February 18, 2020

What does the future of first class look like?

Katherine Packer

The talk in air travel for years has been the decreasing demand for first class, with business class becoming a more popular solution for premium travel. The differences between business class and first class have diminished on some airlines, that customers couldn’t always justify the price increase. A number of Premium airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Etihad Airways have started to up their game by introducing completely enclosed first class suites. These suites are 100% private, with floor to ceiling walls and doors providing a completely new and different type of flying experience to the most high-end customers. So, the question is, what does this mean for the future of first class?

Etihad, The Residence

A Shifting Market

Ever since airline deregulation in 1978, we have begun to see a decreasing focus on premium service for all customers in lieu of offering lower prices on economy seats. Paying a premium cost for business or first-class was a way for those high-end customers to maintain this higher level of service. And for airlines, many of them relied on these high-end customers to generate large portions of their revenue, in fact close to 30% of airline revenues are generated by 5% of passengers. But as prices continued to increase, the demand for business class rose, and the lines between business and first class began to blur. As a result, many airlines, including ones that often cater towards high-end consumers, have begun phasing out or doing away with first class entirely, including airlines that were previously well known for their first-class cabins such as Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, and Qantas. The reality for airlines was that they were simply weren’t able to fill the first-class cabins on every route and make them profitable.  

Singapore Airways, A380 Double Suite

First Class for the Future

The introduction of enclosed first-class suites seems to be working well towards enticing premium passengers back to first class from business by providing a truly unique experience. One thing that is certain is that with the introduction of first-class suites, fewer first class seats will be available at an even higher cost. Because of the additional space needed for the suites, this shift only makes sense, and could prove to be a smart move for airlines; offering a more differentiated experience to fewer passengers. This could maximise the first-class cabin, while still providing a robust business class experience. It also makes the first-class cabin even more exclusive - a feature which will build strong appeal.

While many news outlets are decrying the demise of first class, Emirates president Sir Tim Clark says that he doesn’t foresee doing away with the first-class cabin anytime soon. “It’s about redesigning, not eliminating.” (Financial Times, 2017). While first class isn’t going anywhere, it is transforming into a whole new flying experience. One that we, for one, can’t wait to try.

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