Will COVID-19 Kill International First Class?

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First class flying is a real bucket list experience. But even before the pandemic, there were far fewer international first class seats flying than there had been a decade ago. Now, with airlines retiring large aircraft and cutting back on costs, could we see first class being killed off entirely?

First class la premiere
If first class flying going to become a casualty of COVID? Photo: Air France

The decline of first was already in motion

International first class is something truly special. Never mind the fact that you might need to take out a second mortgage for the fare, it’s a service that goes above and beyond at every stage of the journey. As well as enjoying the very best seat and service on the aircraft itself, first class passengers are treated to a first class service from the moment they leave home.

Most airlines will offer various on the ground perks, such as chauffeur-driven transportation to the airport, separate entrance and check-in area on arrival, and the most luxurious lounges in their portfolio to relax in before the flight. Onboard, the seats will be the biggest, most comfortable, most private offerings in the fleet, complemented by a significant uptick in soft product too.

BA first
First class is as much about the pre-flight perks as the flight itself. Photo: BA

Once upon a time, first was the epitome of luxury travel. But, even before the current pandemic hit, these ultra-high-end offerings were becoming something of a rare beast. Even in Asia, where first was rampant ten years ago, we’ve seen a number of airlines scrapping their most premium cabin in favor of less costly alternatives.

Airlines that traditionally flew a large number of first class seats have been cutting back over recent years. British Airways, for instance, had 100,000 fewer first class seats in its fleet by the end of 2018 than it had in 2008. When its A350s were delivered, they arrived without first. That loss has been somewhat mitigated by the addition of the game-changing Club World suites, but it’s a break from tradition for the British flag carrier.

Now, with the impact of the pandemic predicted to press on aviation for many years, some of the oldest and biggest aircraft in the fleets have met untimely ends. Could COVID serve to kill off first class entirely?

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Where has first been lost already?

There are a few airlines that have been forced to ditch some or all of their first class capacity as aircraft with the cabins no longer work for them. With the retirement of the 747, British Airways has lost some of its first capacity, but still has its Dreamliners, A380s, and 777s with the exclusive cabin onboard. For some other airlines, the cuts have been far more significant.

Just this week, we heard that the fleet cuts at German airline Lufthansa may be far deeper than previously thought. While we await the airline’s final decision on the future shape of its fleet, speculation points to a complete retirement of the A380, along with the rest of the 747-400s and possible the A340s too.

Row 3 Lufthansa First Class 747-8
Lufthansa is likely to return with far fewer first class seats. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

This would leave the airline with far fewer first class seats in its inventory. Although it already removed first form the 747-400s, its first cabin on its A380s was generous. It also had first on some of its A340s and A330s too. However, we can be sure it will continue to fly the first class on its 747-8s for some time, and its forthcoming 777Xs are expected to be delivered with a brand new first cabin onboard.

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The loss of the A380 could also see first class scrapped from another airline – Qantas. The only aircraft to offer first in its fleet is the superjumbo, which Qantas has parked all 12 of in the Californian desert for some considerable time. Whether they return at all will undoubtedly depend on how the recovery progresses.

The other airline that starts with a Q also has a first class problem. Qatar Airways similarly only offers first on the A380, and just like Qantas, has parked its fleet of 10 for the foreseeable future. CEO Akbar Al Baker previously said there was a possibility they may never come back.

Qatar first class
Qatar’s first class will only come back with the return of the A380. Photo: Qatar Airways

Even more disappointing are those flying planes with first class cabins but not offering the seats for sale. Singapore Airlines has first on its 777-300s and A380s but has been blocking the cabin class from sales on all its flights, even those scheduled to use those aircraft. The airline said this is because it is uncertain that it will deploy aircraft with first cabins on the flights.

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Korean, too is no longer selling first, something it said it might do back in September last year. Now, even on those flights with a first cabin, it’s impossible to buy a seat. It may be that the airline is using these seats as an upgrade for business class passengers, but without the first class quality of service in the mix.

Where can we expect to see first continue to fly?

Those airlines, like British Airways, with large first class inventories will inevitably return them to service in time. While its A350s are being delivered without a first cabin, we could see an all-new first class offering on the forthcoming 777X. Fellow European airlines SWISS, Lufthansa and Air France will undoubtedly continue to offer a first cabin on premium routes. However, their available seats will be significantly diminished due to aircraft retirements.

The other places we’re likely to see first class maintained is on airlines coming out of Asia. As yet, the crisis has had no significant effect on the capacity of first from the likes of Air China, China Southern, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, Japan Airlines, ANA, or Thai Airways. Thee carriers still have long-haul first class in their fleets and are likely to keep them for the foreseeable future.

ANA first class
Asian airlines like ANA will likely continue to fly their first class cabins. Photo: ANA

Emirates will continue to have one of the biggest inventories of first class seats in the world. The airline has first on all of its 777s and A380s and is likely to continue to offer these for sale as it begins its post-pandemic recovery. While things might be different for Etihad and Qatar, fellow Middle East airlines Saudia and Gulf Air are likely to continue to provide first.

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So, will COVID kill first?

In summary, COVID has certainly done a number on the first inventory worldwide. Going forward, there will be far fewer international first class seats flying worldwide, which means fewer opportunities for award redemption and a maintenance of very high prices for these luxury cabins.

However, COVID will not kill first entirely. For some airlines, there’s just too much invested in the product and service to abandon their high-end offerings yet. In time, there may come a day when the best class is business, but that’s still some years away, pandemic or not.

What do you think? Will COVID mean first class is rare or discontinued entirely? Would you miss it if it did?

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