Airlines see ‘first class for free’ as ultimate business class upgrade

The front row of business class is evolving into a 'mini first class' – but expect to pay more for it.

By David Flynn, December 1 2021
Airlines see ‘first class for free’ as ultimate business class upgrade

With business class continuing to set new benchmarks in comfort, airlines are rethinking their approach to first class – and even questioning if these primo cabins have a place in the near-future skies.

The issue is being brought into sharp focus by the increasing popularity of single-aisle aircraft – especially the Airbus A321LR and XLR – to take on many international routes previously flown by larger twin-aisle jets such as the Airbus A330 and A350 and Boeing 787.

With less real estate sitting between the wings, airlines need to make the most of every square metre – another strike against spacious first class suites nestled in their own private cabin at the front of the plane.

The solution could be an innovative approach to the very first row of business class, where the aircraft’s configuration typically leaves a little extra room between the seat and the bulkhead wall.

To date, that surplus space has simple meant that passengers in row 1 enjoy more space in which to stretch out.

But the latest trend is to proactively embrace that space by upgrading the whole row 1 experience with additional features such as a chilled mini-bar – at a price, of course.

Turning the front row of business class into a 'mini first class' experience.
Turning the front row of business class into a 'mini first class' experience.

This variation is commonly described as this ‘business plus’, but London-based Factorydesign – which has developed this bespoke front row treatment for several airlines including China Eastern – prefers to think of it as ‘First Class for Free’.

That’s free for the airline, of course, not necessarily the passenger.

First class for free

The concept “revolves around the integration of the front row seat into customised front row furniture,” Factorydesign says.

“Opening up the upper monument area creates a larger open suite without the loss of seat count in the cabin…a truly premium, enhanced offer ‘for free’.”

Factorydesign's take on 'First Class for Free', showcased by the Thompson Aero's Vantage Solo seat.
Factorydesign's take on 'First Class for Free', showcased by the Thompson Aero's Vantage Solo seat.

Instead of selling business class seats in the first row for the same price as the ones behind them, airlines can promote and sell them as something better – something special – and something with added appeal on long overseas flights.

The poster child of this ‘front row first class’ approach is JetBlue, which adopted the new Vantage Solo seat from Thompson Aero – the same one shown above in the Factorydesign concepts – for the Mint business class of its new Airbus A321LR jets now plying the trans-Atlantic skies between New York.

JetBlue's A321LR Mint Suites already offer what's arguably the best single-aisle business class in the sky.
JetBlue's A321LR Mint Suites already offer what's arguably the best single-aisle business class in the sky.

JetBlue then tasked Acumen Design Associates with transforming the first two seats into Mint Studios: “a unique front row first class suite… that offers extra bed width and an immersive 32” monitor.”

JetBlue's Mint Studio sits at the front row of the airline's latest Airbus A321LR jets.
JetBlue's Mint Studio sits at the front row of the airline's latest Airbus A321LR jets.

“We explored concepts solely focused on a larger bed, or larger table surface, but in the end it was felt that opening it up the space as much as possible, and allowing the space to be shared with a second passenger would create a truly ‘wow’ experience,” Acumen says.

JetBlue charges a US$300 premium for its two Mint Studios on top of the US$2000 price tag for the A321LR’s 22 Mint Suites, which still retain standout features such as direct aisle access and a sliding privacy door.

JetBlue's A321LR Mint Suites already offer what's arguably the best single-aisle business class in the sky.
JetBlue's A321LR Mint Suites already offer what's arguably the best single-aisle business class in the sky.

Additional creature comforts for Mint Studio passengers include a mirrored vanity, extra storage “and a guest seat and table to work, lounge or entertain a fellow Mint traveller,” along with pyjamas and slippers.

Paying US$300 extra for a Mint Studio brings extra space, comfort and perks.
Paying US$300 extra for a Mint Studio brings extra space, comfort and perks.

Factorydesign sees further opportunities for this ‘mini first class’, with one piece of concept art showing “a backlit mini-bar offering as just one example of what can be done with the space.”

The bespoke 'business class plus' experience could include a chilled mini-bar.
The bespoke 'business class plus' experience could include a chilled mini-bar.

There’s also the potential to apply similar thinking to the rear row of the business class cabin, such as “a dedicated parent and baby suite, or destination space such as a self-serve bar.”

I would be totally on board with Qantas doing this on its A321XLRs, especially as they will flying to many Asian cities. Having a bit of extra legroom in row 1 of business class is nice but doesn't change the general experience for me. I wouldn't see much actual value in a larger video screen although that would be part of the whole package but if the bed was wider, there was more room, a mini-bar and maybe even a slightly better f&b offering then a 15% premium like JetBlue charges wouldn't be too much for me.

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1175

It would be unlikely that there would be any change in soft product such as F&B.  This would unnecessarily complicate the provisioning of the flight and lead to increased costs.  

It may be that the more spacious seats are just reserved for super high value customers such as Chairman's Lounge pax in J rather than creating an additional fare level.

20 Oct 2015

Total posts 230

If Qantas can earn extra revenue by selling these two Row 1 seats you can be sure they will, rather than reserving them for Chairman's Lounge members!

As to F&B, it wouldn't be too hard for Qantas to load a few bottles of top-shelf Champagne or some special entrees and mid-flight small plates, in a way this is easier to do for just two passengers compared to maybe six or eight. If Qantas got a bit creative I'm sure they could find ways to 'enhance' the 'mini first' experience to help justify the fare surcharge.

QF

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 870

Maybe front row but the other rows in business should be 2 and 2, unless your trying to hide out (Super Special VIP) why would you spend the extra money or points. If I'm traveling with my wife sure a suite that turns into a double bed is great.

Very interesting idea, of course it's not limited to single-aisle jets, China Eastern has this on its A350s and I think also Boeing 787s? But it makes sense on single-aisles for those long flights to add something extra for passengers who want it. If Qantas had this 'front row' suite I could also see if being very popular to upgrade from regular business class using Qantas Points as long as you could lock in the suite right away. I actually like the idea mentioned at the end of the article too, finding a way to use extra space at the back of the cabin, a small walk-up snack or drinks bar for example.


Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Airlines see ‘first class for free’ as ultimate business class upgrade