The Decline of First Class? Hardly.

Tony France, guest-blogging for Cranky Flier, laments the decline of first class. He says it used to be about the service and the experience, the little touches, and now it’s just about the seats.

As for the food:

The caviar went first, a victim of conservationist activities as well as the most obvious “waste” on board the plane. One by one, everything almost down to the steak itself was removed and cost cut. Fresh eggs died an omelette with red sauce death long ago. Today’s premium passengers are essentially left to feel lucky they receive a meal at all. The entrees have become “lighter, healthier” and cheaper. The carved roasts and Maine lobsters are all in your dreams if you’re old enough to remember them at all.

This seems about right for first class on US carriers, but not as much for European ones and it’s hardly the case for the airlines of Asia.

Lufthansa still offers caviar, although I find it to be somewhat mediocre. Thai Airways removed caviar from its offering (I didn’t get any in March) but has reintroduced it now. It never left ANA or Singapore (Singapore’s ounge in Seoul even offers caviar.

I certainly wasn’t imagining the lobster in black bean sauce I had onboard Asiana last year, the lobster pad thai I had on Thai Airways in March (on a 4 hour flight), or the lobster thermidor on a two and a half hour business class flight on Singapore a couple months back either.

Of course, no airline ever offered better food than All Nippon Airways does today in its long-haul first class. their mid-flight order on demand snack menu is superior to just about any airline’s main meal presentation.

What’s to be lamented — in the US aviation market — is two things: (1) service and (2) a decent domestic first class product. In essence, Tony France is right… to a point… and only with respect to US carriers. (Although I sure wish such a thing as decent intra-European business class existed, it does not.)

France describes a pampering service that just doesn’t exist on American or United — although at times United can still pull it off, but it’s not a brand standard, just luck of the flight attendant draw. And things like a special concierge for first class passengers, escorting them to the plane and checking on them, meeting them at the gate, are gone for the most part.

An American Airlines union flight attendant with 30 years service bidding a Tokyo route because that’s where they want to go on vacation and servicing the first class cabin because their seniority lets them choose their on-board duty and they choose that cabin because fewer passengers means less work will never provide the same level of service offered by Singapore flight attendants. And the level of bitterness has only grown amongst the median flight crew member over the past decade.

But that experience isn’t generalizable across the entire world.

The little niceties of service still exist, on Singapore.. Cathay.. Asiana.. ANA to be sure. Flight attendants offer to make your bed when the time comes. They clean the lavatory between each use. It isn’t just about the Bvlgari or Hermes amenity kits, the actual mattresses and duvets for sleeping, the pajamas, or the escorts onto the plane and through VIP security and immigration, it’s an attention to detail so fine that a water glass never empties and yet the flight attendant never intrudes at an inoportune time. They’re trained to view the cabin from a discrete vantage point to ensure that they are unseen yet aware of each passenger’s needs.

This standard doesn’t apply worldwide, of course. I wouldn’t expect to find it on British Airways, their experience is more akin to that of US carriers and culturally they aren’t as service oriented as Japanese flight attendants.

But while the American carriers don’t offer service any longer, just a seat (and even then a seat which lags behind several world carriers), the ideal of first class flight certainly still exists, and has even taken on new dimensions which service that begins long before boarding and extends to a passenger’s departure from the airport.

And that’s why I save my miles, so I can experience this level of glory which I otherwise could never aspire to.

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, 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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