Everything you need to know about flying first class
Earlier this month Singapore Airlines and Emirates, two awarded legacy carriers, presented their new first class cabins installed inside the airlines’ wide-body jets.
Singapore Airlines announced a new cabin configuration onboard its Airbus A380 super-wide-body. The airline’s total investment was valued at $850 million for the entire A380 fleet. In particular, each airplane will now offer six luxury suites for it’s wealthiest customers. Not unlike a five-star hotel, 10km up in the sky, the Singaporean carrier offers suites “for a distinguished few” with two pillows and a cotton duvet for a bed. The beds in the first row of suites of each aisle can even be connected so two passengers can sleep shoulder to shoulder, just like home.
Emirates, famous for pioneering showers onboard commercial jets, unveiled a new cabin design on the first day of the 2017 Dubai Airshow. The six fully enclosed suites in the front of the UAE carrier’s Boeing 777-300ER wide-body airliner will feature seats that recline into flat beds. For those sitting in the middle of the first-class cabin, Emirates has placed high-definition cameras outside the fuselage to provide air travelers with a window-like experience.
Some details of this latest first-class feature were inspired by Mercedes-Benz designs, found in their top-of-the-line cars including high-tech touch screen control panels, soft leather seating and stitching, and the mood lighting inside the suite. It didn’t take long until social networks were filled with images of the “dream flight” with a spacious bed, exotic food, big screen entertainment and a total absence of neighbors around. No restrictions, no turbulence.
In this review, BEAM focused on the world’s ten best, 'First Class' airlines according to SkyTrax — Etihad Airways (Abu-Dhabi), Emirates (Dubai), Lufthansa (Frankfurt/Main), Air France (Paris), Singapore Airlines (Singapore), Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong), Qatar Airways (Doha), China Southern (Guangzhou), Japan Airlines (Tokyo) and British Airways (London). We examined the services and limitations not only onboard but on the ground too, at the base airport.
First class relates to large aircrafts, such as the Airbus A380 or Boeing-777, offering space, privacy and comfort for the premium it charges passengers. So what do airlines exactly have to offer for such prices?
Etihad’s three-room suite, called 'The Residence', features a living room, separate bedroom, and an ensuite shower, with its layout designed for two people traveling together but could also be used to accommodate a single person.
Singapore Airline’s suite is another great cabin layout with slide doors. The key feature — a separated bed and chair. Now, each suite (six in total) has a foldout bed (193 cm long) and rotating chair (53 cm-wide). Two nearby suites can be reconfigured as one space making a bed truly wide, big enough for a couple.
Apart from the comfy bed, first class service by any carrier gives a priority to alcohol and meals served onboard. Air France refers to this as the 'Art of Dining' and promises to serve meals from the best French chefs on its flights. Since 2016 on selected routes, Air France serves a special meal created by Daniel Boulud, the renowned Michelin-starred French chief based in the United States. On Singapore Airlines’ wide-body airplane, pre-order should be placed with the airline 24 hours prior to departure for exclusive dishes.
Rivers of champagne are a must. Don’t forget, any Airbus A380 is equipped with a lounge bar, all suite-inhabitants can gather at. Sometimes, airlines, however, fall short of these promises of luxury.
One first-class passenger flying with China Southern noticed his champagne was a cheap, Duc de Paris sparkling wine. “It retails for $5. I mean, is that the world’s cheapest airplane champagne? I don’t think any other airline even serves champagne that cheap in coach”, he commented on one of the air travel review websites. A couple of weeks later, the man received a letter from the airline with apologies and the situation was resolved soon after.
The most inspiring services found in first class are showers and wifi. Both sound very promising in advertisements but reality can sometimes be different. Taking a shower often requires waiting times, the water is limited, and any turbulence might make the whole process difficult. Wi-Fi is usually subject to charge and dramatically slow (one review cited a passenger saying he had to wait for the aircraft to fly over Russia until his emails were downloaded to the laptop).
Charter vs first class
Just 20 years ago business jets were an option only for the extremely wealthy. It felt like something unattainable, high-rank and overwhelmingly expensive. Now, private airplanes are not as unreachable as they used to be in the past.
Unsurprisingly, the price for a private charter is sometimes equal to a legacy airline first class offer. Usually, charters are more expensive than first class, but sometimes a short-range flight turns out cheaper with a small business jet, especially if you're traveling with family. With a fully occupied cabin, each passenger’s share (say a ticket) will be cheaper, but flying a full cabin in an executive airplane is rare, says an investment company top-manager.
Private airplanes can't also be cheaper, says a transport holding owner. Price is now less of a factor in the choice. What’s important is punctuality, check-in and security formalities clearance speed, and the possibility to share the flight with family or partners. It’s not just comfort that counts but convenience too. A first-class airline will hardly serve any possible destination direct and flying with layovers is hardly an option for a high-level passenger.
According to the businessman, he spends about 400 hours a year in the air, 6-8 flights of which are business jet ones. It’s optimal for short/medium-range destinations and also during complicated trips with several airports covered and a big amount of meetings. When it comes to long-haul destinations like Singapore, the US or Australia the business jet's privacy and comfort are not enough.
“You cannot really stand or have a walk in the cabin (in case the jet is not ACJ or BBJ or some VVIP-sized airplanes)”, says the businessman. A regular flight across Europe has limited comfort, but the long-haul ones are high class. There’s a lot of private space in first class, top-level catering, beautiful flight attendants and even a shower sometimes."
While the long-haul executive jets are exceedingly expensive, in the $120,000-150,000 range, the London — New York — London first class ticket costs just about $10,000. “There’s a very small market that sits between business class and a private jet that wants to fly in first class. From the biggest financial centers, perhaps, says Air Canada CEO Ben Smith. Of course in some echelons of business like hedge funds and private equity, first is a cheaper decision just under flying private. And what many fail to acknowledge is that sleeping situations, even on a private jet, are less than comfortable.
There’s a famous anecdote about the head of a noted investment bank who would fly British Airways first, having the private jet follow when flying from the East Coast to London because he got a better night of sleep.
But a direct comparison between first class and a bizjet is not quite reasonable, this is something like a scheduled bus service and a private car or a taxi. In case of a scheduled service, the passenger has to follow and a private vehicle is somewhat different. “What I usually plan are three trips during a year maximum, the rest are spontaneous trips, mostly one day-long. That’s why I’m going bizjet for the last five years”, says an airport business owner.
Services on the ground
The first class concept means that the luxury starts long before boarding. Several thousand dollar fares come with a long list of services for premium clients. The list is more or less standard across airlines, who compete for similar demographics. So, what are these?
Private drivers, also known as the limo service are provided by most airlines, including Lufthansa, Air France, Etihad, Japan Airlines. Often, these are operated through partnership, Emirates, for example, teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to launch its transfer service for it’s new Boeing-777 first-class passengers - the transfer is free and serviced by brand new S Class cars.
The service is, however, limited location-wide, depending on the carrier’s base airport proximity. Air France has a different approach — saying that the first class chauffeur service is available worldwide.
There are other limitations too. Japan Airlines has a list of ten 'ifs' - the customer has to apply well in advance, no stops, direct transfer only, a strict no smoking policy, no transfer of the ride to another person etc. Most passengers, therefore, gravitate towards using taxis or private limo services.
Perhaps, the most valuable part of the first class experience is its ability to save its passengers time. Aiming to stray away passengers from long waiting lines, airlines are trying to reserve dedicated terminal entrances connected to a separate space to proceed with all checks and formalities. But sometimes airports are not designed that way causing difficulties even for first class passengers. In these cases, airlines organize a fast-track service and priority-check-in counters.
A dedicated terminal seems to be a great option, however, these haven't been made available in many places around the world. Lufthansa is one of the few legacy carriers offering it at this point.
In a battle to keep first-class passengers with the airline, Lufthansa went the executive aviation way, launching it’s First Class Terminal over 10 years ago. Keeping its first class customers away from the Frankfurt/Main airport’s busy terminals, Lufthansa invites them to a separate building to clear security, immigration and then drive directly to their airplane. The service is a luxurious way to avoid the other 61 million passengers passing through the main airport facilities each year.
Lounges are also put in place to compensate all possible inconveniences and discomfort when traveling through a large hub. These rooms are isolated from the rest of the terminal. The standard set of amenities includes bar, meals, TV broadcasting and internet access. All additional services depend on the airport, the airline’s approach, and resources.
For example, Cathay Pacific’s operates two first class lounges at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport. These feature showers, a spa, and rooms reserved to sleep in for connecting passengers. The Etihad’s lounge at Abu-Dhabi has a shaving option, gym, ironing table and cigar room. There are also prayers rooms and kid zones. British Airways offers spa-treatment procedures in its Heathrow lounge, however only the first 15 minutes of the treatment there are free.
For South-East Asian and Gulf carriers we took the London-bound flight as an example, and the New York-JFK route for European airlines. These two are the most popular destinations for both business travelers and tourists. The booking requests were put one month before the desired departure date. It turned out that the first class return ticket for one person is, on average, in the $10,000-12,000 range, with several factors potentially raising the prices.
Just like with any other class, first class tickets are sometimes fixed or flexible. Several airlines implement this, for example, Emirates, Qatar and British Airways. The fixed ticket is cheaper, although penalties apply in case of changes and cancellations. The flexible ones are 20-30% more expensive but are fully compatible with all possible changes in itinerary.
The ticket price may be sensitive based on the day-of-the-week. Etihad’s tickets are more expensive on weekends and cheaper through the rest of the week. Surprisingly, Air France is vice versa. The time of departure is also important. Flights departing (and arriving) in the most comfortable time are tagged with a higher price.
The list of services charged for differs from one airline to another. The “no show” option costs $800 for Qatar’s first-class customers and is free with Cathay Pacific and China Southern. The feature helps passengers get rid of additional penalties resulting from itinerary changes.
The majority of airlines don't charge its customers on the basis of the ticket purchase date. Lufthansa seemed to be the only exception, it’s first class ticket departing two weeks later cost two times more than the one departing Frankfurt one month after the purchase.
Availability might be an issue, however. The three-room suite from Etihad is priced at $27,000 for one passenger and $33,000 for a traveling couple. These price tags showed up when we tried to book the Abu-Dhabi — London — Abu-Dhabi flight in the 'Residence'.
Going flexible, first-class passengers are able to change departure date with no charge. When it’s fixed — penalties apply: from $35 to $100 per ticket. Cancellation is also subject to charge — approximately $200. All airlines provide details on when the passenger has to make up his mind about changes and cancellations. So, Etihad instructs those flying “The Residence” that any returns earlier than a week prior to departure are fully refunded, if less — 75%, two days prior to departure — 50% and no refund if the passengers cancel his ticket one day before the flight.
A passenger flying first class can also bring more luggage than those flying coach too. The amount of 32 kg bags starts from two on Etihad. European carriers — Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways — are ok with three bags, and Etihad’s “The Residence” ticket allows you to travel with even more — four. The carry-ons are limited to two bags (total weight 10-18 kg).
What the industry leaders think about first class?
Ben Smith, CEO of Air Canada:
"With these suites that you see on some luxury carriers, the demand for that is pretty limited. You look at the value proposition and the cost differential, and the amount of real estate it takes up can hardly be justified. You see a lot of carriers starting to phase out first class because the only difference really between business class and first these days are you get a little bit better food and better wine onboard, but most of customers are just looking for that lie flat seat to be able to sleep so they can function when they arrive at their destination".
Christoph Franz, CEO of Lufthansa:
Lufthansa may have stuck with a comprehensive first-class network for too long, and that the product risked becoming “an upgrade class” for people redeeming frequent flyer points. For an entire product class to be more or less serving as a mile-burning product, that’s not the right thing. It’s a top-notch luxury product. We want to have passengers essentially for first class, with a few upgrades.
Yuji Hirako, CEO of All Nippon Airways:
We believe persistent demand for first-class exists in certain long-haul markets, like New York, London and Frankfurt from Tokyo. When we introduce our new A380 into the Tokyo-Honolulu route, we will definitely equip the aircraft with first class as well. That said, with our Dreamliner serving long-haul markets that are not equipped with first class, we are taking a close look at the marketing side to see whether the two-class service is a better choice. Those who prefer first class tend to be VIPs from governments and large firm executives. We do not disclose our load factors from any specific cabins and routes and therefore would like to kindly refrain from answering questions about load factors and profitability of first class.
Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines:
You know, business class is where demand is at. A lot of our international premium class demand comes from business travelers. Many companies don’t allow the employees to book international first class but they will let them book business class. There’s just not enough demand for a lot of first class seats.
Campbell Wilson, Singapore Airlines, ex-Senior Vice-President:
In the context of business class becoming so good, the incremental reason for most travellers to travel first class rather than business is not as compelling as it perhaps used to be before full lie-flat beds, before very, very wide seats, before the privacy and all of the other attributes that now come with our business class, it’s more of a niche product than perhaps it used to be. That’s why the cabin has been adjusted slightly.