A class apart

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Business-class cabins now look as inviting as first class used to. What can carriers do to make first-class even more exclusive?

As business class on many international airlines has become more like the first-class offering of old, some have abandoned first class altogether while others have scaled back. Many have reduced the number of seats offered in first-class cabins – making it more spacious – and some offer first class only on selected routes.

class apartBut first class itself is definitely not going away. Plenty of network majors continue to pull out all the stops to make their first-class offerings even more luxurious, more elegant, more deluxe – use any similar superlatives – than their competitors to attract high-paying customers. This is particularly true of long-haul airlines in Asia and the Middle East.

These carriers continue to upgrade their seating and amenities in their first-class cabins, as well as airport facilities and ground transport. Some are predicting further innovations, especially in the behemoth Airbus A380 that will begin joining carrier fleets late this year. “There are surprises to come,” promises Singapore Airlines. “The A380 will have the latest incarnation of first class, and it goes far beyond what travellers have typically come to think of as first class.”

Singapore’s award-winning first class already is considered splendid, with wide fully reclining seats; elegantly designed cabins; leisurely paced meals with a choice of signature dishes created by leading chefs and served on china with linen; champagnes and wines served in crystal and designer pyjamas and toiletries. Giving passengers a sense of control is part of the airline’s focus, and an integral feature is connectivity to the ground with internet access and live television programming through Connexion by Boeing.

Singapore did not put a first-class cabin in the A340-500s it uses for long-haul nonstops between Singapore and both New York and Los Angeles, equipping them instead with a 64-seat upscale Raffles business class with lie-flat beds and a new executive economy cabin. But the carrier says the change is specific to the ultra-long-haul range of the A340-500 and its routes, and is designed primarily for time-sensitive corporate travellers. It should not be taken as a statement about the future of first-class travel.

First class is offered on most of Singapore’s long-haul routes, and provides travellers with dramatically more space than business class. With one flight attendant per four passengers, it offers very personalised service. “Singapore remains very firmly committed to first class,” the carrier says. “The luxury market is robust and growing.”

Emirates Airlines agrees. The carrier started a second daily nonstop between Dubai and New York on a Wednesday last November and first class was sold out on both flights on Friday. “There is strong demand for first class,” says Nigel Page, Emirates’ senior vice-president of commercial operations, the Americas. “When you do a long-range service, it tends to pull in premium traffic.”

Butler service

Emirates has created a first class that is “radically different” from anyone else’s. In its A340-500, it has installed a dozen enclosed “suites” with sliding electronic doors. Inside are massage seat/lie-flat beds, a wardrobe, mini-bar, an interactive entertainment system with nearly 600 channels of audio and video on demand, and meals on demand. “There are no set meal times,” Page says. “It’s basically a butler service.”

But Emirates first-class passengers do not have to eat on board or even in the lounge before the flight, a perk increasingly offered by carriers. They can have a five-course meal, paid or by Emirates, at one of Ritz-Carlton’s two Manhattan hotels before being driven to the airport, where a concierge takes their bags.

At New York JFK airport, Emirates has opened, for its premium travellers, an 1,000m2 (11,000ft2) lounge with a business centre equipped with 18 personal computers and wi-fi facilities. Gearing up for the A380, the lounge can accommodate 200 passengers and has shower facilities, plasma-screen televisions, meal service and a selection of wines different from those on board so passengers will not be bored. “We have very discerning customers,” Page says.

Lufthansa has launched what it calls a first-class ground revolution with the creation of a 1,800m2 terminal at its Frankfurt hub exclusively for first-class passengers. They will check in there, and can take showers in marble bathrooms, have suits pressed, make hotel reservations and dine on meals prepared in front of them by a chef. When ready to depart, passengers are whisked directly to the aircraft. First-class transfer passengers can use first-class lounges in the airport, but have access to the separate terminal if they have long enough layovers.

In common with other carriers, Lufthansa has developed a superior business-class product and eliminated first class from some markets, particularly those considered secondary or more leisure-oriented. In larger markets where it has multiple daily flights, such as New York or Los Angeles, the carrier will fly a two-class aircraft (with its new PrivateBeds-equipped business class) on one flight alongside other services that offer first class.

First-class menus are similar to those in business class, but offer four courses instead of three, a caviar service, a more extensive wine list and an eat-when-and-what-you-want regime. Touch-screen monitors instead of remote controls, linens and pyjamas also feature.

TAM Brazilian Airlines, which began nonstop service last November between São Paulo and New York, its second North American gateway, offers fully lie-flat seats in both its Red Carpet first class and business class, but the first-class cabin has far fewer seats – seven or 12, compared with up to 32 in business class – with spacious accommodation and a higher cabin staff-to-passenger ratio. “The people who pay for first are those who want more privacy,” says TAM chief executive Marco Antonio Bologna.

Menus in both classes are similar. “It means we are offering a better product in the business-class section as well,” Bologna says. But there are differences. TAM’s first-class passengers drink vintage champagne or 18-year-old whisky and their meal can begin with caviar or foie gras, two offerings not available in business class.

Like Singapore, Thai Airways equipped its A340-500s, used to begin new nonstops between Bangkok and New York last year, with a lavish Royal Silk executive class that compares favourably with many carriers’ first class. Passengers aboard the 17-hour flight are served three full meals. But Thai also is keeping a first class, rebranded as Royal First, on other long-haul routes. The first-class bed-seats have a 180° recline, compared with 170° recline in business class, and considerably more space per passenger. First-class passengers also enjoy Thai’s restaurant-in-the-sky approach and can reserve meals in advance from an extensive menu.

Service upgrade

Air France has been reducing the number of first-class seats it offers and upgrading the service with a new menu and wine list to make it more exclusive. It is eliminating first class from all but its Boeing 777s, concentrating the service on routes where there is very strong demand. First-class will not be offered on leisure and mixed destinations such as Bangkok and Miami, says Patrick Roux, vice-president marketing.

Although the number of passengers flying, and paying for, first class may be declining, for many carriers it still represents an investment worth making to retain high-end customers who want more personalised service. Airlines continue to look for ways to distinguish their first-class from others, with finer bed linen, noise-cancelling headsets, personal telephones and laptop power. The goal is to be first with an innovation that adds value to the passenger experience and entices business.

American Airlines this year will become the first US carrier to install lie-flat business-class seats in its three-class long-haul aircraft, but has no plans to end first class. “We still see the need for differentiation for customers on the really long-haul flights into Europe, deep South America and Asia,” says the carrier. For example, its international Flagship Suite first class on 777s has seats that swivel so travellers can talk face-to-face, but also fold into fully flat beds for sleeping.

Besides retaining first class for passengers who are willing to pay for it, the section also rewards loyalty. Long-time American customers use frequent-flyer miles to upgrade or buy a first-class trip outright. “There is huge value in miles,” says American. ■

CAROLE SHIFRIN/WASHINGTON