Lufthansa has revealed its new business class – somewhat earlier than is traditional. It won’t be in service until 2020 on the new 777-9.
Business class is about sleep, a flat bed, with accommodating space and plenty of storage. At the same time, daytime flights need to be able to charge phones, laptops, provide operational levels of wi-fi, large screen entertainment and superb catering. All of it with outstanding cabin service.
Add to that designer labelled amenities, wash bags, larger toilet units for changing into your airline supplied pyjama’s, possibly even a shower.
Airlines don’t just come up with these things. As I reported earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic are wringing their hands over the tiniest change in policy – should they make the bed for the customer and gain a ‘brand interaction moment’, offering a personal service direct to the valued business customer, or just let the customer do it themselves, which many seem happy with? Virgin design the seat to make it awkward for the customer not to engage them, they want to offer the service, to add value to the price of the ticket.
Lufthansa worked with 500 of its most loyal Senator level customers to come up with the new seat. It’s very Lufthansa, seeming almost minimalist, but spacious, clean, efficient, yet surprisingly comfortable. Lufthansa are experts at making ergonomics work to the customers advantage.
Yet these elaborate business seats are driving First Class out. The worlds busiest First Class routes are in and out of Heathrow. 54% of the worlds First Class seats are flown in and out of the airport. Partly that’s because British Airways still operate a surprisingly high number of first class seats – virtually all of their Heathrow based long haul has a least 6 – the 787-8 is one of the few that has none. 773’s, 744’s and A380 operate 14.
Airlines like Etihad and Qatar may have first class at peak levels of luxury, but it’s not something they fit to every aircraft and the numbers are small. Lufthansa rarely fills the 8 it allocates to its 748i and A380’s. In fact I was shocked recently on the way to Bangalore to find just one person in first, and he’d paid using his air miles!
Many airlines are giving up on super-elite first class. LATAM no longer operates it, TAM dropped their four seats some time ago, last week JetAirways of India announced they were dropping theirs. Many Lufthansa aircraft, the 744’s and even the new A350’s don’t have First Class. KLM hasn’t bothered for years and Air France has few aircraft equipped with its Classe Premiere. First class on US Airlines is little more than an upgraded business offering. Airlines like Emirates are very picky about which flights get first class and few operate to anywhere secondary – only premium destinations get First, London, New York for example, but not Birmingham, and that’s repeated all over the world.
It isn’t the price of a ticket that’s causing airlines to give up first class offerings. It’s that their business product is nudging so close to the same service levels that were once first class territory, there’s no margin left to truly discriminate. To provide first class you’ve got to go one step beyond and very few people are willing to pay that premium unless given privacy, suites, cars and a lot more besides.
Once, Virgin Atlantic offered their Upper Class as the ultimate in luxury travel. Tickets cost an average of £5500 for a return flight to New York. And that’s the low fare, don’t expect the much vaunted chauffeur car for that – you’d need a full price flexible ticket to get one of those and you can add £3000 for the privilege.
Now you may get to use the best lounge in Heathrow – and it is – but don’t expect privacy or a super-wide seat with loads of room. Even on the 787-9 It’s nice but it’s not that nice. Food is excellent, service great, they remember your name, but you can’t see out of the window and there’s a claustrophobic feeling about the way the seats are laid out. You certainly can’t talk to anyone in the next seat you might be travelling with. It’s little more than a well marketed and frankly over priced business class seat.
The first class travellers are thinning out, every airline knows it. Lufthansa and most others see a sharp and profitable growth in premium business class, but first is hard to fill, expensive to operate and takes up a lot of space. Flying empty first class seats is the worst of all worlds.
For now London still has the majority of Fist Class seats, but as Brexit brings a decline in business visitors, and London’s financiers and insurers move to Paris and Frankfurt as they are already doing in hefty numbers, demand will fall further.
You’ve got to have money to burn to fly first class in Etihad style, and there are places where that’s true for many people. But in the west such opulence is being seen as tasteless and unnecessary when perfectly acceptable Business Class offerings are available at half the price or less. With Premium Economy roughly half the price of a business seat, there is still a wide margin, and a PE seat is about 40%-50% more than a standard economy.
Like it or not, First Class is dying a long slow death, and in thirty years time I don’t think you’ll find a single airline that offers it anywhere.