Is International First Class Condemned to Slowly Fade into Oblivion?

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In what lately seems to be becoming a worrisome trend among world’s top airlines, the two largest Korean carriers (Korean Air and Asiana) recently announced they are eliminating first class service from several of their routes.

Asiana First Class Suite.

Two weeks ago, Korean Air announced that beginning in June they were eliminating first class service on 27 international routes. Last week, Asiana announced that starting September they will not continue offering first class service on-board their A380, rebranding the premium cabin to “business suites” to be sold at a 30-40% discount from first class fares.

With this move, the two Korean carriers join many others that in the recent past have either replaced their first class service with a “business plus” concept, reduced capacity or directly eliminated first class service on some/all of their routes. Let’s do a recap:

  • Singapore Airlines reduced by half first class suites on-board their A380 on their 2017 cabin refreshment. Back in 2015, they also cut by half first class capacity on-board their B777-300ER. On both cases, the space reclaimed was used for a premium economy cabin.
  • Emirates eliminated 2 first class suites from the cabin when they reconfigured their B777-300ER, moving from a 1-2-1 to a 1-1-1 configuration in order to offer larger suites. They also scrapped first class from most of their LGW-DXB flights, reconfiguring some of their A380 for 615 passengers and 2 classes of service.
  • Lufthansa announced in 2013 that they were reducing first class capacity by 20%. In 2014 they announced the phase out first class from all their B747-400. In 2016 they announced their A350 won’t feature a first class cabin followed by a similar announcement in 2017, this time with their new B777X also not featuring a first class cabin. Both planes feature a premium economy cabin instead.
  • Last year, United stopped selling international first class tickets. They will (eventually) retrofit all their international first class cabins with their new Polaris product. In addition, premium economy is being installed on their widebodies.
  • Also last year, Malaysia Airlines dropped their first class product and rebranded it to “Business Suites”.
  • Other big players of the first class market as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines, did not include a first class cabin on their A350 orders.

In this first class capacity reduction, airlines are just following market trends. The super-rich are looking for ultimate luxurious, exclusive experiences, and some airlines, like Emirates and Etihad, are betting on offering a more premium first class experience with larger enclosed suites and personalized service.

On the other hand, the average business class product offered nowadays (mostly lie-flat seats) is light years away from the standard product offered 15 years ago in terms of privacy and comfort, making it a suitable choice for most executive business travellers.

And then there’s disruption. Qatar (with their QSuites) and Delta (with their Delta One Suites) definitely shaked the business class market introducing enclosed suites as a business class product. This configuration allows for a very private travel experience for a lower price than on first class (blurring the line -in terms of travel comfort- between business and first class), all this at a very reduced price if compared to a first class fare.

Conclusion

The super-rich are (mostly) flying private and the executive travellers are (mostly) flying business class. First class cabins nowadays are the ultimate goal for those aspirational travellers into the points/miles game, but airlines can’t live out of award tickets, and they’ve taken note by adjusting their capacity (which, in turn, makes it harder to get awards)

I don’t see first class completely disappearing from the market, but I can see it going away from some carriers and I’d expect more capacity cuts on non- or low-profitable routes. At the same time, I’d expect that carriers with high presence on VIP-heavy routes (especially between financial or entertainment industry hubs) to go for that niche market by offering a more exclusive/luxurious first class product.

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