Airlines mull first-class future as business beds succeed

-A +A

THE world’s top airlines are questioning the need for first-class cabins as flat-bed seats cradle corporate customers in once-unimaginable comfort, making the premium on front row seats harder to justify.

With fully reclining business berths introduced this year by Air France-KLM Group, the corporate cabins of top operators in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, now all offer an experience comparable to that available in first for almost two decades.

Among carriers that see limited demand for luxury seats are American Airlines, which is removing them from close to 50 jets, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, where €1 billion (RM4.14 billion) is being spent upgrading business class as capacity in first is cut 30%, and even top-end Gulf carrier Qatar Airways Ltd. Others are being bolder, with Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways PJSC adding private suites styled as “The Residence” with a double bed, living area and shower for US$20,000 (RM63,000) one-way to London.

“The post-recession economy is keenly aware of the cost of travel and airlines will only put first on aircraft, where it’s economically justified,” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel advisory firm.

Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd led the way in paring its first-class offering in 2010, following the credit crunch and global recession, with chief executive officer (CEO) Alan Joyce saying at the time that the product was in “long-term decline”. The luxury berths were retained only on 12 Airbus Group NV A380 superjumbos, and three Boeing Co 747s operating premium routes such as Sydney-London.

Following an Aug 20 announcement, Fort Worth — Texas-based American Airlines — will drop first from 47 Boeing 777-200s, limiting the top-end offering to its biggest 777-300ER jets, of which there are only 14 in the fleet, plus a handful of Airbus A321T narrow-bodies used on California-New York routes.

In Europe, where first class has traditionally been a mainstay of long-haul services, Lufthansa is removing the product from 31 planes. An upgrade of those jets keeping the seats will be completed in 2015, with the retention of an open-plan layout favoured over a switch to individual booths.

Ticket sales have gained more than 10% with the move, which has focused on routes such as Frankfurt-Los Angeles to maximise occupancy by paying clients, rather than those using air miles to upgrade. After the refit, first will still be available in about 70% of wide-bodies, against more than 90% previously.

For Gulf carriers, the opulence of first may be as much about projecting an image of their home state, as selling seats.

“You’re almost branding a nation,” said Nigel Goode, a director at Priestmangoode in London, which has designed plane interiors for clients including Lufthansa, Malaysia Airline System Bhd and Qatar Air. “It’s a gateway that helps visitors form an impression about the country, before they land.” — Bloomberg

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on Aug 28, 2014.