The end of First Class is nigh—mebeh.

Speak to enough industry folks and there is general agreement that the section of the cabin allocated to First is shrinking to oblivion.  In fact, this is nothing new.  We’ve predicted the end of First Class for as long as I can remember.  That goes back a while now.

During this same time, as we’ve bemoaned the death of First, our industry has introduced never-before-seen levels of comfort.  Sure, many of those carriers are in regions accustomed to unrivalled luxury in all areas of life, and they are not representative of the majority of the flying public.

It is also true that carriers who cater to most passengers have slowly moved away from a three-class configuration, eliminating it entirely on certain routes.

But what is really behind that?  Does it prove that First is finally dying, or is something else afoot?

When American Airlines announced their new 777-200 cabin this month, many pointed out: “They’ve eliminated first class!” (Words to the effect.)

Pictures Paint Words 

True, it’s a two-class cabin, but look at it:

 

6. 777200 BC Aerial View
Business Class Suite, 777-200, Image American Airlines

and look at it again:

4. 777200 Fully Lie-Flat BC Seat
Business Class Suite Bed, 777-200, Image American Airlines

Now look at this:

1990s Continental First Class on the Shop Floor, FCMedia
1990s Continental First Class on the Shop Floor for a Spruce-Up, FCMedia Flight Chic

And this:

Continental Airlines Business First 777, 2010, CC Wikimedia
Continental Airlines Business First 777, 2010, CC Wikimedia

And, even this:

United Airlines First Class Sleeper Pod on United Airlines 747 between Tokyo and Chicago, 2009, CC Wikimedia
United Airlines First Class Sleeper Pod on United Airlines 747 between Tokyo and Chicago, 2009, CC Wikimedia

 

Is First Class really disappearing? Or merely being rebranded? (Again.)

You could argue that British Airways upped the game, and rang-in the death of First Class, when they introduced the fully lay-flat seat to Business Class in 2000.  And you’d have a point.

British Airways, though, was reacting to Virgin Atlantic Airways’ flying bed (which sloped a bit at the feet but was actually quite comfortable) introduced in 1999 to Upper Class.  The chic of chic airline, a rebel at heart, had already decided to break-away from the First Class model, marketing their front cabin as a far more groovy and comfy cabin.  NOT the exclusive realm of an “elite.”

Even so, British Airway’s fully-flat bed in Business started the fully-flat trend.  Though fully-flat is now considered required premium passenger seating, it was a unique innovation at the time.

That product was introduced to Business Class then for the same reason it is installed on Business Class today: good marketing.

When you compare the former First Class product to today’s Business Class product, it is easier to see that Business Class today is superior to First Class yesterday.

Furthermore, today’s Business Class is nearly identical to today’s First Class on many aircraft.

Look at American’s 777-300 First Class Suite Product

Other than number of seats assigned to the cabin (with more seats fitted into the 777-200 Business Class through the creative application of Forward/Aft nesting) and slightly more comfortable seats, there is little product difference.  Many of the features overlap.

On many flights, what we have is not so much an improved Business Class cabin environment but a rebranded First.

Why?  Simple.  It’s an easy sell.  It was a clever move before the financial crisis and post-financial crisis it is even more fitting.  (Are we post-financial crisis yet?  Let’s just say we are.)

The travel departments of those corporations who foot the bill for their executives cannot justify a “First Class” ticket appearing on the books as easily as they can justify a “Business Class” ticket.

They couldn’t before the crisis, and they certainly cannot now.

The First Class Customer

Those select passengers who would never consider flying anything but First Class, on routes where those passengers are most likely to care about, will still find a First Class option available.  They will also pay a premium price differential.  But, by-and-large, they are not getting a much superior product.

In most cases, First Class bookings are now (as they have always been) vanity bookings.  They are tickets bought as proof of status.  Except for those passengers who pay for the pricey private cabin suites (where available) most people flying First Class do so to be separate from the crowd.

Today, the primary differentiator for First Class service on most carriers isn’t even onboard the aircraft.  Most of the advantage of flying First Class is in the exclusive lounge experience and the associated concierge service.

Even so, the Lounges for Business Class passengers are continuously improving, coming very near that First Class experience.

There are always airlines who break the mould.  Fly First Class aboard those airlines offering true luxury, and you’re basically spoiled for all other forms of air travel.

On those airlines, on those routes, First Class is ramped-up to meet the expectations of the extremely affluent to whom a seat is not enough and absolute privacy is essential.  These individuals don’t need to explain the fare they paid to anyone.

For everyone else, there’s FirstBusiness, First, Business Class.

And it’s selling.

The rebranded Business Class (First) strategy works well for airlines, who are busy finding new ways to fit more seats into that cabin, while also limiting availability of those seats to upgrades and loyalty promotions.

That push to increase capacity, without compromising product, and to limit “freebies” reflects how well that Business Class (First) sells.

Airlines must be confident that the seats will not go empty.

They must believe that the product is attractive enough, and properly packaged, for the target customers to pay the fare.

They must not believe they will have empty seats to offer as upgrades, or they are making sufficient profit on these seats to off-set lost revenue from any empties.

Or, they want to encourage ticket sales by making the cabin more exclusive.

It is likely a combination of all these factors.

The whole industry is flat.

Demand to install the new Business Class product has reached such levels that, at the Aircraft Interiors Expo 2014 in Hamburg, suppliers who previously limited themselves to traditional seats (no matter how plush) are now eager to enter the Lie-Flat seat market.  We were invited to see two options which we found interesting.

IACOBUCCI

IACOBUCCI's New Business Class Suite with Electrically Elevated Privacy Screen, Aerial View, Image ©Flight Chic
Iacobucci’s New Venezia First Class Suite with Electrically Elevated Privacy Screen, Image ©Flight Chic 2014
IACOBBUCCI's Business Class Suite, with Electrically Elevated Privacy Screen in Up position, Image © Flight Chic, 2014
Iacobucci’s Venezia First Class Suite, with Electrically Elevated Privacy Screen in Up position, Image © Flight Chic, 2014

 

Iacobucci has designed a First Class seat option which is a hybrid of existing Business Class seat pods, and First Class Private Cabins.  While they intend this as a First Class option for  discriminating airlines, they may inadvertently have given those airlines who provide the Luxury Private Cabins an enhanced product for their Business Class.

Take, as an example, Etihad’s Pearl Business Class seat.

Etihad BusinessClassSeat5_Standard
Pearl Business Class Seat, Image Etihad Airways.

The similarities of design are striking, even down to the colour scheme.

This product, though labelled by Etihad as Business Class, exceeds the luxury of the First Class product on a great many airlines.  Iacobucci have merely improved on it, made it more lush.

Iacobucci explain that Venezia’s feature of a privacy screen which is electrically elevated suits the needs of passengers who need enhanced privacy as they sleep.

It is a feature the current Etihad Pearl Business Class product lacks, but which might be very attractive to customers of that airline and other airlines flying in their market.

In their announcement, Iacobucci describe the features of their Venezia seat as follows:

[Venezia] is the perfect synthesis of a luxury iconic product which emphasises the best comfort and exclusivity on board an aircraft in First Class. The innovative seat, is equipped with telescopic surrounding and sliding ottoman. The spacious 23.25’’ entrance width, the seat structure and the different features provides best in class comfort.

The Iacobucci HF First Class Seat Venezia, offers IFE system with USB port, 22” monitor, PCU/Audio Jack and many other facilities such as in-arm table, cup holder, reading lights and life vest compartment to increase the safety conditions during emergency. The switch control and the electrical privacy divider panel for electrical seat adjustment enhance comfort and privacy on board. All structural components are made of aluminum and composite materials. Moreover the reduced thickness of the shell increases the living space of the passenger when the seat is in full flat position with the backrest inside the shell making the customer journey an unforgettable experience.

They repeatedly call Venezia a First Class product, but the market they target may not see these as sufficiently “First Class.”

Airlines who fly a more conventional First Class product, similar to the Business Class (First) products of many airlines, are unlikely to find a good business argument for taking their First Class to this level.  The square footage required would kill the project.

As a Business Class product, targeted at the needs of airlines who provide full suites in First Class, this product may stand a chance.

So, are these First Class Seats or Business Class Seats?  You decide.

RECARO

Multi-transport seating experts Recaro have taken a different tack.  Rather than focusing on luxury, they have tried to support the push for increased capacity in Business Class.  As a result, they have created a democratic “every-man’s” Business Class pod.

Recaro Business Class Seat Pod Upright Position, Image © Flight Chic
Recaro Business Class Seat Pod Upright Position, Image © Flight Chic 2014

 

Recaro Business Class seat pod, reclined position, Image © Flight Chic, 2014
Recaro Business Class seat pod, reclined position, Image © Flight Chic, 2014

 

Says Recaro of their seat:

The efficiency of the CL6710 can be measured in figures. The ratio 1 to 1.8 is Recaro’s formula for success. The key number reflects the ratio of pitch to bed length in the new business class seat CL6710. With a seat pitch of 46 inches, Recaro can provide a bed length of up to 82 inches – and thus makes optimal use of the available space. In this way Recaro creates a win-win-situation for passengers who enjoy maximum living space, as well as for airlines who can use their cabins efficiently.

Efficiency can also be measured in kilograms. The CL6710 reaches a weight of just 80 kilograms depending on aircraft type, layout and individual configuration. The seat design bases on innovative lightweight materials. The reduced complexity of the overall seat design also saves weight.

It’s important to point out that Recaro state this seat is fully flat, and specify a 180-degree full flat bed.  We just couldn’t see it.

When their representative lay down on the seat, we perceived a slope, though perhaps it is because of the head-rest.

RECARO 2
Recaro CL6710 sleeper seat, with sleeper included, Image © Flight Chic 2014

 

Their own image of the fully-extended seat also appears to show a slight slope.

Recaro CL6710 Business Class seat, Image Recaro
Recaro CL6710 Business Class seat, Image Recaro

 

But the slight slope, whether real or perceived, doesn’t matter.

What Recaro have achieved with CL6710 is far more important.

Their unique Business Class Seat increases density, allowing better use of space in the cabin and therefore making it economically viable for those carriers who still have traditional forward-facing Business Class seats; tempting them to consider “lie-flat” seats as an onboard product.

As they point out:

It combines high comfort with the possibility of a high density cabin. It has excellent living space, direct aisle access, and a variety of stowage opportunities. Furthermore, it features low weight without compromising passenger comfort.

The CL6710 is not as luxurious as Iacobucci’s First Class seat above, which would lend credence to the argument that one is Business Class and the other is First Class.

But, really, is the line between the two service classes that clear?

What will prevent an airline from offering the Recaro seat to their First Class customers, if it better suits their marketing model?

You decide:

Call it whatever you want so long as it sells.

While I believe that a Rose by any other name is still First Class, it doesn’t really matter.

Whatever airlines choose to call it, if it results in increased revenue, everybody wins.

Perhaps Business Class did Kill First Class

Many in the industry will continue to say that First is dying, probably for another 20 years.

By any measure, label or class, the passenger experience at the front is much improved over the past twenty years.

In the last 14 years, since British Airways first brought the lay-flat bed to Business Class, the standards for comfort have radically  changed.

With new innovations, like Recaro’s CL6710, making it affordable for airlines to offer this product, we’re likely to see even more lay-flats installed in the years to come.

Airlines who keep upping the game may find Iacobucci’s option attractive, though I suspect there is a larger market for Recaro to exploit.

Que Sera, Sera

What is unclear is how we’ll manage to top this high standard.

I’m very interested to find out, but other than the introduction of new technology, I saw nothing which would qualify as the next big-leap in premium cabin configuration at the show.  Maybe next year.

What Flavour is Your Aeroplane?

While aviation relies on firm and measurable principles of physics, the inside of the aircraft is a purely subjective terrain.

What does not impress me as revolutionary, will have impressed others, and vice-versa.

What is attractive and comfortable to one, may not be adequate for all.

That’s the challenge for the great designers of our industry, and I do know we have brilliant designers who make the most of limited space, restrictive conditions, and challenging certification hurdles.

They’ll no doubt be cooking something up which will fundamentally change the cabin of tomorrow.

But I wouldn’t put my money on that change being specific to a cabin class.

The greatest opportunity we have for change, as some of the leading visionaries of our industry have said, is to walk away from the concept of class altogether.  And it’s about time for that too.

A Class Above

The best way to have perspective on this very subjective topic is to read the ultimate book on aircraft interiors, which covers cabin design from the 70s right up to today.

Indeed, seeing the author again at this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in years.

As always, Jennifer Coutts Clay was enthusiastic, utterly charming, kind, and gracious.  Though her considerable experience puts her well above most, and she knows the ins and outs of the Business like very few, Jennifer is modest and understated, and always generous about sharing that knowledge with others.  She makes you feel good when you’re with her, and she’s happy to bring good people together.  Jennifer is and will remain, an all-around First Class lady.

If you haven’t already downloaded Jennifer Coutts Clay’s Jetliner Cabins e-book, you’re missing quite a lot.

JC-white1
Jennifer Coutts Clay, Author Jetliner Cabins, Image Jetliner Cabins

22 thoughts

  1. The light slope you recognize at the Recaro seat is the flight angle compensation of the aircraft (3°). During flight, the seat is 180° flat.

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  2. Another good piece Marisa. Having been at Virgin Atlantic through the 1990s I would like to think Upper Class inflicted the blow to First Class. Since then many leading airlines have added further blows and until recently, with the arrival of suite products, it was taking it last few gasps of breath.

    Its pleasing to see the Us market ditching it now as it was more of a vanity play (FFP status) than anything else. The long awaited loss of First Class in the US is a way-marker to the impending death of the traditional frequent flyer program too, in my opinion.

    One particularly good point you raise is that the product is now defined beyond the aircraft cabin (defining connectivity alongside lounges etc as beyond the cabin services) and I believe that is where the next step change innovations will come. Interiors, and especially business class seats, are so well developed now that enhancements are moving into the domain of diminishing returns.

    It will be interesting to see if airlines now turn their attention towards the rear of the aircraft. Some, as we are seeing, will be intent on cramming in more and more seats where the airline model is driven by lower/competitive fares and market share, but some may choose to differentiate as a competitive advantage. From the aircraft cabin perspective Y-, Y, Y+ and even J- offer great scope for innovation. Exciting times!

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    1. Thank you, Peter! I completely agree that this is a unique and exciting time in the industry. Let’s hope that you’re right about differentiation at the back of the plane. I see a bit of that with airlines like JetBlue being brave enough to introduce Mint, and hope that we’ll see more of that. I fear that the passenger numbers projected (and the continued demand for budget fares) will only lead to a continued crunch in Economy, but that can only be taken so far. Besides, if there’s a surprise downturn there will be unfavourable load factors. We’ll have to watch for signs of that.

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