Although global air travel has become affordable for many, the first class remains a mysterious luxury for most. Airlines taking part in the Le Bourget airshow in Paris are showing that traveling in style is coming back.
Onboard and on the ground, airlines keep their wealthy and ordinary passengers apart. In the wake of the financial crisis, high class air travel seemed like an anachronism. Against all odds, however, first class aviation is enjoying a renaissance.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), reservations for the first class are up by two percent this year in comparison to 2014. And the British Official Airline Guide (OAG) which collects and analyses aviation data, even reports an increase by a third since 2009.
Regional differences, meanwhile, are pronounced. While demand in the South American and African markets has declined drastically, East Asian consumers have been increasingly eager to travel in style. European, American and Gulf states' airlines in turn have expanded their premium services on the highly frequented flight routes in the northern hemisphere. And in Australia Qantas is practically the sole operator.
Yet, this data alone has little explanatory power. This is because the quality of and prices for both business and first class have been on the rise. As a result, Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa have maintained the size of their first classes, yet reduced the number of seats in them and thereby enhanced the comfort afforded to each passenger. First class aviation is now marketed as an exclusive extravagance.
A380 secures economic turnaround
This new era of luxury aviation is closely connected to the introduction of the Airbus A380. Its spacious fuselage allows airlines to install all those lavish amenities that wealthy passengers desire. It is treated like a showroom for the airlines.
Singapore Airlines were the first to provide individual cabins and hence allow for maximum privacy in their newly introduced A380s. Other carriers rely on subdued colors and elegant interior designs (Air France, BA, Korean), while some go for table lamps, gold and mahogany to create a baroque atmosphere (Emirates).
While most airlines employ a 1-2-1 setup of seats per row, Qantas installs only three in the same space and allows for each to be turned at an angle. This maximizes passenger comfort. Some carriers even boast sky bars for in-flight cocktails (Etihad and Qatar). And Emirates offers its customers onboard showers.
The A380's two story design provides airlines with ample possibilities. Carriers that designate the upper level for the first class (e.g. Qatar, Etihad, Thai, LH) have less space available for their wealthy patrons than those that situate them on the main deck (Qantas, BA, Singapore). Airlines also allocate different amounts of space for their first classes, providing room for between eight and fourteen seats.
A comprehensive relaunch
"Our first class is a total work of art," says Joachim Schneider who is head of product management at Lufthansa. "It's the entirety of details that together create this special experience". New first class seats, each fitted with a wardrobe, separating walls that can instantly transform the lounge-esque atmosphere into one of calm tranquility, special soundproofing that blocks out the sound of the espresso machine, a world exclusive air humidification system to maximize comfort - these are the features that have earned LH's first class five stars on Skytrax.
No efforts are spared. Passengers come to enjoy complimentary Bulgari and Bogner products, flight attendants go through a special selection process before working in the first class. The in-flight catering is equally top-notch. Caviar, lobster, champagne and select wines are the staple food and drink onboard. Customers can wine and dine whenever they desire. Renowned chefs devise the menu.
"We relieve our passengers of all burdens, this is what they expect from us," says Schneider. This is LH's 'check-in to boarding' concept, he explains. Hannah Roberts, who heads BA's marketing department, simply notes that "first class passengers have high standards and will accept nothing less than a lavish service."
Yet neither will reveal the identities of their capricious clients. Apart from the usual cohort of CEOs, entrepreneurs and celebrities more and more ordinary folks are indulging in luxury aviation. This is because internet portals now allow for the comparison of first class fares and thereby create competition amongst luxury carriers.
This first class service is available not only mid-flight but also on the ground. High-flying travelers get to enjoy spas and restaurants while waiting. Carriers hope this will woo prospective customers by securing top spots in online rankings. These are increasingly influential in determining which airlines well-off travelers flock to.
Qantas First airport lounge in Sydney for instance has been awarded first place for its utopian interior design by the DesignAir website. And Skytrax deems the Thai Airways Lounge in Bangkok outstanding. This lounge and BAs Commodore Room in London resemble luxurious hotel lobbies. Lufthansa even has a separate terminal available for its premium patrons complete with its own passport and security check-in, as well as a limousine shuttle service directly to the plane.
Gulf state airlines set the benchmark for luxury aviation
Schneider and Roberts admit that the Gulf state carriers are the drivers of luxury aviation. To remain competitive in the major league of air travel, LH and BA were compelled to relaunch and upgrade their first classes. Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad have always considered their airlines means of luxury transportation for managers and investors seeking business on the Arabian Peninsula.
First classes are regarded as a branding tool for airlines. They keep pushing the envelope for what is possible above the clouds. Etihad reveals to which extremes this branding exercise can be taken. It now offers a three room suite called The Residence for journeys between London and Abu Dhabi. It comes complete with a butler, bedroom and bathroom. A one-way ticket costs a mere 17.200 euro.