HONG KONG - Airlines are reinvigorating first class as deep-pocketed customers embrace travel again, taking luxury to new heights up in the sky.
First-class cabins are increasingly resembling mini hotel rooms, with sofas, double beds, televisions, desks, wardrobes, minibars and in some cases, walk-in showers. The more creative, the better. You can even book a chef.
The investment is happening despite slowing economic growth and a cost-of-living squeeze. Airlines are betting that enough people are willing to splurge on flying in style after being grounded by Covid-19 and denied the chance to travel.
“Leisure travelers in particular continue to book flights in business or even first class,” Deutsche Lufthansa chief executive officer Carsten Spohr said during an earnings call in March. “This year is the first year all my team tell me, ‘Spohr, we need to grow first class,’” he told investors last week.
The German airline is investing US$2.7 billion (S$3.6 billion) over two years to revamp its long-haul aircraft under a programme it has named Lufthansa Allegris. Qantas Airways is also showcasing a plush new first class, a realm that’s typically beyond the reach of ordinary passengers - the closest most people get is a stolen glance as they shuffle conga-line style to the plane’s exit doors.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that airlines suffered about US$200 billion in losses over the past three years as Covid wreaked unprecedented havoc. They desperately need to claw some of that back, and first class has become a potential goldmine. Premium travel, which also includes business class, is back to 86 per cent of 2019 levels, according to IATA, while total air travel demand, including economy class, is at 81 per cent.
Even with first class fares going for more than 10 times as much as standard economy seats, demand is there - either for bookings with cash or the rare opportunity to use up miles accumulated on credit cards during the pandemic.
Cathay Pacific Airways is also planning an upgrade of first class. There’s already strong demand for its current top-of-the-range seats, which are available on one of its Hong Kong-London services. The cabins include “one of the widest fully flat beds in the sky,” various soft pillows and pillow mist, according to the airline’s website.
Of course, travelers in first class also get access to the best airport lounges. And pajamas.
What else is on offer?
Qantas and Lufthansa have both unveiled new-look first-class cabins that can be fully closed off with doors, joining trailblazers Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Etihad Airways in converting seats into suites.
The seats in Lufthansa’s new rooms can be heated or cooled, while there are also wardrobes for extra storage. At its Frankfurt hub, a personal assistant is on hand to greet first-class customers and take care of all “travel formalities swiftly and discreetly.”
A return Sydney-Los Angeles flight in Qantas first class costs almost US$18,000, while Frankfurt-Tokyo on Lufthansa is about US$15,000. That’s still significantly less that what some ultra-wealthy travelers fork out for private jets, a segment that experienced a boost during the pandemic as people looked to avoid crowds and virus-related restrictions.
“The aviation industry is responding to that demand,” said Melanie Lieberman, a managing editor at The Points Guy travel website. First class is “a very safe, reliable sector” where people are willing to pay up “for space, privacy and exclusivity, even during difficult economic downturns.”
Lufthansa’s newest Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s will have two single suites in first class as well as a double called Suite Plus that can fit a couple of people. Those have ceiling-high walls and a closable door and will be introduced in 2024.
As part of the fleet revamp, Lufthansa business class will also have suites with chest-high walls and sliding doors.
Qantas’ newer, smaller A350s can fit six. Individual cabins currently feature armchairs and a 212cm (83 inches) flat bed with memory foam mattress, as well as cotton throws, a duvet and pillow menu.
The cabins are designed so they can seat two people in case travelers want to eat together.
These exclusive zones occupy plenty of space on aircraft. A standard first-class suite on A380s flown by SIA, which tops Skytrax industry rankings for the segment, takes up about 50 square feet, which is almost a third of the size of an average Hong Kong apartment.
Lufthansa and Qantas are some of the first airlines to release details about their plans for first class in smaller, long-haul jets, which will potentially be used on a greater number of routes.
Others entering the fray include Air France and Japan Airlines, with new cabins as soon as this winter. The French airline says it will offer the “longest suite in the market,” with five windows, a seat, bed and sofa. Qatar Airways is also due to revamp first class on its delayed Boeing 777-9s. BLOOMBERG