Second thoughts on first class

Life no longer looks so sharp when you're flying at the pointy end of the plane. In the post-GFC era – and the post-post-GFC era which all too quickly followed – an increasing number of airlines are dropping first class.

A new breed of business class seats are taking pride of place, especially in the next generation of airlines rolling out of the Airbus and Boeing factories.

Take the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has been ordered by more than 50 airlines but has yet to see a single first class seat installed.

"We're seeing many airlines starting to reduce their full-blown first class offering, mainly because business class is beyond what first class used to be," a Boeing spokesman told High Flyer.

"Business class is where the better airlines spend money because passengers are willing to pay for it."

Airbus executive Didier Evrard agrees that airlines buying their own A350 - the French maker's next-generation competitor for the 787 - are unlikely to fit first class seats.

"I don't think there will be many airlines doing this," he says, adding that competition between carriers and the desire to maximise revenue means "the pressure of the market is very high".

This may well change when Airbus and Boeing roll out their lanky 787-10 and A350-1000 models, which will stretch these mid-sized airliners to 'mini-jumbo' extremes.

But this trend also reflects the evolution of business class, with wide seats that convert into fully lie-flat beds, duvets and mattresses, handy side tables, shoe nooks, large-screen video panels plus mains power and USB sockets.


Simply put, today's best business class seats are as good, if not better, than first class was only a decade ago – and airlines can fit more of them into the space demanded by first class.

"It's quite an indulgence just for airlines to have a first class cabin,"  says Luke Hawes, director of leading UK aviation design firm PriestmanGoode, which has crafted first class cabins for Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and Swiss, along with the original concept designs for the Airbus A380.

Hawes estimates that a first class cabin of 12 seats costs an airline around $3 million.

None of this is to suggest that first class is on the way out entirely. It's still a proud part of most airlines' flagships such as the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777-300ER, although Emirates is considering a two-class variant of the A380 that would eliminate first class.

Garuda is one airline that's going against the flow, and will next week add first class to its fleet – which currently tops out at business class – in the Indonesian carrier's new long-range Boeing 777-300 jet.

And next month Singapore Airlines will reveal the second generation of its ground-breaking first class suites.

PriestmanGoode's Hawes predicts that first class may eventually evolve beyond suites, and into a private jet-like cabin.

"We might be able to have more of a flexible configuration where you can maybe zone off  a number of seats where people are flying together," he suggests.

"You could almost create a cabin within a cabin. I think that could be quite appealing, and there are concepts we're working on which are along those lines."

Is first class really worth the money, or is the best business class more than good enough? And if so, which is your favourite business class seat?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT