Now’s the time to fly first class before it disappears

Say goodbye.
Say goodbye.
Image: Reuters/Christian Charisius
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you’ve ever wanted to fly international first class this is the time. Airlines are getting rid of the most coveted seats on their aircrafts, favoring souped-up versions of business class in the hope that high-paying customers won’t be able to tell the difference.

United Airlines earlier this month unveiled its new business-class service, United Polaris, which will include rows of sleeping pods instead of seats. The company says it is “phasing out” the first-class cabin in favor of a “a two-cabin experience for international travel.” Cathay Pacific’s new Airbus 350-900s don’t include a first-class cabin. Emirates Airlines is also eschewing first class for new planes. The Dubai-based airline’s new double-decker Airbus A380s have 58 flatbed business-class seats and a whopping 557 economy seats.

While the new business-class pod designs blur the line between business and first-class seating, the latter is generally more private, with some airlines even offering separate rooms for first-class passengers.

The trend is part of airlines’ battle for revenue, particularly high-paying customers: Larger business class, featuring amenities like sleeping pods and thoughtful menus, means more big spenders can fit on the aircraft. The prices are also more palatable for corporate travelers than first class. The International Air Transport Association, a trade group, estimates airlines globally will generate $511 billion from passengers (as opposed to cargo) this year, the least since 2010.

Airlines are facing more international competition for top-paying customers, says Jonathan Kletzel, transportation and logistics analyst at PwC. Recent improvements to business class, such as seats that recline into beds, leave little room to differentiate the two services, he adds.

“Once you’re lying flat and you’ve got your own personal screen and you’re getting a nice dinner, the distinction comes down to nicer wines, plusher pillow,” he said. “That’s where you’re at.”

Some airlines, including Emirates and Singapore, have taken on that challenge, offering travelers first-class service on some routes with their own suites, in the hopes that they’ll pay for the privilege of a Hong Kong-sized apartment in the sky.

For the rest of us, there’s premium economy, airlines’ latest pitch to entice coach travelers to pay a premium for a little bit extra legroom, early boarding, and other perks.