Long favoured by the highest of high flyers, first class faces a series of unprecedented challenges.
The primo space at the pointy end of the plane was already being squeezed by the continued evolution of business class, which now boasts traits once exclusive to first – fully lie-flat beds, direct aisle access, large video screens, plenty of personal space and, in the latest trend, sliding privacy doors.
Then Covid-19 hit, decimating the air travel market to the extent where demand isn't expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2023 or 2024.
In turn, the gargantuan Airbus A380s which had become an extravagant showcase for the most indulgent first class experiences found themselves grounded for years to come and, in some cases, sent into early retirement.
However, not all airlines are giving up on first class. Many already have their next-generation suites waiting in the wings, even if the harsh realities of 2020 will delay their debut.
Singapore Airlines Boeing 777-9 first class
The Singapore flag-carrier is among several airlines which intend to use the forthcoming Boeing 777-9 jetliner, of which it has 20 on order, as the launchpad for new premium product.
That launch has been pushed back by a series of delays to the 777-9 – Boeing says the already-late 777X is now planned to make its way to airlines from sometime in 2022, which could mean a 2023 debut for SQ.
Singapore Airlines has already showcased its proposed Boeing 777-9 seating to a number of stakeholders and top-tier frequent flyers who signed non-disclosure agreements, and Executive Traveller understands that the final designs have been signed off.
Sliding privacy doors have been suggested as a key feature of Singapore Airlines' new Boeing 777X first class suites, which CEO Goh has previously promised "will be a first class that we believe when we launch (it) will again set industry standards."
Goh has also talked up Singapore Airlines' Boeing 777-9 business class, saying a "quantum leap" is in store.
The Star Alliance member's current Boeing 777 first and business class were launched in 2013, which means they'll be at least a decade old by the time the 777-9 versions hit the stage.
Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-9 first class
Cathay Pacific is also relying on the delivery of the Boeing 777-9 to roll out its next-generation first class suites (and business class seats), although the airline entered into discussions with Boeing "for the deferral of B777-9 deliveries" in order to deliver short- to medium-term cash savings.
There's already been a one-year delay in the Boeing 777-9 timeline, with a fleet profile in the airline's 2020 Interim Results showing that deliveries are already slated from 2022 "and beyond" – but Cathay's negotiations with Boeing may move the first delivery to 2023 or even later.
Cathay has yet to reveal exactly what's planned for its Boeing 777-9, although those plans would likely be locked in by now, given the necessary lead-time in designing, testing, manufacturing and certifying each seat.
The airline has previously confirmed that its Boeing 777-9s will be crowned by an all-new first class cabin, to replace the current long-lived design which debuted in 2007 – making it at least 15 years old by the time its Boeing 777-9 replacement takes wing.
In shaping a new first class for a new decade, Cathay Pacific is understood to have worked through mock-ups of high-walled private cribs as well as the more open design of the current first class suites.
StarLux Airbus A350 first class
Taiwan's ambitious startup StarLux Airlines plans to offer first class on its new Airbus A350 jets in an effort to eclipse local rivals Eva Air and China Airlines, both of which have phased out first class in recent years.
Starlux, which took to the skies only in January 2020 and markets itself as a boutique luxury airline, has 17 A350s on order – ten of the medium-sized A350-900 and eight of the larger longer-range A350-1000 – due for delivery from 2022.
More details are "to be determined by the end of the year" according to Taiwan's national news agency Focus Taiwan, with StarLux chief communications officer Nieh Kuo-wei suggesting the A350s will spearhead the airline's expansion to the US by mid-2022.
Both the A350-900s and A350-1000s will sport what's expected to be a compact first class cabin of as little as four suites, but with plenty to differentiate those premium pews from whatever business class StarLux settles upon.
Qatar Airways Boeing 777-9 first class
Qatar Airways is in the early stages of developing a first class cabin for its Boeing 777X jets, to fill a gap in the high-end travel market once its Airbus A380s are retired.
However, the luxury cocoons would appear on “just a handful” of the Gulf carrier’s Boeing 777-9 aircraft, Qatar Airways Group CEO His Excellency Akbar Al Baker tells Executive Traveller.
In turn, that first class sub-fleet would feature on only a few premium-heavy European routes.
“We are studying the possibility of having a very exclusive first class cabin of just four seats, for example,” Al Baker says, describing it as a deliberately “very niche product” aimed at well-heeled Qatari travellers.
“We have huge demand here in Qatar to two or three European destinations” such as London and Paris, Al Baker explains, “so we may introduce a very small first class cabin for our local passengers who want a very exclusive first class product.”
The Qatari flag-carrier has signed a firm order for 50 of Boeing’s debutante 777-9 model to replace the current Boeing 777-300ER workhorses, and ten Boeing 777-8s to substitute for the long-legged Boeing 777-200LRs – but those first class suites would not appear in the first tranche of Boeing 777-9 deliveries, which will be delayed until at least 2022 as part of a broader push-back on all new Airbus and Boeing jets.
“It will not be on the initial 777X because we want to have a product that is really very unique, so we need time to develop it.”
Qatar’s super-premium Boeing 777-9 fleet is more likely to land from 2028, when the last of its ten Airbus A380s – currently the only jet in the Doha hangers with first class – is likely to be put out to pasture.
“I'm going to retire my A380s on their 10th anniversary,” Al Baker states.
The Qatar Airways superjumbos arrived between September 2014 and April 2018, so “starting from the next four years, our first A380s will start going to the desert, because there is no point keeping these expensive gas guzzlers with very little return on our investment.”
Qantas Airbus A350-1000 first class
The airline had finally reached a wage and conditions agreement with pilots and crew, and was set to sign an initial for as many as 12 Airbus A350-1000s – each equipped with an extra fuel tank in order to tackle those globe-striding routes – when the pandemic took hold and tis sweeping impact became clear.
"Right before this crisis hit we were actively recruiting, we were gearing up for Project Sunrise, we were getting ready to buy planes," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has reflected. Instead, he was forced to pull the plug on Project Sunrise.
Domestic flying has been crippled by a string of state border closures, while all international routes have been closed: the airline doesn't expect to resume overseas flights until the middle of 2021, with only a 50% return by mid-2022.
Qantas has since embarked on a three-year plan to claw back $15 billion in costs, with an ongoing saving of $1 billion per year from FY23.
However, Joyce remains positive, even bullish, on the future of Project Sunrise and those Airbus A350 jets, which will be crowned by all-new first class suites.
"It is my every intent that when we can get Qantas back into flying, when we can turn the business around, that we will be doing Project Sunrise," Joyce has stated, adding that he still holds "big ambitions for long-haul international flights, which will have even more potential on the other side of this."
Airbus has agreed to let Qantas pick up those A350s at the agreed early-2020 price, perhaps with en eye towards speculation that Qantas may order a second tranche of A350s to replace its Airbus A380 superjumbos as the double-decker jets head for retirement.
Qantas had already completed the design of the A350's cabin configuration, with the aim of "redefining" all four travel classes from tip to tail – beginning with what Joyce described as a "super first class" suite to cocoon high-end high flyers on these marathon journeys.
"Given the nature of the routes there is definitely a market for first class," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce has told Executive Traveller.
"We think it's going to be a super first class, something that is a lot better than any product we’ve ever put in the air," he added, but wouldn't confirm if the suites were dressed with sliding privacy doors.
The Project Sunrise Airbus A350s were believed to have a relatively small first class cabin of between four and eight suites, in line with a global trend towards reducing the number of first class suites – often driven by softer demand as business class continues to get better – while also allowing a larger physical footprint for each suite.