First-class is freaking awesome. So finding fault with it might sound insane. But hear me out.
First-class has a big problem. As far back as 2019, we were talking about how airlines were phasing out first class as high rollers opted for private jets.
Not only that, though, but now ‘middle rollers’ – the people rich enough to afford to fly at the pointy end of a plane regularly, but not wealthy enough to charter or own a private jet – have increasingly less reason to book first-class over business class.
Why? Business-class keeps getting better. Business-class is also, on many airlines, becoming more prolific, and so easier to book (despite the fact there are some outlier companies, which are doubling down on premium economy instead). Either way: first class is finding itself less and less prioritised.
Just look at Etihad’s new flagship jet, its ‘Sustainability50’ Airbus A350. The ‘Sustainability50’ A350 has zero first-class suites. Instead, Etihad has sacrificed the pointy end space that could have gone towards building a symbolic monument to luxury like The Residence (which is on its A380s) and dedicated it all to Business Studios.
These Business Studios offer as much comfort as you could need for a long haul flight. No: there’s no shower like in Emirates’ A380 first class, for instance, but in terms of how much extra you pay to be able to say you’ve stood under a drizzle at 40,000ft (or to have a few metres of extra space around your bed, like in Etihad’s The Residence), we’d say, for most pointy end passengers these days (except the super-rich ones, for whom money is literally no object), it’s well and truly worth booking business and using that money you saved (by not booking first class) to pay for something nice when you’re back on the ground.
Why is this? Because, in a sense, we’ve been sold a lie. How so? Many of the first-class features that people fork out thousands of dollars extra for up in the air, would not be considered so luxurious on the ground. Think about it; you’re paying, in the case of The Residence, $27,000 for a small bedroom, a living room, and an ensuite with a shower. For less than a day.
None of that would be considered luxurious back on the ground. In fact, you can get all that from most airport motels. The main differentiator between first class up in the air and the average hotel down on the ground is the amazing hospitality from the staff (and the brands of the aforementioned sofa, bed; shower).
Even first-class’ famed hospitality has issues. As an 1843 article points out, overindulging in the food and alcohol in first class can make you feel sick (and unprepared for your meetings on landing), and the incessant attention of first-class staff (if you accidentally leave your ‘immediate service required’ button switched on) can be annoying.
Finally: the slow death of massive passenger aircraft like the A380 could well quicken first class’ demise. Though some airlines, like Emirates, are still using A380s, broadly speaking, they are on the decline (Airbus stopped making them in 2021).
The aviation industry’s shift towards smaller passenger jets means there will be fewer and fewer fat headed aircraft like the A380. It’s in this bulbous space that first-class features like Emirates’ showers and Etihad’s apartment suites were able to be easily fit.
There you have it: first class isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and both airlines and passengers are now finally waking up to it…