Is First Class Going Extinct?

May 17, 2019

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The number of airlines and routes featuring a true international first class has slowly dwindled over the years, and this month has seen two further reductions in an already endangered species. First, Korean Air announced that it would be eliminating first class from 27 international routes as part of a cost-cutting strategy, and Asiana has stopped selling first class for flights after August 31. It’s likely just a coincidence that these two airlines are both based in South Korea, as this is a trend we’ve been seeing with other carriers in the past, even as others re-emphasize their commitment to a top-flight cabin.

There are likely two main factors driving the phaseout of international first class. First, business-class seats, service and amenities have improved to the point that many airlines don’t see any need for an additional forward cabin, or would at least struggle to differentiate it from an enhanced business class. Second, airlines are moving away from double-decker jumbo jets like the 747 and A380 and opting for smaller, more fuel-efficient planes instead. With less space onboard, the prestige inherent in offering first class isn’t enough to justify the cost of operating it.

The Rise of Business Class

When international first class as we know it today first came about, most business-class seats couldn’t recline completely, and they certainly didn’t have closing doors. In recent years we’ve seen airlines introduce business class experiences that are actually better than what some offer in first class. There’s no better example of this than Qatar’s Qsuite, which features fully-enclosed suites for every passenger.

(QSuite. Photo by Zach Honig/TPG)
(QSuite. Photo by Zach Honig/TPG)

Solo travelers can enjoy a private cocoon by the window, while couples can opt for a double bed in the honeymoon-style middle seats. If you’re flying in a larger group of four you can even convert the middle seats into a quad configuration, something which TPG himself got to test out with his parents and Reviews Editor Nick Ellis.

Qatar understands how close to first class this experience is, marketing the QSuite product as “first in business.”

While not every airline will rise to Qatar’s level when it comes to food and service, Delta and China Eastern are now offering fully-enclosed business class suites on select aircraft. If you cast your net a little wider, you’ll find that an overwhelming majority of international airlines offer fully lie-flat seats in business class these days, and most also include direct aisle access for every passenger. Sure, a great first class flight can make your trip as much about the journey as the destination, but if you’re simply looking to arrive well-rested, today’s business class gets the job done better than ever before.

Space Constraints

Another trend in commercial aviation that’s occurred independently of the improvements in business class seating is the switch from double-decker jumbo jets to smaller and more fuel-efficient aircraft. Between Airbus ending production of the A380 and airlines retiring their 747s, we’re seeing more long-haul flights operated by next-generation aircraft like the 787 and A350.

Many airlines that have remained committed to first class on planes like the 777 are omitting it on smaller planes like the 787 and A350. Simply put: There isn’t enough extra space on these smaller planes for those massive seats that give first class its appeal. British Airways is among the few airlines to install a first-class cabin on its 787s, and even then only on the larger 787-9 model. Between the first two doors of the plane, you’ll find eight first class seats and 14 business class seats.

Image courtesy of Seatguru.com

On the same airplane with American Airlines and Air Canada, you’ll find 30 business class seats in the same space. While an extra eight seats might not sound like all that much, it can make a huge difference if more of them end up being occupied. There are always going to be more people and companies willing to pay ~$5,000 for a business-class flight than $10,000 or even $15,000 for first class, and airlines are capitalizing on that. Empty first-class seats represent a huge loss on any flight, and phasing out first class allows an airline to cut down its catering costs and send flights out with higher loads.

The Airlines Still Flying First Class

That said, if you are trying to book a bucket-list first-class flight, you have plenty of options left. Korean Air and Asiana are among the more radical actors in actively eliminating first class, whereas most other airlines are simply opting not to install it on their new planes. This means you can expect that many of the first class-equipped 747s, 777s and A380s will continue to offer that product for the rest of their service lives.

RELATED: Why Oneworld Is the Best Alliance for First Class Awards

North America

The only airline in North America to offer a true first class is American Airlines on its 777-300ER aircraft, plus the Airbus A321s that operate transcontinental flights. You’ll find the 777s flying from hub cities like New York-JFK, Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami (MIA) to Europe, Asia and South America. Award space is incredibly hard to come by, but you could fly from LAX to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) for only 80,000 AAdvantage miles or 62,500 Etihad Guest miles (a transfer partner of American Express and Capital One).

You can check out our review of American’s 777-300ER first class here.

Asia

Asia is home to a number of airlines still operating long-haul, first class flights, including the following:

  • Air China
  • Air India
  • ANA
  • Cathay Pacific
  • China Eastern
  • China Southern
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Japan Airlines
  • Korean Air
  • Thai
  • Singapore

Of course your exact award rates will depend on which airline you fly and the exact destination, but first class from the US to Asia on Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines for 70,000-75,000 Alaska miles each way is one of the best deals out there. If you’re able to find round-trip award space, you can book ANA first class from the US to Tokyo for between 110,000-120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles.

Emirates A380 First Class. Photo by Brian Kelly / The Points Guy
Emirates and its fellow Middle Eastern airlines still offer first class on certain aircraft. (Photo by Brian Kelly/The Points Guy)

Middle East

Emirates, Etihad and Qatar make up the so-called Middle Eastern Three (ME3 for short), and all still operate a first-class cabin on many of their planes. Emirates’ new 777-300ERs feature an incredible cabin at the front of the plane, though it’s usually only available for award bookings at the last minute. The carrier’s massive A380 fleet, meanwhile, features the gold-studded first class cabin that’s become synonymous with award travel opulence, including an on-board shower and closing doors. However, Emirates did retrofit existing 777-200LRs with new business-class seats last year, removing first class in the process, so even Emirates isn’t immune to the trend.

Etihad and Qatar both operate first-class cabins on select aircraft as well. Etihad’s Apartment is among the most spacious first-class seats out there and a great use of American AAdvantage miles; it’s even bookable on AA.com. You’ll also find first class onboard Etihad’s A330-300s and select 777-300ERs and 787-9s.

Qatar has the smallest first-class footprint of the ME3, with the top-of-the-line product found only on its 10 A380s. This makes sense given the luxurious business class Qatar offers in the QSuite.

Europe

While there are plenty of first-class products flying to and from Europe, fuel surcharges, high award rates and other booking restrictions make this into a huge hassle for comparatively short flights. Here are your options:

  • Air France
  • British Airways
  • Lufthansa
  • Swiss

While Lufthansa first class is often available using miles (and the carrier has reaffirmed its commitment to this class of service), you can generally only book these awards through Star Alliance partners within 15 days of departure. British Airways first class, meanwhile, can incur thousands of dollars in taxes, fees and surcharges. As for Air France La Première and Swiss, these are among the hardest first class products to book.

Australia

Qantas flies a first class cabin on its fleet of 12 Airbus A380s, with service from Australia to Los Angeles (LAX) and Dallas (DFW). This is one of the hardest products to book using miles from the US, but if you manage to snag an elusive seat it will cost you 70,000 Alaska miles or 110,000 AAdvantage miles.

Bottom Line

International first class can be a splurge yet simultaneously a memorable flight experience, and it’s sad to see so many airlines doing away with it. However, the silver lining is that business class today is better than most people ever imagined it would be. In many ways, the three-cabin layout of yesteryear (economy, business and first) has simply been shifted to economy, premium economy and business. In many ways this news is good for award travelers, as large business-class cabins can translate to lower award costs and (ideally) more seats available for award bookings.

That being said, there are still plenty of ways to book first class flights with dozens of carriers around the world that are still using this top-shelf cabin, though time may be ticking on those.

Featured image of the first-class cabin aboard a Korean Air 747-8 by the author. 

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