Virgin Australia’s The Business cabin service. Images via Virgin Australia
Is First Class on its way out and being replaced by luxurious Business Class ? Air Canada is one of the first global carriers to remove first class from passenger airlines. Speaking at a global forum, Air Canada’s president said recently that flight attendants serving caviar or writing down notes by hand for passengers will probably be no longer required except for a couple of global routes such as New York, London and Tokyo.
Passengers departing from Abu Dhabi to Sydney now get to experience Virgin Australia’s award-winning international business class upgrade, currently flying on the carrier’s wide-body fleets of Airbus A330-200 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. It also features the largest in-flight entertainment screen flying between Australia and North America. The international service, which launched at Los Angeles International Airport on July 2016, aims to escalate Virgin’s brand image abroad and lure international business travelers away from its rivals.
Virgin already had a lie-flat on its Boeing 777s and a bar, so why change? Its because the airline felt it wasn’t meeting customer expectations anymore.
In line with recent front-of-cabin programs such as United’s Polaris service, Virgin’s redesign enhances its business-class product with first-class accoutrements. It seems the future of premium travel is more of an evolution than a revolution. First class innovations are coming down to business class, just like many of premium economy class introduced on international routes is based on the old business class from the 1990s.
American Airlines soon will become the only airline with international first class in North America. Small portion of its fleet, 20 Boeing 777-300ERs, will be the most possible flights assigned for the longest routes.
United’s Polaris long-haul business-class flat bed seats are the norm in business class, and it’s really eroded the first-class market. United is retiring its first class within the next few years in favor of its new Polaris business class, while Delta long ago abandoned its first class cabin.
Delta Air Lines claims that Delta One is “the first business-class cabin to feature a sliding door at each suite.” Scheduled to debut in the third or fourth quarter of 2017 on Delta’s first Airbus A350, which will be equipped with 32 suites, the new product is designed to serve routes between the US and Asia.
First class is fading away across the sector, borne out by the fact that airlines have been taking delivery of new long-haul aircraft, which conspicuously omit first-class cabins. Savvy passengers are now not seeing the benefit of spending a large premium on a first-class ticket, when they can get a flat bed and a good night’s sleep in a business-class cabin.
Lufthansa, Swiss, British Airways, Air France, Asiana, ANA, and Japan Airlines still sustain first class. However, with the shrinking sizes of the cabins, many are removing it from some aircraft.
Lufthansa, for example, took delivery this February of the first of 10 Airbus A350-900s with a three class configuration: business, premium economy and economy. In a similar vein, Qantas revealed that its new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners will feature business, premium economy and economy classes and, will be flying some of the longest routes in the world, including nonstop from Perth to London, so it is focused on making each cabin the most comfortable in its class.
But why would passengers pay more for first class? American notes that, “what’s interesting is how much more can you differentiate first and business with all the things we’ve done in that [business] cabin. That will be the key distinction – it comes down to the level of service and personalization.” So, the difference between first- and business-class may come down to the personalized service offered to a seemingly diminishing first-class market. Although airlines haven’t publicly declared the demise of first class, it’s effectively disappearing through the process of fleet replacement.