Airlines Are Falling Out Of Love With First Class

Something rather odd is happening in the aviation industry… ‘no one’ is flying First Class.

Essentially, business class has become so good that there is rarely much of a point of difference to First (apart from the chunk of change), and those who value ultimate luxury have started buying private jets.

We are exaggerating a little with the above paragraph. It’s not true that absolutely no one is flying First, but it is clear that airlines themselves have fallen out of love with First Class.

Emirates
The very private first class as onboard the Emirates A380. Source: Emirates

Back when commercial air travel first took off (pun not intended), First Class was the only option. Flying was seen as the ultimate luxury, with more affordable options being train or boat travel on the ground. Then coach was created as a way for air travel to become accessible to the masses. Then airlines created business class, for the mid-level executive who needed to fly refreshed, but who was not the CEO.

A real game changer for the class was when British Airways introduced its lie-flat seats in 1995. This made First Class truly the ultimate way to travel, with passengers able to fly and sleep comfortably on board. But as we all know, business class followed with their own lie-flat seats soon after.

Airlines have attempted to revitalize first class with offerings such as showers and bars, but this has failed to really make the class stand out compared to lie-flat seats in business. With less demand for the category, many airlines are beginning to ask if offering First Class is even worth it anymore.

Analyzing the sales of First Class fares in the last ten years reveals a pretty starting comparison:

First class ticket sales
Data Source: OAG

As we can see, only Emirates has increased the number of First Class seats on offer, with many airlines greatly reducing capacity.

Why is there less demand for First Class?

There are several reasons why fewer passengers are looking to fly at the pointy end of the plane.

The first is as we described above; that there is less and less difference between business class and First. Even corporate firms that are sending staff around the world are reluctant to upgrade them to First, feeling that business class is good enough (after all it does have business in the name). Both classes have lie-flat seats, and many airlines are creating business class suites with privacy doors. Only those few airlines have showers or other luxuries on their larger planes have a real point of a difference anymore. And with the A380 being retired one by one, even those crazy ideas will soon be gone.

A bar as found on the Emirates A380. Source: Emirates

As for those with plenty of money, many are now choosing to fly private. The number of billionaires in the world has doubled in the last ten years, with many looking to buy their own aircraft. Plus numerous startups have been created that facilitate ride sharing (imagine Uber of the skies) or short term private rentals (in fact, a normal person can fly privately on repositioning flights for a fraction of the cost). This has allowed the private aircraft availability to balloon outwards, sucking away demand for First Class fares.

Ultimately, airlines are choosing to remove First Class or rebrand it as a ‘premium business‘. In fact, Singapore has not even included First Class on its new A350, which currently flies the longest route in the world.

What do you think? Should airlines still offer First Class?

9 comments
  1. I love this blog as an avigeek, but please …start editing your articles. Constant agreement issues, grammar, and word choice issues. “Flying was seen as the ultimate luxury, with less affordable options being train or boat travel on the ground.” Less affordable? Makes no sense.

  2. It’s in airlines & passengers best interests for airlines to offer a premium business class and discontinue first class. This way you maximize premium revenue, maximize the best use of the aircraft footprint and give premium paying passengers a better quality service, it’s a win-win for everybody. Going forward I think more airlines will adopt a 3 class layout in long haul aircraft, Business Class, Premium Economy & Economy as this is what fare paying passengers are willing to pay for.

  3. The reason airlines are reducing the first class seats on aircraft is because no one is buying them. Upgrades from miles are not a real purchase. Everyone wants the cheapest possible ticket from point a to b then they complain that the seats are tight and the bathrooms are small. The flying public has demanded a cheap seat and that’s what has been given to them and since more want those seats they have to take off first class seats to put in paying passengers in coach seats.

  4. “First class travel” irritates stock holders and employees who will never get to travel first class, so the airlines have created a luxurious “business” class. Notice that families are not welcome, unlike in the old first class days when they were. You have single seat pods now in first class( called business class now) to give that “I work on corporate work all the time I am awake, and I don’t need kids or families around to disturb me in the slightest. The business of business is business.” image. Second class is what the old third class used to be, and third class is now an experiment in the sardine like packing of humans.

  5. Actually, there are a few people who actually pay for real first class airfare.

    Last year, I paid to take my parents to Europe for their anniversary. Four of us with Air France in La Premiére cost me roughly $22,000. It was worth every cent.

    I’m glad it’s there, and am not looking forward to the time when business class is the only premium choice. I find the typical herringbone style of business class seating horrific. It lends itself to a solitary existence– fine if you’re working, but truly an anathema if you’d like to converse with a travel companion.

  6. One of the reasons why airlines aren’t offering many first-class seats anymore is because of the fact that business class seats have almost the same privileges as first-class seats. However, there are still people willing to travel first-class for the various amenities that are made available to them–like private showers and their very own private rooms that offer nothing but the absolute best in terms of privacy. If I had the chance to pick out the first-class fare then I would want one that has an on-board shower.

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