Qantas to scrap A380 First-class

Despite this blog’s consistent evangelism for the future of First-class, news from Down Under suggests our confidence may be misplaced. This Qantas press release reports that the airline is to start removing first class cabins from its B747-400s and installing business class flatbed seats as used in its A380s from the end of 2011. The first 12 A380s in the fleet will keep First-class, but those being delivered from 2012 will have only economy, premium economy, and business classes.

Why this move? Well the explanation given is on the wooly side, but the nub of it is, according to CEO Alan Joyce that

“While some travel markets are recovering from the economic crisis, our assessment of longer term travel trends, which pre-dates the economic crisis, shows that international premium travel demand is changing.”

Meaning: while routes to London and Los Angeles will continue to offer First-class, don’t expect it to survive on any of their other services.

Upbeat noises from BA

Business Week reports that British Airways is considering expanding its all-business-class service to the U.S. from London City. CEO Willie Walsh is quoted as saying that new destinations such as Boston and Washington are being considered now that the City-JFK service is achieving load factors of  75%, at high yield.

In other news, BA’s new  first class cabin has just been launched this week. Featuring seats that are “60% wider at the shoulder, a personal wardrobe, leather-bound writing tables that convert into dining surfaces, a 15″ entertainment screen, noise-cancelling headsets and the first electronic blinds on a commercial airliner”, it’s the airline’s first redesign in a decade. And apparently Openskies is expanding as well. All good news indeed from an airline that was in the pits over Christmas. it’s  just a shame Willie hasn’t got an agreement with the unions yet.

Read the article.

First Class is not Dead!

This blog has consistently tried to remind readers that First Class is alive and well on many airlines – contrary to the views of many journalists who keep trying to kill it off.

An article in The Times last week suggested that British Airways is close to a radical move to remove First Class on many routes.

The logic of this is apparently the recession causing reduced demand and the fact that BA, and other western airlines, cannot compete with the level of service offered by the Gulf airlines. The only actual evidence they have is that some new 777′s ordered by BA will not have a First Class cabin but these aircraft were ordered long before the current recession and were for the leisure services from Gatwick where First Class is not needed.

It is true that BA, and most other airlines, are withdrawing First Class from some minor routes where there is no regular demand. In the past, they have found it easier to operate one fleet, all with First Class cabins, but now they are dividing their aircraft into those that have First and those that just have Business. The Gulf airlines have done this since the beginning so, if they are to be regarded as the future of First Class, the fact that BA and Lufthansa are following the same strategy is hardly evidence!

The second issue is bling. It is true that western airlines are not trying to compete with the lavish amenities on some aircraft operated by the Gulf airlines. There is little chance of BA or Lufthansa offering in-flight showers or the huge number of video channels and electronic gadgetry that some of the Gulf airlines have but that is missing the point entirely.

Many years ago, Gulf astonished the world by fitting gold-plated taps in its First Class washrooms. BOAC, as it was then, never tried to compete with such ostentation but carried on as normal and did very well from its routes to the Middle East. Even today, BA operates some 777′s to the Gulf which are fitted with extra First Class seats because of passenger demand.

If it is simple bling they want, then Arabs would stay at home. As it is, they seem to enjoy some of Europe’s oldest and least hi-tech luxury hotels.

All the goodies and gadgets that the Gulf airlines offer might be interesting for airline anoraks or journalists but are not necessarily interesting for passengers who actually buy First Class tickets on a regular basis. Many of these people prefer the calm of the First Class cabin on a western airline and like the professional but laid-back service. Quite a few regular First Class passengers hardly eat or drink anything on their flight (but when they want some grapes with sparkling water, they expect to get it without question) and they are more likely to doze or sleep than enjoy the latest blockbuster on their video. If you want all the gadgets and six-course meals served at a snail’s pace, then fly Emirates, but if you want calm and exclusivity, the western airlines are more likely to suit you.

The fact that Emirates and Etihad offer more video channels than BA, Lufthansa or Swiss does not mean that First Class has no future.

End of the road for First Class?

Back in May we commented on an article in the New York Times suggesting that the answer to the question “Is First Class dead?” was “probably not”. Four months on and the story seems to have changed. An article in this Monday’s NYT reports that the International Air Transport Association has predicted that airlines worldwide would lose $11 billion this year, $2 billion more than it forecast in June. A major contributor to the loss, apparently, is a 20% drop in the number of First and Business Class passengers. Indeed it would appear that some airlines that have relied on the revenue-earning potential of premium travel such as British Airways are suffering more than others that didn’t, such as Air New Zealand. The upshot of the article is that First Class may be dead in the water in the medium term. What is certain that the industry is in a state of flux and right now no one can predict the kind of class structure that will be offered in 3-5 years’ time – a premium cabin with little more than a deluxe economy at one extreme, or a fully-fledged gin-palace class at the other.

Is First Class dead?

Not according to an informative article in the New York Times earlier this week. Despite well publicised plans by British Airways, Qantas and others to reduce first-class capacity on a number of routes, other airlines, such as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM, are opening new airport lounges exclusively devoted to first-class passengers in both Europe and the United States. And the imminent arrival of their first A380 superjumbos is likely to lead to more opportunities for first-class indulgence.

The bottom line: first-class remains a powerful marketing asset and keeps top customers loyal, so is likely to remain a feature of airline travel beyond the current downturn.