Airlines now need to cut costs. Downsizing aircraft is one way they may do this, which means that the very existence of first-class cabins is under scrutiny.
Linden Birns, aviation analyst and MD of Plane Talking, told Tourism Update that the future of first class depends on how each carrier sees the cost-benefit ratio as the markets they serve evolve, bearing in mind that not all markets are the same. “Some carriers will still want to differentiate themselves in highly competitive markets, especially less price-sensitive markets, where there is likely to be greater demand for premium services.
“Demand for new aircraft has evaporated and most airlines’ fleets are already equipped and configured to provide premium services. Having already spent money on this, many carriers will want to try and achieve some return on these investments rather than incurring additional millions of dollars stripping out the equipment, discarding it and then reconfiguring their planes.”
Birns said some of the ‘frills’ previously associated with premium-class products would probably be cut, but it’s somethings airlines have been doing since 9/11, such as removing flowers from the lavatories and trimming the choice of alcohol and other beverages.
He said as most premium-class travel would likely be for business, because not all business can be conducted with video conference calls and online meetings, there would always be some demand for the fundamentals on long-haul flights, such as more personal space for social distancing, and passengers who want to work while on board; a more flexible on-board service so the passenger can use their time productively and, for example, eat when they want to eat; on-board Internet connectivity; and the ability to sleep comfortably so that they are rested and ready for work on arrival.
“What to do with first class was an issue that airlines were grappling with before COVID-19. Some were reducing their first class and enlarging their business-class cabins. Some had eliminated first class and were offering business, premium economy and economy. Those with large enough fleets had earmarked certain planes to operate only on specific routes and had adjusted the cabin configuration of those particular planes accordingly,” Birns added.
Mohamed El Kahlout, Lead Public Relations Officer for corporate communications at Qatar Airways, told Tourism Update that the airline had grounded its A380 fleet as it was not commercially or environmentally responsible to operate in the current market.
“A recent internal benchmark compared the A380 to the A350 on different routes. The A350 saved a minimum of 16 tonnes of CO₂ per block hour, with the A380 emitting over 80% more CO₂ per block hour. On flights to Melbourne, New York and Toronto, the A380 emitted 95% more CO₂ per block hour with the A350 saving around 20 tonnes of CO₂ per block hour. As such, Qatar Airways is currently utilising its full fleet of 30 Boeing 787 and 49 Airbus A350 aircraft – the right-sized fleet for this time.” He said while Qatar’s A380s remain grounded, the airline would not be offering a first-class product.
Qatar Airways group CEO, Akbar Al Baker, told Executive Traveller last month that the carrier was developing a first-class cabin for its forthcoming Boeing 777X jets to fill a gap in the high-end travel market, once its Airbus A380s are retired. However, he said the cabins would appear on “just a handful” of the Boeing 777-9 aircraft. In turn, that first-class sub-fleet would feature on only a few premium-heavy European routes. “We are studying the possibility of having a very exclusive first-class cabin of just four seats, for example,” Akbar said. “We have huge demand here in Qatar to two or three European destinations, such as London and Paris, so we may introduce a very small first-class cabin for our local passengers who want a very exclusive first-class product.”
However, he added that it would not be on the initial B777X, because they needed time to develop it. Qatar’s super-premium Boeing 777-9 fleet was likely to land from 2028, when the last of its ten Airbus A380s – currently the only jet in the Doha hangars with first class – was likely to be “put out to pasture”, the report said.
Baker said in the report that the expansive and expensive floor space of first-class suites would become harder to justify, as demand for superior business-class suites increased. “I think eventually, first class will keep shrinking on airlines,” he said. “An aeroplane is very expensive real estate, and occupying a big portion with so few seats as first class, which (on Qatar’s A380) had a load factor of averaging never more than 55-60%.”
The Lufthansa group told Tourism Update that at the moment there were no plans for Lufthansa to change its first-class offering, and it would continue to offer customers premium products and services.