What the Envy-Inducing Stories About Fabulous First Class Air Travel Miss: the Trend is Really Away from First Class, and Towards Business Instead

The AP’s Scott Mayerowitz offers the mainstream public a look into the offerings in international first class.

Airlines certainly offer premium passengers rarified experiences such as tarmac transfers to the plane, gourmet meals onboard and on the ground, top wines, and space — personal space in their seat and general separation from the masses. Although this last is a bit of a mischaracterization, I think — it’s less about avoiding the ‘sort of people who travel coach’ and more about avoiding lots of people which brings with it stress.

Yet some of the most cherished new international first-class perks have nothing to do with meals, drinks or seats. Global airlines are increasingly rewarding wealthy fliers with something more intangible: physical distance between them and everyone else.

The idea is to provide an exclusive experience — inaccessible, even invisible, to the masses in coach. It’s one way that a gap between the world’s wealthiest 1 percent and everyone else has widened.

The only thing the piece gets wrong is the configuration of the premium lounges at Emirates A380 terminal concourse in Dubai — business and first class aren’t on the same level of the concourse, both one floor up from economy.

What Scott acknowledges that few other authors of similar pieces don’t is that you can get this rarified experience via miles and points. But it still doesn’t include a discussion of who these people are for the most part in the premium cabins. Business class, at least, is often not ‘the wealthy’ but working stiffs who don’t fly private (though even private is populated by middle managers traveling between small towns more often than you’d think) and who aren’t important enough to stay home.

And to claim the “1%” experience is increasingly difficult from the masses and use first class air travel perks as the evidence I think misses that while first class is pretty great, it has become much less common not more – fewer airlines offering it, on fewer routes, and with fewer seats. The real growth in premium offerings has come in business class.

And the only real novelty is that the experience is offered on a commercial aircraft, the have and have not story (to be a trend) probably needs to include passenger statistics (how many people are flying first class, on paid tickets, versus the past) and also stats on private jet travel.

Cathay Pacific has a great first class, but they have a great business class too, and the front cabin has only 6 seats on their 777s. When ANA retired their ‘SuperStyle’ first class they went from 12 seats to 8. American Airlines is eliminating first class entirely on their 777-200 aircraft and offering fewer seats on their 777-300ERs. Delta and US Airways eliminated first class entirely. Continental claimed their business class was a ‘hybrid’ between business and first, calling it BusinessFirst — only it wasn’t.

Lufthansa is even removing first class from some planes and routes, and new aircraft have fewer seats up front (compare 16 seats on their old 747s to 8 seats in the new configuration).

South African Airways used to offer first class across their fleet. Asiana offers it only to a handful of cities. Qantas, despite their long haul route network, has first class now to very few cities. Their A380 has it. The unconverted 747s — that they’re retiring — has it. And that’s it.

The only carriers offering widespread first class, really, across a large route network are probably Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, and Swiss in Europe; Singapore and Korean in Asia although Thai offers it extensively to Europe, Air China has a good bit of first class offerings, and Cathay Pacific has a large first class network but even that is shrinking.

The Middle East carriers consistently offer first class, at least to routes West. Only a handful of cities get first class on Etihad to Asia. Qatar doesn’t fly a first class configuration to the U.S. Saudia has something they call first class.

While the piece, and others like it, are gawk-worthy — and the perks are great (the best perks from the best airlines aren’t new, like Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal) — I’m not sure there’s a trend.

A trend would be how business class is supplanting first class — how it’s gotten better, and replaced the top end of the market in commercial aviation to a large extent. But that wouldn’t support a 1% of the 1% story. It wouldn’t be quite as sensational.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. […] And as an added off-topic bonus, a couple of months later my TV interview on airline fees is still bouncing around and airing on local television stations around the country. Syndication can be better than network, I think! And NPR links to my post yesterday pointing out that despite articles about first class envy, the world trend is away from first class …. […]


  1. In December I flew First Class from FRA to EWR on LH. I usually do all my flying in Business.

    The LH First Class experience is superb and incomparably better than any Business. Yes, from the genuinely exclusive lounge at FRA, where I was served a superb meal before I got on the plane at 13:20 just ten minutes before take off, through the tarmac transfer and the exclusive 8 passenger compartment upstairs on a 747, through the totally separate bed, it was in all ways totally superior to Business. No questions about the exact degree of seat pitch or whether flat really meant flat. The pyjamas didn’t go amiss either. But then neither did the caviar and fine champagne. Best of all it was a tremendous bargain for just 67,500 United points and about $50!

    I returned to Europe with United in Business First from NYC to LHR. The difference was astounding. The United product is anyway not that great but the contrast bowled me over.

    Truly a great experience!

  2. yeah, his article is envy filled… he also should get his facts straight, he says “Austrian Airlines, Etihad Airways and Gulf Air are among the carriers to staff planes with their own first-class chefs.” – since when does Austrian offer first class at all? on which routes?

  3. And to add my two cents worth, my uncle is still working for Singapore Airlines after 20+ years. He says it’s not the premium cabins that balances the books. It’s the coach passengers that does it. I cannot wait for the day the economy sinks again and Delta comes crawling back to their “loyal” passengers once more.

  4. On the “separated from the masses” idea… We flew Air China First last February on a PEK-FRA reverse redeye. We were there on revenue – part of the RGN mistake fare. They called us down from the club right at the end of boarding, so by the time we got to the gate, we were the only ones there. Our family of four comprised the entire first class cabin population – the other four seats were empty. When we boarded they had all the curtains closed. It literally felt like we were the only people on the entire plane. It was definitely one of our more exclusive travel experiences.

    The pajamas were itchy though. #firstworldproblems

    Here’s my son, 21 months old, chilling out in his “Hidden Pavilion” seat: http://bit.ly/1hlGabs

  5. I really don’t appreciate the constant need to apologize and be ashamed of for everything we worked really hard for. There was always a divide between well to do and less fortunate- gated communities, 3* Michelin restaurants, cars, resorts, first class air travel, etc. Why stir things up?
    Gary, thanks to you and some other bloggers advises the travel is so much easier without paying a fortune!

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