Will the pandemic be a part of the first-class past?
In a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry discusses with Elaine why he should get the only first class ticket on offer. âYou won’t know what you’re missing,â he says. âI flew first class, Elaine, I can’t go back as a coach.
This piece of cod psychology still holds true, even though times have changed. In this episode, Seinfeld gets a bigger seat, more legroom, and free cookies, but these days First Class offers a lot more, especially on long-haul international flights. While flat beds are a minimum, some of the world’s major carriers offer hotel-style suites with showers, double beds, and celebrity chef menus. Singapore Airlines’ A380 suites, for example, were created by luxury yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste, and come complete with Ferragamo amenity kits and hand-sewn leather armchairs by Italian furniture makers Poltrona Frau.
But as the first class improved, demand declined sharply. According to figures from aviation consulting firm OAG, there were a total of 8.46 million seats in first-class cabins on scheduled flights in 2019 (excluding domestic US and Chinese flights, where the term applies first to what we would call business elsewhere). This represents a decrease of 45% since 2010 while, over the same period, the number of seats in business class increased by 42% to reach 184.48 million. Carriers like Air New Zealand, KLM and Turkish Airlines had abandoned the former long before the pandemic, but the disruptions of the past year have further reduced the number of first-class seats in the air. Currently, the former is not available on airlines such as Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Qantas.
Since British Airways introduced reclining business class seats in 2000, first has increasingly come across as an expensive gimmick, often costing twice as much for what actually equates to better champagne and more caviar. Covid-induced hygiene changes, such as the use of disposable packaging instead of ceramic and Wedgwood crystal, are likely to reduce luxury plating further, although some passengers will likely want more privacy.
At the same time, airlines have moved away from the bigger planes, the 747s and A380s, which harbor some really flash deals. Etihad is just one of the airlines that parks its A380 fleet indefinitely – meaning the end of its much-publicized Residential homes, three-bedroom suites with butler service that cost over $ 30,000 roundtrip. Instead, airlines are moving towards smaller Airbus 350s and Boeing 787s on long-haul flights, with reduced fuel consumption, which means 20% savings per passenger. These small planes are easier to fill, especially in an uncertain market, but are not designed to accommodate large, first-class suites with showers.
âAirlines like Emirates, with many reliable long-haul routes, will continue to use larger planes and focus on first class,â says John Grant of OAG. âBut companies like Lufthansa and British Airways were already moving towards a model of more flexible routes with a smaller number of passengers, such as BA flights to Austin and New Orleans, where it is more difficult to justify the space for a first-class seat. I can see them getting rid of the first class altogether.
But how are the bigwigs going to fly now? They certainly haven’t disappeared, with Forbes magazine listing 2,755 billionaires in its 2021 list, 660 more than a year ago. One possible answer is that today’s top executives are overcoming qualms about sustainability and private flying – not just as a practical replacement for suspended trade routes, but for health reasons. Austrian private jet charter company GlobeAir, for example, claims there are only 20 points of contact when traveling privately, compared to 700 on a commercial airline.
Flexjet, an Ohio-based private jet company offering rental and fractional ownership, increased its flight volume in Europe by 7% last year, despite the months of March and April 2020 when nearly all planes were been pinned to the ground. âIn May of last year, we saw a resurgence of interest from people who had never flown privately,â said Marine Eugene, European Managing Director of Flexjet. âWhile many of our existing customers used to fly privately in Europe, but first class for longer journeys, we have seen more of them using our planes to get to the Maldives or across the Atlantic.â
In the United States, which represents over 70% of the private jet market, volumes are back close to pre-Covid levels. According to Richard Koe, managing director of business aviation consultancy WingX, routes such as New York to Florida are at record levels, in part because of Covid’s relatively light restrictions in Florida. In Europe, it reports significant growth on routes poorly served by airlines, particularly Istanbul to Tirana and Munich to Baden-Baden. âThis could be the biggest year in the history of the industry,â he says.
This growth could diminish when commercial airlines resume something like normal service. Then again, Seinfeld was surely right that once you’ve upgraded it’s hard to go back. For many of the new private flyers, the prospect of longer wait times and cumbersome restrictions at airports could have become quite unpleasant. More than ever, flying first class may seem like yesterday’s luxury idea.
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