First class is on its way out at many airlines, as business class seats and mini-suites become larger, more private and more luxurious – and fewer budgets stretch to adding on what might be an extra zero on the price tag for first class.
But it’s not going away completely.
Yes, that luxurious international carrier you’re thinking of is probably going to keep it going. So is the other one with the famous flight attendant uniform and the big global hub, or the celebrity spokesperson, the soccer sponsorship, and the massive route network connecting you to far-flung reaches of the world.
It probably won’t look the same though. As smaller premium aircraft replace the A380 and 747 giants of the sky, designers are looking to radically rethink what first class will look like.
So why is first class still going to be a thing? Part of it is what Anthony Harcup, senior director at design house Teague – which has designed jet cabins in partnership with Boeing all the way back to the 707 – calls the “halo effect.”
“Having a first class cabin has a powerful halo effect – presenting the airline’s passenger offer at its very best,” Harcup says. “That was very much the challenge when designing Etihad’s First Apartments on their A380s.”
Harcup knows what he’s talking about. In a previous role, he was the design lead and named inventor of both the First Apartments and The Residence first-class-plus suites on Abu Dhabi-based Etihad’s Airbus A380 aircraft.
The Residence is a full one-bedroom suite, with a full-sized bed for up to two passengers fitting into what’s known as the “forehead” space at the front of the upper deck of the Airbus A380 – which Emirates uses as first class shower rooms and most other airlines leave as a slightly unloved sofa space for business class – and a two-seater sofa as the “seat.”
The First Apartment design took the radical step of turning the suite on its side – quite literally, with the bed at 90 degrees from the direction of the aircraft’s travel, with a separate armchair for seating.
“The new and transformational experience delivered by the First Apartments was that of choice,” Harcup explains. “For the first time passengers no longer had to sleep in the same place where they ate.”
It was an idea soon adopted elsewhere.
“A few years later,” Harcup says, “Singapore brought out a dedicated seat and bed ‘room’ type product too – again on the A380 upper deck… a unique cabin in a unique location that lends itself well to a single aisle layout.”
Boeing’s 747, similarly, allowed airlines to create first class cabins in the ultra-quiet and ultra-exclusive nose cabins of the iconic jetliner.
But with 747 and A380 production ending, and many airlines choosing to retire rather than refit their jumbos and superjumbos in the age of uncertain demand after Covid-19, there are fewer unique locations left for first class on the current and future flagships: Airbus’ A350 and Boeing’s 777, which are twin-aisle twin-engined jets whose cabins are essentially one big long rectangle.
That makes creating a space that feels unique and premium particularly challenging, especially with airlines deciding to cut the number of first class seats in many cases.
“In view of the trend to provide a small number of ultra-premium first class seats we designed the ultimate first class cabin concept,” Harcup says. “Teague’s new cabin, the Four Seasons, delivers uncompromising luxury, choice and privacy without walls – through simple, lightweight, solid-state design.”
The Four Seasons, no connection to the hotel brand of the same name, is generous with that most coveted of onboard resources: space.
Where other layouts would have eight seats that convert to beds – four window seats and four center seats – Teague is suggesting two pairs of seats in the center, and four full-time beds by the windows.
Each passenger’s personal space is therefore split across the aisle, with their seat in the middle and their bed at the window.
To add privacy, the first row faces forward and the second row faces backward, meaning that passengers won’t see each other over the high-backed separators even before the floor-to-ceiling privacy curtains are put in place.
A powered divider between seats in the same row means that passengers traveling together can eat and relax together, but there’s no option for a convertible double bed like some of the current first class cabins.
As for pricing, you’re looking at adding a couple of zeroes onto the price of an economy class trip. An example flight in economy for 14 hours or so might be $900 in economy, $3,500 in business but over $10,000 in first class – and that’s before you get to these new, more spacious and ultra-luxurious spaces.
And passengers will buy it – some of them, at least, explains Addison Schonland of aviation analysis group AirInsight.
“There will be airlines out there that continue to offer first class, and suppliers who will continue to build those seats, for the passengers willing to pay the big bucks to fly in them,” he says.
Jewel in the crown
Teague’s Four Seasons is just one option for airlines, which need to start thinking about what their cabins will look like at least two-three years ahead of delivery, in order to enable the spaces to be designed, specified, safety certified and installed on the aircraft at the Airbus or Boeing factories in Toulouse and Seattle.
For designers, there will also be options around what surrounds the cabin, as usually there is a small galley kitchen at the front behind the flight deck, with business class sitting directly behind first class.
Adding a bar or other shared space into the cabin may also shake things up for an airline looking to still highlight the luxuriousness of its flying to prospective passengers.
“Removing first class altogether and losing the jewel in the crown of the airline’s seating portfolio is a challenging message to communicate,” Harcup tells CNN.
Instead, “it makes far more sense to reduce the size of the first class cabin and restrict it to a small number of aircraft. That way the airline contains the financial risk and maintains the brand equity of the first class ‘billboard moment,’” Harcup explains.
But with increasingly spacious and luxurious business class seats and mini-suites with their own doors, making the first class experience properly luxurious will be vital to keep airlines’ halo products gleaming.
Top image credit: Teague