You don’t need a large first class cabin to make luxury travel a viable proposition, Malaysia Airlines believes, with its upcoming Airbus A350 jets to feature just four first class suites.
But how will this play out when that's only half as many as found aboard the Oneworld member's Airbus A380s, which the A350s will eventually replace?
Malaysia Airlines CEO Peter Bellew speaks exclusively with Australian Business Traveller on the future of first class for the resurgent airline.
Malaysia Airlines first class: where’s the demand?
As Malaysia Airlines doesn’t offer first class service on flights to Australia – instead, only between Kuala Lumpur and London – Bellew explains where first class is heading, with London remaining firmly on the map.
“I think there’s a niche role (for first class) on the London route… we’re operating load factors of around about 60% in first class right now (on flights with eight first class seats), so having four first class seats is about the right mix for us."
“The only complaint I’ve had with the four seats is that I met a family the other night, there’s six in the family, and they said, “We can’t all travel in first class any more!”, so there’s an argument now for some within the family… but not many families travel that way!"
Bellew suggests Malaysia Airlines "would probably have demand on flights to Auckland and to Tokyo,” both of which are now being considered as a destinations for the forthcoming Airbus A350 jets.
A final decision on this is expected before the end of October.
“We’re changing the timings of the (Auckland) flight which we think will make it more attractive… and we’re monitoring the financial progress of the route, and will make our decision based around that,” although “first class won’t really be a major figure in that decision at all.”
One reward seat on (almost) every flight
It’s understood that the bulk of first class passengers currently travelling with Malaysia Airlines are splashing out on full-priced tickets, but even when the cabin shrinks from eight to just four first class seats, there’ll still be room at the pointy end for savvy travellers spending their frequent flyer points.
“I expect that on each flight there will generally be one (reward) seat available for Enrich members or other points cardholders,” such as Qantas Frequent Flyer members, Bellew tips.
“Sometimes, depending on our seat analysis, the nature and time of year, and our predictions, there might be two, but I expect there’ll be one on every flight,” pledges the man in the top job.
Malaysia Airlines has also recently improved its IT integration with Qantas, with Qantas Frequent Flyer members now able to book Malaysia Airlines reward flights via the Qantas website – including first class travel, along with tickets in business class and economy – rather than having to call.
Also read: Malaysia Airlines first class upgrade guide
But is its A350 first class too similar to business class?
Aussie travellers will recognise Malaysia Airlines’ upcoming Airbus A350 first class seats as being very similar to the Qantas Business Suite – currently ferrying business class passengers to Asia and across Australia aboard the Roo’s Airbus A330s, and soon, its Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s.
And that’s because both products are based on the Vantage XL seat from Thompson Aero.
So how will Malaysia Airlines differentiate its first class experience in a seat that most travellers would expect to find further back in business class?
Bellew touts the increased privacy of the seats, and with first class spanning just one row at the front of the plane, the overall experience of seclusion “should make it popular”, Bellew shares.
“We’ll also be doing a lot with the food, a lot with the experience on board and a lot with the experience on the ground at London and Kuala Lumpur, and that will give a lot of added benefit to our customers.”
Plus, “there are lots of people who are wealthy, they can afford it, and they value sleep… and with the first class product we currently have – and that we will have – I think you’ll get a great night’s sleep.
“To many people, that’s worth thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars, because their time is very precious.”