Business Treaveler logo

Travel news, reviews and intel for high-flyers

The future of first class

The aviation industry appears to be reassessing the value of first class. Some still think of it as integral to their service offering, but there are those who have decided to eliminate the cabin class from their aircraft altogether.

United is one such airline. This December the carrier is set to introduce a slew of business class improvements, which will see it transform the existing BusinessFirst product into United Polaris – named after the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation.

First on the list is a brand new international business class seat, which can turn into a 180-degree fully-flat bed measuring six foot six inches. The new Polaris pods will be arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, ensuring direct aisle access for all customers. The seat will come with standard business-friendly amenities such as power outlets and USB charging ports. The cabin will also offer enhanced inflight services and an all-new menu.

Finally, the airline will also introduce a new United Polaris lounge concept when it opens a new facility at Chicago O’Hare on Dec. 1. The concept will subsequently be introduced in eight other locations – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, New York/Newark, Washington Dulles, Tokyo Narita, Hong Kong and London Heathrow in 2017.

While United Polaris signals the airline’s continued investment in its premium offerings, customers hoping to see improvements made in Global First are likely to be disappointed. The Star Alliance member has previously stated its intention to gradually remove that travel class from its portfolio, calling international first class “a losing business.”

Another North American airline that’s upping the ante for its premium product with its ground game is Air Canada. In addition to access to 21 Maple Leaf lounges at airports across the globe, international business class travelers can avail themselves of Air Canada’s Concierge Agents in 37 of the world’s airports. They are there to assist premium customers with day of flight issues, as well as special requests and last-minute arrangements, such as hotel and restaurant bookings.

Air Canada’s business class comes in two flavors – the classic pod and the more spacious executive pod. Either way, in addition to the aforementioned lounge access and Concierge service, international customers in the business class cabin get priority security clearance, priority boarding, plus a range of dining options and award-winning wines.

However on Air Canada, as on many airlines, a dedicated so-called first class cabin nowadays is a thing of the past – and has been for many years.

Putting the Squeeze On

The highly competitive business class offerings that have been developed in recent years have largely superseded what used to be called first class. Flat-bed seats in long-haul business class are no longer a rarity but are expected as the norm. Combined with multi-course meals served on fine china, state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment systems and personalized service, today’s business class is encroaching into the first class territory of yesteryear.

China Airlines (CAL) is a casualty of this trend. The Taiwanese carrier did offer first class on its 747-400 flights to the US, but retreated from the North American market last year. While it still operates the 747s on a number of short-haul, intra-Asia flights, its once traditional first class seats are currently marketed and sold as business class fares.

Meanwhile, CAL’s 747 replacement – the 777-300ER – has been configured to feature only a three-class layout: business, premium economy and economy. Last year, the airline’s chief executive Sun Huang-Hsiang revealed that, “the new Premium Business class is currently adequate for the company’s foreseeable future, and I believe that our customers will be very satisfied with it.”  

The Suite Life

While CAL may be eliminating first class soon, its CEO noted that it was cautiously looking into the possibility of introducing a new suites class standard. “Many airlines have eliminated first class, and changed to business, premium economy and economy class,” said Sun. “The talk that we’re having now is whether we should launch a suites class with much more luxurious amenities and service. But we do not anticipate very high demand for such an offering.”

Singapore Airlines (SIA) was the pioneer of the suites class, which it introduced on the A380 in 2007. However, the airline’s CEO Goh Choon Phong recently revealed that demand for the luxury class has been lukewarm, and SIA will be reducing capacity accordingly once the next batch of superjumbos is delivered.

“Going forward, you can expect we will be reducing the number of suites on the A380s,” said Goh. “What that number is, we’ll announce in due course. But the idea is to always better match demand and supply.”

One area on the map that appears immune to the quandary of first class is the Middle East. Etihad Airways’ A380, which it received in 2014, features The Residence. A super-luxury three-room suite, it consists of a living room, bedroom and bathroom and is accompanied by a dedicated Savoy-trained butler service. Despite a hefty $32,000 price tag for a one-way flight between Abu Dhabi and New York, the product has been a hit.

“We have experienced an overwhelmingly positive response to The Residence within the US – beyond our expectations, in fact,” Etihad’s chief executive James Hogan said last year. “We are seeing healthy forward bookings.”

The reasons for the continuing success of first and suites class in the Middle East include the large numbers of super-wealthy businessmen, politicians and royalty who regularly connect through the region, and the fact that the big three Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar – have built their reputations and brands largely around their luxury in-flight products.

A Step Up from First

In an age of Sarbanes-Oxley where publicly listed companies are under increased scrutiny for perceived extravagance, corporations are more sensitive to how luxury spending is viewed by practically everyone – regulators and rank-and-file workers, the press, the shareholders and the general public.

And besides, with flat-bed seats in business class rapidly becoming the norm for long-haul flights, more and more companies have come to realize that their employees can still enjoy a healthy rest when flying in business, with little to no adverse effects on productivity. So what value is there in a considerably higher fare?

Of course, for some companies the most desirable – and perhaps most cost-effective – travel option for the ultra-affluent is private jet, especially when traveling in a group. And it’s a segment that has not gone unnoticed by commercial airlines, as a number of high-profile carriers have jumped on the bandwagon and launched similar products.

Etihad Airways announced last December that it had partnered with a private jet charter company, Victor, as a complement to its already impressive First Apartments and The Residence products on the A380. The agreement allows premium customers who fly with the Gulf carrier on its superjumbo to London or New York to connect with Victor’s private jet service to travel onward to destinations within the UK or US.

Meanwhile, Emirates has taken things even further by launching its very own private jet service. Known as “Emirates Executive,” it allows customers to depart from either Dubai or Moscow and fly to more than 20 destinations worldwide, including Hong Kong, Bangkok and Tokyo. “We have seen an increasing demand in the private travel segment, especially in the Middle East and Europe as well as in markets such as India, Russia and China,” says Adnan Kazim, Emirates Airline’s divisional senior vice president of planning, aeropolitical and industry affairs. “We are looking to tap into this niche market.”

There was a time when flying was a two-class affair – coach or first. But today, first class has become only one among many options available to the upper echelons of travelers. And the exciting question is: Where does premium travel go from here?