FIRST CLASS' GOOD-LOOKING CORPSE
By Joe Brancatelli
May 22, 2014 -- International first-class is dying, but it sure is leaving a good-looking corpse.
Airlines around the world are dumping the fanciest cabin at the pointy end of the aircraft, because costs are rising, demand for the pricey seats is falling and the vast majority of upmarket international fliers are more than content to sit in the gussied-up business classes that most carriers now offer.
"I don't think there will be a return to first-class travel," Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker said earlier this month. His remarks perfectly bookend comments last year from Lufthansa's then chief executive, Christoph Franz, who said other airlines "thought we were mad" for operating so many long-haul jets with first-class cabins.
Al Baker and Franz, who left Lufthansa this month to run the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Roche, put their fleets where their mouths are. Al Baker's comments were part of his announcement that Doha-based Qatar would eliminate first-class cabins on all but its newly delivered Airbus A380s. Franz's comments came as Lufthansa told the world that it would maintain first class only on 75 percent of its long-haul fleet, down from 90 percent. The world's largest operator of first class, Lufthansa had already slashed its inventory of top-class accommodations by reducing the cabin size to eight life-flat beds, down from 16 older-style seats.
But as it exits, first class is going out in grand style. Earlier this month, Air France announced that it would upgrade first-class accommodations into spacious suites, complete with privacy curtains. More than anything, the new Air France arrangement mirrors the golden age of post-war air travel and the fancy railroad staterooms that preceded it.
But Air France's elaborate set-up was trumped by Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi. It is rolling out new arrangements called the First Apartment and an over-the-top experience called The Residence, a three-room, two-person, 125-foot cabin that has a sofa in the living room, shower in the en suite bathroom and gigantic double bed in the bedroom.
And don't forget that even as it trims first-class capacity, Lufthansa still operates what may be the ultimate perk: a dedicated first-class terminal at its Frankfurt hub. It permits Lufthansa's top customers to wait for flights in private offices or bedrooms, dine in an exclusive restaurant and even clear security and reach their departing flight without ever interacting with the hoi polloi in business class, or, perish the thought, coach.
The disconnect between the airline industry's lower number of first-class seats and increasingly luxurious accommodations in those pointy-end cabins is actually a reflection of modern life on the ground. Fewer travelers can afford to pay the freight for luxury, but those that do pony up an eye-popping premium. Two examples: a first-class roundtrip between New York/JFK and London on British Airways costs about $20,000, nearly 20 times the cheapest roundtrip coach passage between the two cities. And if you want to cosset yourself up in The Residence on the flights between Abu Dhabi and London next year, be prepared to part with $44,000 roundtrip.
When you pay that much more to fly, the airlines will do something special to win your business. Even if you are few in number.
Reliable figures are impossible to come by, of course, and the airline industry people I talk to disagree. But most say as much as half of an international airline's total revenue comes from the 10 or 15 percent of customers who book a premium class. Airlines that still offer first class may generate a third of their premium-class dollars from those precious few who still book first.
Or as one U.S.-based executive of a major global carrier told me last week: "First-class fliers are our whales," a reference to what casinos call their super-spenders. "In markets where the whales still exist, you must have a superlative product, in the air and on the ground, to get their attention."
The first and most important part of the first-class product remains in-flight accommodations, which revolve around increasingly private "suites," some with their own doors, and larger and more comfortable sleeping arrangements. The new beds being installed on Singapore Airlines' Boeing 777-300ER aircraft\ measure 35 inches wide and 82 inches long. The bed in Etihad's Residence is designed to sleep two and will measure 82 x 47.5 inches.
Ironically, it was the introduction of first-class beds by British Airways in 1995 that also signaled the contraction of first-class cabins. When BA rolled out the then-outrageously large 78-inch-long beds, it reduced the number of first-class accommodations to 14 from 16. First class has been offering more space and more amenities to fewer and fewer guests ever since.
All Nippon Airways, for example, reduced its first-class capacity to eight from 12. There will be only four of the new Air France behind-the-curtain suites per aircraft and they replace the eight seatbeds that the airline currently flies in first. And there'll only be one Etihad Residence per Airbus A380, a double-decked aircraft that can be configured with more than 800 coach seats.
There are so few flying whales around that many international airlines have chosen to dispense with first class entirely. Delta Air Lines makes do with business class as its premier product. US Airways, now part of the American Airlines Group, has no first class on its international flights. The same week that Qatar Air announced its first-class contraction, TAM of Brazil dumped first class. A partial list of other international airlines that don't bother with first: KLM, SAS Scandinavian, Alitalia, EVA Air of Taiwan, LOT of Poland, Iberia, Air New Zealand, Aer Lingus, Virgin Atlantic, South African Airways, LAN of South America and Air Canada.
Even carriers that remain committed to first class don't fly it everywhere anymore. British Airways trails only Lufthansa in the number of first-class-equipped aircraft it operates. But it launched Austin-London flights last month using Boeing 787 Dreamliners outfitted only with business class at the pointy end. Cathay Pacific's new nonstop flights between Newark and Hong Kong began in March and omitted the carrier's much-admired first-class suites. And when Japan Airlines expanded its route network to Boston in 2012, the long-haul Boeing 787 flights to Tokyo were outfitted without a first class.
As far as I can tell, even sophisticated business travelers with high standards don't really miss first class when it's not available. The reason? International business class is so good—and a much better value than first. There are lie-flat beds in most business-class cabins now, airport-lounge access, priority check-in, palatable meals and better-than-you'd-expect wines. Besides, companies that would never approve a first-class ticket for a road warrior might sign off on a ride in business.
I haven't flown a paid first-class flight overseas in years. The last time I was up front was when an airline offered me the chance to interview the carrier's hard-to-pin-down chief executive during an overnight run to Europe.
The chief executive, his public relations guy, another journalist and I commandeered the back of the first-class cabin. I felt guilty the arrangement until I looked around. Except for another dead-heading executive of the airline, the rest of the pointy end was empty.
The (Lie-Flat) Lap of Luxury
Many international carriers have dropped first-class service because costs are rising, passenger demand is falling and most flyers are happy with today's elaborate business-class cabins. But airlines that continue to offer first class are battling with new twists on an old amenity: flying beds. From their pre-jet-era heyday--in the photo, a TWA flight attendant prepares a sleeping berth on a Lockheed Constellation--to today's multi-roomed "residence," beds remain the ultimate expression of in-flight luxury.
From the Train to the Plane
The Boeing B-377 Stratocruiser, a commercial derivative of a World War II cargo plane, first flew in the summer of 1947. The double-decked aircraft featured 28 sleeping berths on the upper level. Pan Am was the largest operator of the Stratocruiser and boasted that staterooms featured upper and lower "foam-soft berths...that are actually wider and larger than those on a train." Here's how British Overseas Airways Corporation, a predecessor of British Airways, promoted the train-like sleeping compartments on its Stratocruisers.
Back to the Future on BA
Sleeping berths fell out of favor with the advent of the jet age in the late 1950s. But British Airways shook up the market in the fall of 1995 by introducing first-class seats that converted into fully flat beds. (In 2000, BA also was first to offer flat beds in business class.) The carrier's current first class cabins include seats that convert to 78-inch long beds. They're decked out with quilted mattresses and cotton duvets. Passengers receive pajamas and an Anya Hinsmarch amenities bag filled with products from DR Harris of London.
No Sex, Please, We're Singaporean
The arrival of the double-decker Airbus A380 in the fall of 2007 allowed Singapore Airlines to create a dozen on-board suites: private cabins with closing doors for each first-class passenger. Each cabin offers a full-sized single bed and luxuries trimmed in fine leathers and sumptuous linens. Side-by-side connecting suites allow passengers to convert single accommodations into a proper double bed. But ever-proper Singapore Airlines executives warned flyers that double beds didn't mean an invitation to the mile-high club.
In the Clouds on the Ground
Lufthansa operates more long-haul aircraft with first class than any other airline, but it has dramatically reduced capacity to eight seats per plane from the former 16. It offers comfortable in-flight beds, but Lufthansa's real star is the exclusive First Class Terminal at its Frankfurt hub. First-class travelers are offered use of offices, shower facilities and bedrooms equipped with day beds. There's also a private restaurant and an elegant bar. Flyers are escorted directly to the door of their aircraft by luxury automobile.
Pye in the Sky and More
Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways offers an extremely spacious layout for its first-class pods. Leather-and-fabric-covered chairs convert into fully flat beds topped with surprisingly plush mattresses and high-quality linens and duvets. Flyers receive organic cotton sleep suits with matching slippers and eye masks designed by Hong Kong's PYE shirtmakers. (Before that, it was sleepwear from Shanghai Tang.) In-flight service is discreet, meals are high quality and don't be surprised to find Krug Champagne being poured.
A Residence in the Sky
When Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi takes delivery of its first Airbus 380, it will be equipped with what the carrier called The Residence: a three-room, 125-square-foot accommodation designed for two passengers. Besides a living/dining room with a 60-inch sofa and a shower-equipped bathroom, there'll be a bedroom with a custom double bed measuring 82 inches long and 47.5 inches wide. Sybaritic as the layout sounds, Etihad has actually repurposed some otherwise dead space that can't be sold as seating on the A380.
Peeking Behind the Curtain
Reputation notwithstanding, Air France's premium classes haven't been noteworthy recently. The French carrier hopes to revive its standing with the new La Première suite. It eschews doors and walls, creating privacy with floor-to-ceiling curtains--a throwback to the days when airlines featured train-like staterooms. The seats convert to beds measuring 79 inches long and 30 inches wide. It'll be topped with a duvet branded by the French Sofitel hotel chain. The new suites premier in September on Air France's Boeing 777-300s.
Bedding Down on the Transcon
Among legacy carriers, only American Airlines still offers a first-class cabin on bellwether transcontinental routes connecting New York with Los Angeles and San Francisco. American's new transcon aircraft, the narrowbody Airbus A321, features ten first-class suites. Configured 1x1 along the single aisle, the seats fold down into fully flat beds that measure 21 inches wide and 81 inches long. Each seat offers a work area, storage, AC power, USB ports, and a 15.4- inch, touch-screen monitor with plenty of entertainment options.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.