MIAMI — This past summer I took my first trip in international first class, flying both Lufthansa in the Boeing 747-8 and Thai Airways in the Airbus A380 on my way to Jakarta, Indonesia. Each carrier offered a different experience: Lufthansa was more professional and reserved, whereas Thai Airways was more engaged and aggressive with its service. But both were fantastic flying experiences, among the best I’ve ever had.
But despite the absolute quality of the product, the future of international first class is far from secure. Carriers around the world have drawn down or eliminated their first class cabins, and the airlines that remain are increasingly concentrated in a few key global hubs. So what are the key drivers behind the decline of international first class?
The experience isn’t good enough
This will sound contradictory to my opening paragraph, but despite how objectively amazing those first class experiences were, they weren’t that much of a leap. Later, on that same business trip, I flew Singapore Airlines in business class on a flight from Singapore to Delhi. That experience was 95% as good as either first class product in both terms of service and hard product.
Even if you want to argue that Singapore Airlines is an outlier in terms of being ahead of the market in all cabin classes, my Finnair trip from Delhi to Helsinki to New York JFK was perfectly fine as well (maybe 85% as good as my first class experiences). And while 5-15 percentage points is a tangible drop off, probably it’s not big enough to justify the usual $5,000 plus price Delta between first and business class.
A market constrained by changing corporate behavior and shrinking cost of private jets
Historically, First Class was the purview of flat bed seats on long haul trips, both for company executives and for leisure flyers, seeking a more premium experience. But with the introduction of flat bed and then all-aisle access business class seats like those on American Airlines’ Boeing 777-300ERs, the product boost offered by a First Class cabin shrunk (as noted above).
Simultaneously as this occurred, corporate behavior changed. Once businesses could guarantee that their employees could get a good night’s rest in a flat bed business class seat, the impetus for first class (i.e. the boost in productivity) also declined.
Beyond basic economics, the rise of the internet, fast access to information, and social media changed how publicly traded companies could budget and pay for travel. Back when company filings with the SEC were distributed on paper, figuring out a company’s travel budget would have been really hard. So even a publicly traded company could have sent its CEO/CFO level employees and even its vice presidents in First Class without anyone caring.
But in today’s media world, when a company’s financials can be quickly scanned using a PDF reader and when inequality/conspicuous consumption have become such big stories, it’s not hard to imagine a company getting skewered on Twitter for having too luxurious of a travel budget. For most companies today, it’s safer just to put everyone in business class, even the CEO.
There are still some travelers who crave that more exclusive experience – but today, they are more likely than ever to opt for private jets. Previously, private jets were outrageously expensive, with a similar percentage wise (and much larger absolute) pricing gap as that of first class to business class, plus a large cash outlay required for outright ownership.
However, with the rise of fractional ownership (such as NetJets) and better charter options, private jets are plenty accessible to today’s ultra-wealthy. Why fly commercial when for 20 or 30% more you can fly in your own jet?
What this all cascades to be that there are very few markets worldwide that can genuinely handle a first class cabin to more than one or two long haul destinations. And the vast majority of first class demand is between these cities: London, New York, Los Angeles, Dubai (weakly), San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Frankfurt, Paris, Zurich, Beijing, Sydney.
High opportunity cost
As business class demand has exploded around the world, particularly in developing markets, there is an increasing sense that the first class cabin is taking up valuable floor space in airplanes that could be better used on an expanded business class cabin. For example, former United CEO Jeff Smisek noted in a July interview with Buying Business Travel, “It’s a money loser, and we will be eliminating it over time. For example the 767s that have it today, as they get retrofitted you will not see it reappear. The problem is that it takes a lot of real estate, and people are not willing to pay for that. I suspect the other carriers, apart from the subsidised Gulf airlines, would say the same thing.”
The math behind Smisek’s statement is that each first class seat takes up 1.5 times as much space as a business class seat and 3 times as much space as an economy class seat. So a cabin of 8 First Class Seats on average could be converted to 12 business class seats or 24 economy class seats. Let’s Assume that first class seats retail for $6,000 one way while business class ones retail for $3,000 one way. In that case, the First Class cabin represents more revenue potential than the additional Business Class seats ($48,000 versus $36,000).
A growing trend
And airlines continue to draw down their first class footprints. For example, Brazilian carrier TAM Airlines (part of LATAM Airlines Group, South America’s largest airline) removed first class cabins from its Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s last year. United Airlines currently offers first class on Boeing 747, 767, and 777-200 aircraft, but it will not offer a first class cabin on its new Boeing 777-300ERs, which are earmarked for flagship routes from its Newark hub.
And while United hasn’t yet made a firm decision on whether to offer First Class on the Airbus A350-1000, it is highly unlikely to retain the product, meaning that first class will be retired with the current generation of aircraft. Meanwhile in Korea, even as larger rival Korean Air has doubled down on a first class cabin, full service carrier Asiana Airlines has made the decision to strip First Class off of its fleet save for the six Airbus A380 superjumbos it operates to Los Angeles and New York JFK. On the whole, the prevalence international first class is clearly on the downswing.
The future at carriers that remain
The following airlines currently offer international first class cabins: Air China, Air France, Air India, American Airlines, ANA, Asiana, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Southern, El Al, Emirates, Etihad, Garuda Indonesia, Gulf Air, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines, Jet Airways, Korean Air, Kuwait Airways, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines, Oman Air, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Saudia, Singapore Airlines, SWISS, Thai Airways and United Airlines.
For some of these airlines, you can be secure or optimistic about the future of first class. Within the Chinese market, Air China only offers first class in its long haul Boeing 747-8is and Boeing 777-300ERs, and its long haul gateway is Beijing, a market that has genuine First Class demand. The same applies to China Eastern with its home gateway of Shanghai (once again with a limited sub-fleet).
China Southern’s case is a little less secure given that Guangzhou/Shenzhen are smaller First Class markets, but for the moment, there is so much money floating around in Shenzhen (China’s startup hub) that they’ll be able to fill the cabin for the next few years at least.
Air France, ANA, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, and SWISS are all based in markets that have true demand for international first class, so they will retain the product for the foreseeable future.
The future of first class at Gulf Air, Oman Air, Kuwait Airways, and Saudia depends on political factors. These are countries that have a two-tier economy with plenty of customers who pay for First Class. But if their economies shift to a more egalitarian structure, the impetus for first class might shrink.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways (who only offers First Class on the A380 moving forward), don’t necessarily have home markets with tons of First Class demand, though they do capture a large share of what you might call the “Top” market in the Middle East. Moreover, they have built their reputations and public relations campaigns around the first class cabins, so they are likely to retain the cabins whether they make economic sense or not. Jet Airways’ long haul fleet functions as an offshoot of that of Etihad, so they are likely to retain the cabin even though First Class doesn’t really sell in India.
For other carriers, the future is bleaker
In the United States, American hasn’t quite eliminated first class, but it is being removed from the Boeing 777-200ER fleet and will be constrained in the future to flagship 777-300ER routes, and United as previously mentioned is all but certain to eliminate first class.
Air India’s wide body aircraft of the future – the Boeing 787 – isn’t configured with a First Class cabin, and its first class cabin will die when the Boeing 777-300ER fleet is phased out. El Al doesn’t really have a justification for First Class anymore – they can probably subsist on flat bed business class for their incoming fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners, though the 777-200ERs with first class might stick around for a while.
First Class has been a spectacular failure for Garuda Indonesia, whose home market of Jakarta is too price sensitive to sustain such an ornate service. They will likely convert over to Business Class at some point in the near future. Two thousand five hundred miles to the north, Hainan isn’t in the right markets in China (they nominally have a hub in Beijing but can only serve secondary international destinations (i.e. San Jose instead of San Francisco), and first class will be eliminated when the A340-600s leave the fleet.
Finally, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways are in a very similar place when it comes to first class. Both carriers have A380s that are too big for their network and current market conditions but simultaneously are too expensive for the cash strapped airlines to reconfigure. Both carriers also operate in home markets that no longer justify a first class cabin. Bangkok in particular is much more of a vacation market than it is a business travel one for long haul device), so as long as they behave rationally (and with heavy government involvement in both carriers that is an open question), each carrier is highly likely to end first class service.