two dual premium cabins have given the carrier a marketing lift, and it’s possible some passengers buy economy and business class seats because they’re familiar with the Residence and Apartment.

    “The halo effect is considerable,” Etihad Group CEO James Hogan told Skift last year.

    Photo Credit: Passengers in Qatar Airways' new "Q Suite" can create a double bed in some middle seats. Qatar Airways
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