First Class is dead; long live first class

The Wall Street Journal has a piece out this week discussing the ever shrinking number of first class seats flying around the world. They’re calling it a "long, slow death" and focus on the change from a First/Business/Economy model to a Business/Premium Economy/Economy model among a number of carriers.

For decades, international first class was a symbol of self-indulgence in the sky, several rungs above its domestic cousin, which tends to be closer to economy class, but with free alcohol and bigger, cushier seats.

The top-drawer service, however, has been disappearing from U.S. airlines for decades. Of the more than 500 aircraft U.S. airlines regularly fly to Europe, Asia and South America, just 27% offer first class.

And there is plenty of truth in the story. The number of seats marketed as First Class is definitely decreasing. But from the perspective of "self-indulgence in the sky" things would seem to be a bit different. Business Class today is, by most measures, a more comfortable in-flight experience than First Class was 10 years ago. From that perspective First Class isn’t really dead; it just has a different name.

Virgin Atlantic was one of the first carriers to tackle this issue. Their Upper Class product was revolutionary when it was launched. The in-flight and ground services paralleled (some aspects better than others) First Class offerings from their main competitor, British Airways, while being sold as a Business Class product. This allowed them to attract a number of corporate contracts and build quite a loyal customer base. The passengers were happy to get the solid in-flight product and the accounts were happy to be buying Business Class seats.

The trend has continued and other carriers have cut their First Class offerings while upgrading Business Class significantly. Most have also matched the Virgin approach of naming it differently. BusinessFirst, Envoy and BusinessElite are the product names that Continental, US Airways and Delta introduced. The product has continued to improve, making Business Class a very comfortable and pleasant way to fly.

Sure, there are still some exceptional First Class products out there. The Emirates A380 suites are quite enjoyable and taking a shower while flying is both wonderful and ridiculous, for example. Even when flying on points I generally find it hard to justify the incremental cost to get into First Class. The "special" benefits don’t outweigh being able to travel more often for me. And with the number of folks willing to actually pay the incremental costs (points or cash) to get from Business to First is so small it isn’t hard to understand why the airlines are cutting the product from their fleets.

After all, many are replacing it with something better, even if it has a different name.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I think the focus or “upgrading” of C are carriers attempting to keep up with competitor standards. They must have a competing product or they’d lose customers.

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