Since the Airbus A380 first took wing in 2007, the spacious double-decker jet became the launchpad for a score of new first class designs. But as airlines begin to stand down the superjumbo due to a coronavirus-crimped demand for travel, and shift their focus to modern fuel-efficient planes such as the Airbus A350, what does this mean for the fate of first class?
Airbus' innovative A350 first class concept
Most airlines ordering the Airbus A350 have chosen to top the jet out at business class, which has steadily adopted traits that were once the exclusive domain of first class – from lie-flat beds and direct aisle access to sliding privacy doors.
All the same, the early days of the A350 saw Airbus cook up this unique first class cabin concept to encourage customers to think differently about the prospects of offering something beyond business class.
Immediately noticeable is that it uses a single aisle on what is a twin-aisle jet.
"By reducing to one aisle it enables the first-class cabin to offer more space to passengers," an Airbus spokesperson told Executive Traveller.
However, rather than two oversized suites – once one at either side of the aisle – this mock-up suggests four suites, with each passenger sitting sideways (although there's always the possibility the seats could swivel into a more conventional forwards- or backwards-facing position for taxi, take-off and landing).
Beyond business class, with 'business plus'
As it stands, the Airbus concept arguably falls more into the realm of what some consider to be a 'Business Plus' environment – a model chosen by only a few airlines flying the A350.
This was the first outing for the VantageFirst product from Thompson Aero and Factorydesign, and it evolves on the Vantage XL of Malaysia Airlines' A350 business class cabin.
Four extended suites, each surrounded by full-height partitions and fitted with a sliding door, are ranked 1-2-1 a single row – giving travellers more space, more privacy and a greater degree of amenity. Creature comforts include a 2.1-metre (83-inch) flat bed and a 24-inch HD monitor.
China Eastern finessed that approach at the pointy end of its Airbus A350s, again adopting the VantageSuite into what the SkyTeam member dubbed an 'Air Living Room' at the front row of the business class cabin, rather than being in its own cabin space.
Factorydesign says the Air Living Room treatment sprang from an idea "to integrate a seat with a first class footprint with a business class cabin, which allows airlines to offer a premium product up front in the cabin without losing out on passenger count."
In addition to two 'business plus' suites by the windows, the paired centre suites can be opened up, an oversized table extended between them and the companion seat of each suite flipped down to create a social space for anything from meetings to meals or a game of cards.
Etihad's Airbus A350 first class?
Etihad Airways has 20 Airbus A350-1000 on order, although it's reported these may never take to the skies as part of a sweeping fleet review which could also see its ten Airbus A380s grounded for good.
While the Gulf airline never pulled back the curtain on its Airbus A350 cabins, there was speculation that it could include the same first class suites as many of Etihad's Boeing 787s.
Passengers are cocooned in one of four cosy suites nestled 1-2-1 in the Dreamliner's nose, with 147cm-high partitions and a sliding door.
The 26-inch wide Poltrona Frau lounge chair converts into an 80.5-inch bed; there's also ottoman with space for carry-on storage, a large dining table, a personal wardrobe and a chilled mini-bar fridge, making this a true first class counterpoint to the 'business plus' approach.
Emirates: no first class on the A350
One heavy-hitter when it comes to the Airbus A350 is Emirates, which has 50 of the A350-900 jets on order, alongside 30 Boeing 787-9s, with deliveries from 2023.
However, Emirates President Sir Tim Clark has no plans to fit first class to either aircraft, telling Executive Traveller in December 2019 that “for both the A350 order and the 787s, we're just going to stay with business, premium economy and economy.
Emirates had previously confirmed plans to use the A350s on both regional and long-range flights of up to 15 hours, with Clark elaborating that the Boeing 787s “will be used on a variety of medium to long-haul operations that don't, in our view, support a first class cabin.”
However, the jets will boast Emirates' next-generation business class seat – one evolved from that of the Airbus A380, and also set for the Boeing 777X – along with the delayed premium economy 'sleeperette'.
If any airline flying the Airbus A350 wanted to stand out from the crowd and go full-on with first class, there's still the 'super first' EnSuite concept from Factorydesign, which also lent its expertise to shaping Etihad’s A380 first class cabin.
Two EnSuites are separated by a single aisle, with each providing an oversized suite for two passengers travelling together.
A pair of wide armchair-style seats converts into a double bed, with full height walls turning this into a truly personal space for living, relaxing, dining and sleeping.
The EnSuite’s luxury travel trump card, however, is the inclusion of a spacious private bathroom.
“Currently, with the exception of Etihad’s The Residence, even the most privileged premium class travellers are required to share a toilet,” Factorydesign posits. “Can you imagine that being acceptable in any Four Seasons or Shangri-La Hotel?”
However, for airlines which are a little less adventurous or who needs to sweat their Excel spreadsheet a little harder, the EnSuite also comes as a pair of self-contained first class suites.
In that configuration, each would have its own aisle entry and shared use of the bathroom – “creating a stunning experience for the passenger while, pragmatically, satisfying the airline’s commercial ambitions,” the firm says.