Airlines Are Now Making ‘Premium Business’ Cabins Instead of First Class              

There’s a worrying trend in aviation, and it concerns those accustomed to the finer things in life. First class, it seems, is disappearing.

First class on Singapore Airlines
WIll luxurious first class survive?

While it was never a highly in demand product, it’s always been there. But with more and more western airlines slowly phasing it out, we look to Asia to persist with their love of luxury. However, something’s going on in the east, and it’s somewhat telling for the future of high-end travel.

When Malaysia Airlines took delivery of their first A350-900 last year, Airbus applauded them for being the first airline to install first class on the jet. They’d picked an arrangement of four first class seats, all with privacy doors and ample space.

However, this was not first class as we know it. There was no Dom Perignon, no Michelin standard dining and, shock horror, not a scrap of caviar to be seen. In fact, customers weren’t paying nearly enough for this to be truly first class, so what were they to do?

The rise of ‘premium business class’

Malaysia airlines came up with a novel solution for their lack of truly opulent amenities, and in December they rebadged their first class cabin to something called a ‘business suite’. It’s still large, it’s still private, but it’s more affordable being only a smidge more expensive than a standard business seat.

business class Malaysia
The ‘premium business suite’ on Malaysian Airlines A380

Speaking about the rebrand, CEO of Malaysia Airlines Group, Captain Izham Ismail commented:

“The new Business Suite was introduced in response to the growing demand of our guests.  Our target is to enable the frequent flyer, looking for enhanced comfort, to now be able to enjoy a premium experience at competitive prices. We are confident that our new Business Suite will change the way people travel in business class.” 

Malaysian Airlines A350 First class
It’s first Jim, but not as we know it…

Malaysia are not alone in their thinking either. Rather than switch to a business class only scenario, as per so many US and European airlines, a number of Asian carriers are setting aside a handful of top of the range seats for those willing to pay a premium.

China Eastern took delivery of their new A350 towards the end of last year. Four seats, which would have been first class, are now in what they call the ‘premium business’ cabin. The seats aren’t much better than a standard business offering, but with additional creature comforts such as bigger TVs and seat accessible minibars.

Korean Air First Class
Korean’s first class uses the same seats as business

Conversely, Korean Air are keeping first class on their new 787-9s. However, the seats themselves are identical to the ones used in business, which will suck a bit for those paying the price. Still, they’ve kept the over the top service and are relying on the additional space and amenities such as meet and greet to sell their product.

The approach taken by Malaysia and China Eastern is interesting. It’s almost as if they want to create a new segment of passenger; someone wanting the best, but unwilling to pay for the extravagance of true first class. We’re pretty sure the fact that government officials are no longer permitted to buy first class seats will have had a hand in their strategy too.

The demise of first class

First class has been going in one direction for quite some time now, and that direction is away. As long ago as 2015, Emirates unveiled a ‘no first class’ A380 at the Dubai Airshow, which left the giant jumbo able to accommodate a whopping 557 economy seats. Removing first class and reducing business class accommodation improved the economy capacity by 130 more seats.

Since then, they have reduced the capacity of first class on almost all their jets and eliminated it entirely on 30 of their 777s and 15 A380s.

Emirates craft which retain first class will have far lower capacity than previously allocated

In the US, international first-class cabins have been shrinking too, and in some cases have disappeared entirely. By the end of last year, Delta had eliminated international first class altogether, and United had begun phasing it out too. American Airlines are keeping it, but only on 20 of their Boeing 777-300ERs running routes to major financial centers, including Hong Kong and London.

Elsewhere, Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Lufthansa have all reduced the proportion of first class seats on new additions to their fleet. For BA, their new A350s will have no first class at all. Even Qatar, often thought of as the world’s most luxurious airline, has limited first to just eight seats on its 10 A380s.

emirates new first class suite
Emirates first class suites

Of course, not everyone is cutting back on first, at least not on all their aircraft. Tim Clark, president of Emirates, recently unveiled their lavish first class suites, measuring 40 sq. ft. with walls and sliding doors. However, he insists they’ll only be available on routes to major financial centers where demand remains very strong.

We have a very loyal customer base and we need to keep them interested in what we are doing. We will not eliminate first class on my watch.” – Tim Clark, CEO, Emirates

What’s going on?

The downshift in product is due to one thing and one thing alone. Money. First class is a financial disaster for both airline and passenger, with seats costing as much as $300,000 per seat to develop and build. And if you want Krug and caviar to finish the experience, they don’t come cheap either.

Despite the incredibly high cost of flying first class, often as much as $1,000 an hour, carriers still struggle to break even on these ridiculously lavish products.

There is also a rapidly declining demand for such luxury too. Whereas corporations used to fly their executives all over the world in first class, now the shareholders just wouldn’t accept such ridiculous extravagance. Business, it seems, is just fine.

SIA Business Class 787-10
With luxurious business class seating on offer, why pay more?

The business class products have improved to such an extent that it hardly seems worth upgrading to first. Lie flat beds, direct aisle access, luxury dining; why would you pay on average 70% more for something which can’t really be all that much better?

If, like me, you’re still lamenting that you never got the chance to fly Concorde before it retired, now might be the time to grab your first-class experience before it’s gone for good.