International First Class Isn’t Disappearing – It’s Surging Like Never Before!

Last month I asked, Why is International First Class Disappearing?

I concluded that it isn’t — there are certain trends that are causing it to disappearing from some airlines and some markets, and for those airlines that retain it to ‘right-sze’ the cabins (no more 16 seat first class cabins on Lufthansa!).

But airlines aren’t letting first class die, they’re re-investing in some of the greatest products we’ve seen — like Singapore’s Suites and Emirates’ onboard showers.

And even where it’s going away, it’s merely then name that disappears — because today’s top international business class products are far better than what first class used to be.

The Financial Times now makes the case that far from disappearing, international first class is seeing a resurgence (subscription may be required).

In fact, the number of first class seats (not percentage of first class seats) has grown 21% over the past decade.

The OAG data show a 34 per cent rise in the total number of first-class seats on planes departing in 2014 compared with 2009. Stripping out North American and Chinese domestic flights, where “first class” often equates to what would elsewhere be called “business”, the increase is 21 per cent.

Middle Eastern and Chinese carriers have grown first class overall, while US and to a lesser extent European airlines have cut back on the offering.

Over the past five years, first-class seat numbers have grown by 63 per cent on Air China and 127 per cent on China Eastern, according to OAG. In the Middle East, Qatar Airways has seen a 132 per cent rise, Emirates, 32 per cent.

While businesses may be more likely to pay for business class and not first, the very wealthy and celebrities have similarly cut back by flying first class commercial rather than private.

Even airlines that have been cutting back on the number of flights offering first class — like Air France, Lufthansa, and American — have been refreshing their first class products on those flights where it continues to be offered.

The FT makes many of the same points I did in October — backed up by data — and what it all really means in the end is this: I’ll still redeem my miles for international first class… especially where the expansion has more to do with prestige than economics, and there are empty seats leftover as a result.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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