Sometime in 2019, I decided to write a book on luxury travel. Putting together my practical experiences and additional research I just needed a catchy title. After careful thought – and many coffees – I came up with ‘First Class For Free’. Feeling pleased with myself, the book was due for launch in March 2020. And then came Coronavirus.
The economic effects of the virus will be long-felt, not least by the travel industry. Gatwick Airport recently estimated that it would take three to four years for traffic to return to pre-Covid levels. Published schedules by major carriers for late 2020 show at least a 20% reduction in scheduled flights. Quarantine restrictions and outright travel bans are likely to remain in place for months to come.
People and companies have adapted through necessity. Conference video calls have become the order of the day for meetings and family events. Where does this leave the premium travel market? In particular, will there be room for a top-level ‘First Class’ cabin in the new era?
It’s helpful to look first at how long-haul First Class travel has evolved in the past few decades. Up to the late 1970s, there were two choices of cabin on most long-haul flights – first class and economy. A typical Boeing 747 configuration of the era saw 26 first class seats – and an upper deck lounge – and around 300 economy seats.
The first airline to see a market for a cabin between these two extremes was UK second-level carrier British Caledonian which introduced a business class cabin in 1978. Major airlines soon followed with Pan Am’s Clipper Class, TWA’s Ambassador Class and British Airways’ Club Class. Initially, these products only had slight differentials from economy class – a slightly wider seat, an extra meal course and an increased baggage allowance. For true luxury passengers still needed to buy a first class ticket.
Business class seats got wider and the fripperies increased over time, but the game changer was BA’s introduction of lie-flat seats in its then innovative Club World product in 1995. Other airlines swiftly followed and increased competition through deregulation brought further product improvements. Today’s long haul business traveller can expect priority check in and boarding, an airport lounge, a lie-flat seat, multi-course meals and generous baggage allowance.
It became increasingly difficult to distinguish between first and business class and many passengers and companies baulked at paying the difference for seemingly limited benefits.
Airlines have taken two approaches to this conundrum. Many have ditched first class altogether. United was one of the most recent to drop long-haul first class, joining Delta, KLM, Iberia, Air New Zealand and South African Airways among others in having business class as their top service offering. Malaysia Airlines dropped first class service but retained the cabin on its Airbus A380s, rebranding it as Business Suites, sold at a premium over its standard business cabin.
Where airlines have retained a first class cabin, some have tried to make the experience extra-luxurious. Singapore Airlines suites on its Airbus A380s can be converted into double beds. Air France provides chauffeur-driven cars in Paris and a lounge at Charles-de-Gaulle airport that rivals five-star hotels. First class passengers with Lufthansa get their own terminal at Frankfurt.
As travellers return to the skies after the Coronavirus pandemic, most individuals and companies will likely be trying to conserve funds. Will there still be a demand for first class? Prior to the crisis, even those airlines still offering first class were cutting back on the offering. British Airways is reconfiguring its interiors. Those aircraft with first class will see the cabin reduce from between 12 and 17 seats down to just eight. The cabin has disappeared altogether on its Airbus A350-900 and Boeing 787-8 fleets. Similarly, Air France offers just four first class seats on some if its Boeing 777 fleet – and has announced the early retirement of its A380s. Lufthansa is also withdrawing its A380s and A340s, leaving first class available only on the Boeing 747-8i in its current fleet.
As lockdowns and travel restrictions slowly lift, we will get a better idea of how the demand for air travel generally fares. Has increased video software use dampened the enthusiasm for face-to-face business meetings? Families and friends will still want to meet, but most of this ‘visiting friends and relations’ traffic tends to fly in economy.
Premium cabins are important to airline balance sheets. British Airways relies heavily on its extensive Transatlantic network. With fares in business class often greater than economy by a factor of ten – bargains notwithstanding – carriers will be keen to promote their premium products. Some routes like London to New York or Los Angeles can probably support a cabin above business class. It remains to be seen if other routes can do the same.
Will First Class disappear? Not for the time being, though the availability of the product may be much reduced. Things were already heading that way before the current crisis. Fleet reductions will probably hasten that decline. If the demand for first class travel does not return within a few months I would expect more airlines to start reducing the number of F seats in their cabins – or dropping the product altogether.
Will I need a new book title? Not anytime too soon, I think, but come back to me on that in a couple of years and I might have a different answer.
Comments welcome below and on my Twitter feed: @RobAviation
‘First Class For Free’ still has many great travel and booking tips for premium travel and loyalty programs – whichever cabin you hope to travel in. It’s available on Amazon or direct from: flyfirstclassbook.com
Hello, yeah definitely this COVID19 put us down. First of all, congratulations on creating your own book, it is a great achievement. Not as a country we all suffering from this as one world. Probably all airlines dropped their first class. However, some of them still using it. Hope this situation will end up soon. Hoping for the best. Stay safe!!
Hi!!! This is a good research finding, it also just made me to be more curious about the whole situation, especially with the fact that some airlines have decided to call it quits..Airlines like Flybe will no longer be in service post-covid-19 and many many other airlines aim to reshuffle their stuff in the next coming months so the is 60/40 chance first class could be in place. Anyway, looking forward to reading your book real soon. Ta!
Congrats on your book and I think you have done what about 50 percent of people say they want to do but never actually get it done – write a book.
The travel industry has been hugely affected by the virus and I don’t think we are going anywhere soon. In fact, our national airline South African Airways looks like it is being shut down for good now because of all this.
It was interesting reading the history of how first-class came about over the years and how dependant most airlines are on having this service offered. I wonder how many other airlines are going to look at closing their doors after this virus is through with us?
Wow, I learned a lot. 🙂 I mean, there were many facts I wasn’t aware of before. Like the thing that one can enjoy a bed on a commercial airplane. I would love to try that. Or a terminal of our own in Frankfurt, that would be amazing to try, too.
Yeah, I’m not a fan of Coronavirus taking its toll on the economy. And I believe your point of people and businesses doing everything they can to conserve funds is a valid one. I definitely agree that it’ll probably take some years to get the demand back to where it was. But I think we’ll get there. It won’t be an easy road though. And I imagine quite a few airline companies may not exist anymore post Covid-19.
As for the book you wrote, I can’t imagine what that is like. To have a book written a topic that pretty much is obsolete at this time. It really sucks and I feel you. That said, as far as I can tell, you really know your stuff, and I would love to get my hands on a copy as soon as it becomes more relevant.
All the best, Rob.
Oh no, and here I was planning on booking a first-class flight back home after I am cleared to travel. The flights here are grounded and my home country’s planes are grounded also I have been blocked both ways!
I hope there will be first-class post-COVID-19 because I think I would be paranoid to travel any other way.
Anyways, I think your title is quite catchy and I hope you will not have to change it.
Thanks for the update. I will take a read of your book