First class cabins might be soon becoming an even more rarified luxury item.
Eager to monetize the front of the plane, carriers are opting to put in more dense business class seat configurations, focusing on improving that product in a hope that customers (or those paying the bills) don’t care about the difference.
The trend line runs through the industry: United recently launched its new business class product, Polaris, and is phasing out first; Qatar only runs first on a few Airbus A380 routes; Qantas is running only business, premium economy, and economy on its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners and airlines like Cathay Pacific are phasing out the service on their new order of Airbus A350 planes.
The logic is simple: more passengers up front, more money per route for the airline. And in an unpredictable economy, when you look to your left and right in first, many of the passengers are either mileage redemption warriors or people traveling on a staff ticket.
The market for first class is growing more and more limited. Business seats have been getting continually better year over year, and large companies with slashed travel budgets can’t justify the spend. Business class used to be a reclining seat, with first the only flat bed option. Now that both exist, the differentiation is somewhat lacking except with the best brands that are focused deeply on the first class product.
Air Canada CEO Ben Smith told Skift in an earlier interview: “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.”
Of course, in some echelons of business like hedge funds and private equity, first is the “cheaper” decision just under flying private. And what many fail to acknowledge is that sleeping situations, even on a private jet, are less than comfortable. There’s a famous anecdote about the head of a noted media investment bank who would fly British Airways first, having the private jet follow, when flying from the East Coast to London because he got a better night of sleep.
Even with airlines doubling down on innovation in business cabins, what strategic role does first have to play for carriers? Why would anyone keep it?
1. Actual privacy
First class products offer actual privacy when you’re sleeping. La Premiere on Air France closes with a curtain, the only product in the sky of its kind to offer complete privacy. Of course, some other products have sliding doors, creating a cabin feel, but the Air France version is differentiated, smartly, through the use of a simple curtain rather than unwieldy hard product. The cabin is also beautifully designed, completely different from the business class aesthetic, and is discreet and residential feeling.
2. A proper bed and better sleep
Business class can often feel like sleeping on an awkward camp cot, while first elevates the quality of sleep significantly. Japan Airlines’ first class is large, and also comes with a Japanese-designed Airweave brand mattress, which can be flipped to one side for hard, and to the other for soft. In addition, there is a liner for the bed, and high quality linens. More details are considered when it comes to shut-eye.
3. Super-personalized service
Due to the smaller cabin and top-tier staff, service is very highly personalized. You can dine when you want, and flight attendants know your name and preferences. Some business products with a lot of seats feel like a mechanized assembly line when it comes to meal service, BA being an egregious example.
4. The halo effect
Importantly, first class serves as a marketing halo for the brand. Many people will never even set foot in the cabin, but it shows the attention to detail, approach, and luxury that is associated with the airline. This is why Etihad has made so much hay with its private suite, The Residence, and its First Class “Apartments” cleverly using semantics to connote space versus a simple chair or even a suite. In the arms race to be more decadent, the PR and earned media factor is hugely important for carriers, and the hype cycle of aviation bloggers, luxury sites, and business publications are always looking for a compelling new hook.
And in general, having first class plays to the most primal mode of luxury: desire for scarcity and exclusivity. Having something that doesn’t make any rational sense, but exists. Perhaps the future of first is not unlike a concept car, or couture gowns. Not especially pragmatic but important for a brand to show what it are capable of.
So who is still doing first class particularly well? The aforementioned Air France product stands out as leading the pack, alongside Etihad’s “First Apartment,” as well as Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Emirates and Japan Airlines. Qatar’s launch of Q Suites will undoubtedly shake up the industry as well, as it is a business product that feels like first in terms of space and comfort.