Business class continues to soar to new heights, with sliding doors becoming the norm and spacious ‘business plus’ suites ruling row 1, but this doesn’t mean the end of first class – not by a long shot.
It’s true that first class is being squeezed like never before as business class closes the gap.
That’s been the inevitable trajectory of business class since it debuted in the late 1970s (Qantas itself claims to have invented business class in 1979), moved to lie-flat beds in 2000 and over the next two decades saw direct-aisle access and sliding doors become the norm.
With another exciting generation of business class on the way, some airlines are opting out of first class altogether, among them American Airlines and Qatar Airways, while newcomer Riyadh Air says it’s forthcoming fleet will top out at business class.
Yet many other airlines are doubling down on the first class proposition with plush spacious suites designed to appeal to C-level executives and nigh net worth individuals who want the utmost in privacy and pampering on commercial flights.
Here’s a look at the next wave of first class suites on the horizon.
Japan Airlines A350 first class
Late November 2023 will see the new JAL Airbus A350-1000 take wing on the premium Tokyo-New York route, crowned by six first class havens – each of which contains two seats side by side, with one almost twice as wide as the other.
Japan Airlines says this provides “a choice of three seating modes: Sofa, Seat & Single Bed, or Double Bed,” depending on how each seat is deployed.
A concealed wardrobe lurks behind the door panel; there’s also under-seat bag stowage, as the first class cabin has no overhead luggage bins in order to “create a more open individual atmosphere.”
One unique touch are stereo noise-cancelling speakers built into the headrest, “allowing customers to enjoy the inflight entertainment system without using headphones.”
Air France first class
Up next will be Air France’s revision of its Boeing 777 La Premiere suite.
These next-gen La Premiere suites will be larger than their 777 counterparts but lean into the same residential “living space” feel, with what the SkyTeam member describes as “three modular configurations… a seat, a sofa and a fully flat bed.”
This concept sketch from an Air France presentation shows an airborne chaise lounge facing an armchair with a swing-up legrest: we expect the gaps between these two pieces of furniture will be closed to create one long wide bed, although the layout will also allow two first class flyers to share some time together over a meal.
It’s an organic evolution from Air France’s current 777 La Premiere suite (shown below) but with some surprises such as a larger footprint (stretching to five windows) and two video screens, one at either end of the suite.
Air France says the elegant curtains on the 777 La Premiere suite will be replaced by an actual sliding door or partition.
Lufthansa A350 first class
(A modified version of these suites will later make their way onto the Boeing 747-8 jumbo jets and potentially the Airbus A380 as these older jets head into the hangar for a multi-million Euro make-over.)
The Lufthansa A350s will sport three fully private first class suites, with the middle one being a twin-berth ‘Suite Plus’ which converts into a 1.4m-wide double bed so paired-up travellers can create an in-flight experience closer to a private room above the clouds.
Another innovation is in-seat heating and cooling, while a personal wardrobe will allow travellers to “remain in their suite as they prepare for sleep and change into Lufthansa First Class pajamas,” the airline says.
Air India first class
Air India is setting out on an ambitious transformation which will include the launch of doored business class suites from early 2024, with private first class suites to follow in the second half of the year.
Initially slated as an upgrade on its long-range Boeing 777 jets, the suites could also appear on a batch of factory-fresh Airbus A350s.
These first and business class suites spearhead Air India’ Project Vihaan – named for the Sanskrit word for dawn – with airline CEO Campbell Wilson going all-out with the “ambition to make Air India a world class airline serving guests from around the globe.”
Swiss A350 first class
Lufthansa’s Allegris first class suites will make their way across to the Airbus A350s of sibling Swiss in 2025, as five of the modern jetliners replace the ageing Airbus A340-300s.
However, Swiss will redress these suites to reflect its own brand identity using muted tones such as claret and anthracite plus touches of light wood.
Like Lufthansa’s new first class, the Swiss A350s will have a three-across layout with an extra-wide middle suite (117cm wide, compared to 77cm) intended for two travellers to share.
Emirates 777-9 first class
While Boeing and Emirates have yet to name the date, current thinking is that sometime in 2025, Emirates President Tim Clark will be handed the keys to the Gulf carrier’s first Boeing 777-9 out of a staggering order for 115 jets (which will in turn enable the retirement of Emirates’ A380s to begin in early 2032).
However, it’s expected Emirates will stick with its current and highly-regarded 777 first class suite for the -9s, although nobody can rule out a few finesses in the finished product.
Qantas A350 first class
Late 2025 will mark a milestone for Qantas and arguably international travel with the delivery of the first ‘ultra long range’ A350-1000 jets for non-stop ‘Project Sunrise’ flights from Sydney and Melbourne to London and New York.
And during those 18-21 marathons, the highest of high flyers will be cocooned in one of six private suites with a warm residential room-like vibe.
These top-tier sanctuaries boast a separate armchair and bed, rather than a seat which converts into a bed – a situation which designer David Caon says demands compromises in both modes – with a personal wardrobe built into the wall panelling and a 32” HD video screen.
A padded ottoman facing the armchair enables companion dining across an extraordinary large bi-fold table.
Caon tells Executive Traveller that in the interest of making these suites feel even more spacious, the A350 first class cabin won’t have any overhead luggage bins: instead, there’s space beneath the ottoman for two standard-sized cabin bags placed side by side.
Cathay Pacific 777-9 first class
The tail end of 2025 should also see the arrival of Cathay Pacific’s first Boeing 777-9, the long-delayed latest member of the 777 family.
And it’ll include a bold new Cathay first class suite – reportedly marketed as the Halo suite – to complement the already-revealed ‘Aria’ business class suites.
“Our new first class, which we expect to be a world-leading one, will be coming on our 777-9 fleet (and) the first one will be delivered in 2025,” confirmed Chief Customer & Commercial Officer Lavinia Lau at an analyst briefing following the release of Cathay’s 2023 financial results earlier this month.
But beyond that, Cathay is playing its cards very close to its chest.
Given the doored Aria business class suites, there’s no doubt Cathay’s 777X first class suites will not only come with doors but higher walls, probably to the extent of being as ‘fully private’ as Hong Kong’s airline safety regulations permit.
Executive Traveller expects Cathay will retain the six-berth layout of its current 777 first class cabin, with two rows of three spacious suites.
British Airways A380 first class
British Airways has already confirmed its Airbus A380s will receive an all-new first class cabin at the same time as the superjumbos are upgraded with the airline’s current Club Suites business class.
Approached by Executive Traveller, British Airways declined to comment but noted the airline is always looking towards the next iteration of any seat or suite.
However, the latest round of rumours suggest BA will relocate first class from the main deck to the upper deck, with the rest of that deck being given over to business class.
It’s also suggested this upstairs first class cabin would be reduced to six suites in a 1-1-1 configuration – similar to the latest layouts adopted by JAL, Lufthansa and Qantas – and with a Qantas-like combo of a separate armchair and bed, with potentially an over-sized suite for two in the middle.