Ever-improving business class seats are making many airlines rethink the need for first class.
Wide seats which convert to long fully-flat beds topped with mattresses and duvets – direct access to the aisle – large HD video screens paired with noise-cancelling headphones – plenty of room to work in flight, and ample stowage space around your seat: those traits used to be the exclusive domain of first class, and passengers would pay a premium for the experience.
But that list of luxury features applies equally to the best of today's business class seats, reducing the justification for the high ticket prices and expansive cabin space demanded by first class.
As a result, an increasing number of airlines are spurning costly but often empty first class suites for world-beating business class seats – while those airlines which remain committed to first class are taking it to the next level of luxe, especially on the Airbus A380.
Here's a rundown of how first class fits into their future of some of the world's leading airlines.
Now: First class is limited to the Airbus A380, with the 12-strong fleet in turn limited to the flagship routes of London (via Dubai), Los Angeles and Dallas. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce last week confirmed that the airline wouldn't be taking up the final eight superjumbos from its full order of 20.
Next: Qantas' Boeing 787-9s, due to begin flying from October 2017, will top out at business class unless the airline opts for a separate first-equipped long-range configuration to be used on touted routes such as Perth-London and Sydney-Chicago.
Now: Private first class suites adorn Emirates' massive Airbus A380 and Boeing 777-300ER fleets, although the Gulf colossus has also introduced a superjumbo sans first on selected routes.
Next: Emirates plans to begin flying an all-new first class suite by the end of 2017, with both the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777-300ER in line for the luxe cribs.
"I hope we will be looking at the final product towards the end of this year and go into production for October of next year" says Emirates CEO Tim Clark, who has previously described the suite as being even more private than the current closed-door cabin.
"We’re talking fully enclosed rooms, with all the touches and amenities that you’d expect in hotel or a private bedroom on a luxury yacht, room service and so on."
Now: Singapore Airlines has evolved first class into two distinct lines – the private suites of the Airbus A380, for which it was launch customer (and which kick-started the modern wave of first class suites)...
... and the more recent open design of the Boeing 777-300ER.
Next: The Star Alliance member has a new raft of A380s coming from 2017, and they'll be decked out with all-new first class suites.
But there'll be fewer of these plush private suites than the 12 on the current A380s, which indicates their successors will be larger; SQ has also ruled out showers on its new superjumbos.
Now: Etihad wowed the world with the debut of its spacious and stunningly-appointed A380 first class Apartments, with an almost-4m² footprint – this is what Emirates and Singapore Airlines are trying to catch up to with their next-gen supersuites.
Next: As the owner of the newest A380 first class suites, and ones which we expect will still be looking great many years from now, Etihad has quite some time before it unveils a replacement.
But nobody expects the Abu Dhabi airline to cede leadership in this arena, in the same way that nobody knows what Etihad is planning next.
Now: Cathay Pacific's current first class seat, introduced in 2007, received a 'mid-life refresh' in 2013 and is still regarded as among the world's better first class seats – but it could be the airline's last first class product.
However, a CX executive told Australian Business Traveller that the airline is currently "assessing" the prospects for a new first class suite, which may not appear until 2021 when its Boeing 777-9X jets will take to the skies.
Now: The Gulf airline and Oneworld member flies first class only on its Airbus A380s, with eight open suites nestled into the nose of the upper deck.
Next: Don't expect to see first class appear anywhere else on Qatar's fleet.
“Our premium travel is business travel, mostly, so we will keep a very limited number of first class seats, only in the A380, and all the other airplanes will only have a business class product" airline CEO Akbar Al Baker tells Australian Business Traveller.
Instead, get set for what Al Baker touts as "super business class" slated to launch in November this year, ahead of an ambitious fleet-wide refit starting with the Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A350 jets.
Sliding doors will convert each seat into a suite-like cabin or a "business class bedroom" – similar to a prototype design proposed by British firm DCA Design International for Singapore Airlines (below).
The paired middle seats are tipped to convert to a double bed.
"When you introduce that product into the airplane there is really not need for first class" Al Baker says.
Now: BA has recently refined its first class offering on the airline's Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.
With quilted seats, automotive-inspired chrome finishes and contrast stitching, the look is quintessentially British: elegant high-touch style with detailing that's less bling and more Bentley.
Next: There's little doubt that British Airways will continue to evolve its first class cabin, even as the airline moves ahead on an updated Club World business class for its Airbus A350-1000 fleet due in 2017.
Now: First class on Malaysia Airlines is found only on the Oneworld member's six Airbus A380s, all of which will be sold off by 2018.
Next: The airline's forthcoming A350s, which will appear on routes across Asia from October 2017 and take over the KL-London run the following year, are expected to sport a small cabin of four new-design first class seats along with the new A330 lie-flat business class seats (below).
As the A350 first class seats are being supplied by Ireland's Thompson Aero (along with their business class cousins), some pundits are tipping that Malaysia Airlines will be adopting Thompson's new Vantage First suite (below).
This nestles immediately in front of business class, with Vantage First's "integrated cabin divider" providing "no loss of cabin space or the need for additional monuments between cabins."
However, first class flyers will gain more personal space, more room for stowing their personal kit and a greater focus on privacy, with a movable screen between the middle seats plus an option for suite doors.
Now: United Global First is relegated to a series of older jets including the Boeing 777-200 and 747 jumbo, and its days are numbered.
Next: The new Polaris business class will slowly take over as United's top-shelf cabin class, beginning with the new Boeing 777-300ER and eventually sweeping through the entire international fleet including the Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
"As we update our fleet over the next several years to incorporate our signature United Polaris seating, we will be phasing out the first class cabin and moving toward a two-cabin experience for international travel" United says.
It's not hard to see why: Polaris offers a fully lie-flat bed, direct aisle access and plenty of personal space around the seat itself.
New Polaris lounges will also replace United's current first class lounges.
Now: Lufthansa's Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8 boast the airline's latest first class cabin.
However, the German carrier is removing the first class "seat and bed" concept (below) introduced on its Boeing 747-400s just five years ago and replacing them with business class.
Next: "If there's any airline in the world which will still have first class, Lufthansa will be among them" affirms Lufthansa Chairman and CEO Carsten Spohr (below).
But Lufthansa's new Airbus A350-900s, due to take wing from the end of 2016, won't include a first class cabin and Spohr isn't certain that Lufthansa's next big bird – the Boeing 777-9X, due in 2020 – will have first class either, despite the advanced jet's standing as the largest twin-engine airliner ever built.
"That's not decided yet, it is one of the decision for the years to come" he admits.
Now: Thai's got a new first class on its Airbus A380s...
... and refreshed Royal First Class Suites on its revamped Boeing 747s.
Next: In common with several other airlines, Thai appears to be reigning in first class and shifting to a better grade of business class, beginning with the airline’s latest Royal Silk business class seats on its Airbus A350s.
This is a lie-flat design with direct aisle access for each passenger, with the cabin dressed in ‘Thai Contemporary’ style.
Now: Asiana Airlines has already moved to axe first class from all but its four Airbus A380s.
Next: To help reduce ongoing losses, the Star Alliance member last year began ripping out first class on its Boeing 747-400 and Boeing 777-200ER fleet and replacing them with business class.
- The Airbus A380 first class concept cabins you never saw
- Airbus reveals its innovative A350 first class mockup
- Concept designs for new Singapore Airlines first, business class
- New Space X first class suites built for high-flying couples…
- The fabulous bars, lounges and restaurants of the Boeing 747
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