In 2015, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways made headlines when it announced its new “Residence,” a penthouse in the sky featuring a sitting room, bedroom with double bed and bathroom. During a recent visit to the Etihad Airways Innovation Center in Abu Dhabi, the airline’s product team highlighted that these premium cabins are not designed to look like a typical first or business class product. They’re modeled after a “private member’s club” or even a yacht. And further adding to the luxury quotient are exclusive privileges like a private Savoy-trained butler, branded amenities, luxurious linen, massive television screens and the works. This is the super first class.
In aviation parlance, super first class is a product that goes beyond traditional first class. The more conventional first class products do not involve enclosed suites but instead offer wide flat-bed seats, albeit with limited privacy.
There has been an ongoing debate about the relevance of first class since 2017, because of the pervasive presence of new, enhanced business class seats, as well as the introduction of premium economy cabins. Despite this, many long-haul airlines – Cathay Pacific, British Airways, Lufthansa, Air India, Jet Airways – continue to offer a noteworthy first class product on their long-haul routes, catering to a small bunch of travelers who are looking for that extra exclusivity.
And then there are the following four, who cater to an even smaller group with their high-end offerings.
In 2007, Singapore Airlines rolled out its new Airbus 380, tipped to be its flagship aircraft. The highlight was its revolutionary offering of 12 self-contained luxurious suites. This was in addition to its existing first class product (available on the 777, but not the A380), making it the first airline in the world to offer a cabin product above first class. It also became the first carrier to offer a double bed in the sky, when the privacy panel was lowered to combine the two center suites. It was a bold move in a relatively unpredictable economic climate, and marked the new age of deluxe travel.
Soon after, Dubai-based Emirates rolled out its plush Airbus 380s. It made the news with its first class product – once again, self-contained suites, but with single beds. However, the highlight of this super first class product was the shower in the sky. The bathrooms in this cabin, christened Shower Spa, allowed passengers to take a shower during flight.
Interestingly, Doha-based Qatar Airways offers a first class only on its A380 aircraft. However, this cabin is not designed in a suites format. Instead the airline is concentrating on its “super business class.” which has been rolled out on their Airbus 350s and Boeing 777s.
“Our business class is so good it can be counted as a first class product,” says Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker. “We will go all out to make our business class product as revolutionary as possible.” Qatar’s new Qsuite business class product is designed such that four people can travel, dine and interact together in the same suite.
“While many airlines are eliminating their first class cabins, a select few are pushing the limits of what is possible with the highly sought-after cabins,” notes Jason Rabinowitz, the director of airline research at Routehappy and an aviation influencer. “There is no clear ‘right thing’ for airlines across the board as each has its own unique identity, customers and standards. In certain markets, first class may be in high demand by passengers, while there may be no demand at all in others. Airlines do extensive market research to justify the need to continue to offer new products or update their first class products, as these are multi-million dollar investments that will take years to recoup,” Rabinowitz explains.
“Having said that, the line between a superior business class product and a first class product has become increasingly blurred in recent years. A select few airlines offer over-the-top, multi-room suites to create a sort of super first class. But that is only possible on the largest of aircraft. There is only so much an airline can do to enhance its first class offering in the sky.” As a result, he says, “much attention has been shifted to ground handling and services, as a way to separate it from business class.”
To mark the tenth anniversary of its Suites product, Singapore Airlines unveiled its “new” Suite, to be retrofitted on its A380 aircraft. Singapore Airlines CEO Goh Choon Phong says, “When we put the world’s first A380 into commercial service in 2007, it set new industry benchmarks for premium full-service air travel. A decade later, the new A380 product is shining with our flagship products and legendary service.”
Be that as it may, the airline’s massive facelift includes a single-aisle Suites cabin featuring six Suites (down from 12), each of which has a separate sitting area (a swivel armchair) and a separate bed which can be lowered next to it. In some adjacent Suites, a divider can be lowered and beds joined to make a double bed. All this is designed in an understated aesthetic by Paris-based Pierrejean Design Studio.
“The demand is still there for first class,” adds Marvin Tan, the senior VP of product and services at Singapore Airlines. “There is a niche of super wealthy travelers who want to travel their way. Even though an airline may have a fabulous business class product, there is still a significant difference that is fairly tangible between the two cabin classes. Customers who think about what they are willing to pay and the value that they get will see these two propositions in a very different light.”
Emirates, on the other hand, recently gave a facelift to its Boeing 777 first class product with its completely enclosed suites. The cabin is sized down to six suites in a 1-1-1 configuration, each suite spread across 40 square feet with floor-to-ceiling sliding doors. Center suites, not normally having a window view, have a virtual window with live images from outside cameras. The bed is designed to give a feeling of weightlessness—and includes unique “moisturizing pajamas” and Bulgari amenities.
However, despite the positive image these products create for the airlines, there is the potential drawback of flying with these seats unsold. Suites take up valuable space in the cabin and add weight. Unsold first class space might have been sold as more economy or premium economy seats. In 2018, it is difficult to know if these products are economically sustainable or not. They generate excitement when they debut, but chances are most customers will never actually fly in these suites.