The age of luxury isn’t over

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Many airlines have dropped their first class cabins as a way to cut costs and because of the decline in demand for first class seats. Chana Viljoen asks the experts if there is still a need for first class and looks at what some of the airlines offer.

Is there still a need for first class?

Ben Langner, Managing Director, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, South Africa:

“At CWT South Africa, we have a substantial number of clients who still travel First Class; there certainly is a demand for First Class air travel, especially on ‘business routes’ such as between Johannesburg and London.  Although this segment of the market is relatively small, it definitely exists. The First Class product satisfies the affluent traveller, especially senior business executives’ needs for a very high level of service, exclusivity, greater access to availability, as well as flexibility – and they are able and willing to pay a premium for this service package.  Apart from the high standard of service required by First Class travellers, an aspect that is particularly important to them is flexibility, as they are usually not flexible in their travel requirements. Because of this, we usually see a migration to another airline with a First Class service when airlines discontinue their First Class offering.”

Jim Weighell, Corporate Manager, Sure Travel:

“From a South African perspective the market is likely to be very small, particularly as a percentage of total market. The demand will still exist, but in insufficient volume and yield to warrant provision of first class in this market. From a global perspective there will be demand for first class, particularly on ultra long haul and North Atlantic routes. The corporate travel demand for first class will have dropped dramatically during the recession and there is some doubt as to whether or not it will ever return to “boom era” levels. Nevertheless, the major legacy carriers will probably continue with their first class products on selected routes. Some carriers, such as Virgin, will opt to provide an intermediate product between first and business class. Ironically I would expect to see first class prices to increase where capacity diminishes; the remaining first class market is probably not primarily price sensitive so supply and demand rules will go to work.”

Kananelo Makhetha, Managing Director, BCD Travel:

“There is still a market for first class cabins. Over time the market has dwindled, but it is still there. We do have clients who travel first class because of their occupation and/or status and those few clients will choose airlines who still offer the product. For the majority of business travellers, first class availability does not affect their choice, as they would have long downscaled due to economic circumstances.”

Mike Gray, Regional President of Uniglobe Travel (sub-Saharan Africa):

“First class cabins generally get used by people who are not paying for the ticket themselves, including government officials, CEOs of failing or recently nationalised banks and  flight crew spouses and children travelling free. The level of first class differs greatly between airlines – with some calling 48” pitch and 21” width recliner seats with overhead projector screens and grumpy “senior” flight crew “first class”,  while others have truly first class private suites with  flat bed 90” pitch and 36” width with personal video, etc. It is always basically public transport. For those who truly need real privacy (including avoiding public airports, which is usually the worst part of every trip) and true pampering, private jets (preferably their own) are the thing. But in today’s austere economic environment this can all seem a bit tacky and over the top – so maybe public transport first class will have to do. Certainly flying from/within Africa the choice of truly first class does influence the choice of carrier, with not much to be had – so here private charter (or preferably your own jet) is the way to go.”

Rod Rutter, Chief Operating Officer, XL Travel:

“I think the need for a first class cabin really depends on the destination and type of clientele. Business travellers are becoming more discerning and cost conscious and have downgraded travel policies to business and premium economy. The first class cabin will always cater for the individual traveller who enjoys the privacy and ambiance of the first class cabin. It is however difficult to justify the extra expense and exposure to a duvet, good French champagne, and a higher degree of pampering. I do see more carriers phasing out first class, but select carriers will still retain loyal clients who enjoy being pampered and can afford the cost. This is very apparent with Middle Eastern carriers whose clientele are amongst the more affluent. Certain European carriers also have their loyal clients and, in many instances, it has often become difficult to secure a first class seat. The inclusion of the first class cabin will also balance the average aircraft yield and profitability, so airlines are not always keen to do away with first class, but economic reality often prevails.”

Tammy Hunt, Operations Manager: eTravel:

“There is still definitely a need for first class especially on airlines that do not supply lie flat beds in business class. The business traveller prefers then to fly first class, as they are spending less time away in order to save on hotel costs and therefore want to get a good night’s sleep before their professional day starts. As business class is also often very full, you’ll find that airlines upgrade passengers from business to first if they have a high status frequent flyer card with the airline. Passengers have unfortunately become accustomed to this and expect the upgrade almost as a natural occurrence when purchasing a business class ticket!”

Themba Mthombeni, Executive Chairman, Duma Travel:

“Since the recession started we have seen a dramatic drop in premium travel from corporates. Apart from the budgetary considerations, top executives find it immoral to travel in luxury whilst on the other hand they are making retrenchment decisions. Across both the leisure and corporate market we have seen voyager upgrades into first class, which means there is still a strong aspiration to undertake this class of travel. My overall assessment is that you will always have demand/need for first class travel from the very top end leisure clients and very top executives. This demand will be driven by economic conditions, a strong need to differentiate oneself, the length of the trip and the timing of the start of the business day in the destination being travelled to. I doubt that based on the current demand, airlines should be going all out to increase their number of first class cabins. The pull seems to be in the opposite direction i.e. economy and low cost airline travel.”

 What the airlines offer:

British Airways:

BA is currently the only carrier flying direct to London from South Africa that offers first class. It features a first class cabin on most of its long-haul routes excluding Denver, Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi and most of its Caribbean routes excluding Barbados. It is also not offered on its flights from Gatwick to Orlando and Tampa. There are 14 seats in the first class cabin.

*Facilities and services:

BA passengers flying first class are first on and off the aircraft, first to collect luggage and fast-track through security to relax in the exclusive lounges. First class passengers are entitled to up to three standard-sized pieces of checked baggage at 32kgs each at no additional charge. Dining before take-off is an option for those who wish to get as much sleep as possible during the flight. Quintessentially provides an exclusive complimentary concierge service. Passengers can slip into soft cotton pyjamas and request a turndown service at any time of the day. BA crew will make up the fully flat bed with a specially designed single-piece mattress, crisp white 400-thread Egyptian cotton duvet and pillow.

South African Airways

SAA offers first class on its Boeing 747-400s which serve Lagos and Luanda. The Boeing 747-400 comprises 270 economy class seats, 60 business class seats and 11 first class seats.

*Facilities and services:

First Class passengers are served canapés with their drinks, and they are served an à la carte menu. To top this off they are served a delicious dessert, or a cheese platter. The wine list boasts a bouquet of top South African wines, selected by a panel of South African and international, world- renowned connoisseurs. In addition, First and Business Class service offers Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial champagne, and Boplaas Cape Tawny Port N/V for enjoyment by First Class customers. They also gain access to SAA’s airport lounges including the new international departures lounge at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines offer first class on selected routes on the 747-400 and B777-300ER as well as selected B777-300s. The airline offers something “beyond first class” on the A380, The Singapore Airlines Suites, on its flights to London, Paris, Zurich, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Sydney and Narita Airport in Japan.

*Facilities and services: 

In the Singapore Airline’s Suites, passengers travel in the “largest ever seat” up to 35 inches across. Or they can sleep in a standalone bed, not one converted from a seat, along with the signature turn-down service, fine linen and full-sized pillows. There are only 12 suites offering an unprecedented level of privacy. Each cabin features sliding doors and window blinds, offering the freedom to decide on the level of privacy preferred. The premium cabin has also been laid out to offer more stowage space for cabin baggage and personal items, and a full length wardrobe.  First class also offers 35-inch wide seats. Everything is at the passenger’s command with a mere touch of a button, transforming the seat to a sundeck lounge position or adjusting the seat lighting to suit the passengers seating position. The table can also be adjusted to match individual height preferences, for enhanced comfort and convenience while dining or working. There’s even a vanity corner with mirror and drawer at every seat. The First Class SkySuites on the Boeing 747-400 have been designed with luxury, space and comfort in mind. The SkySuite can recline to any angle, including a fully flat bed.

Qantas Airways

Qantas offers a first class cabin on a number of its long-haul routes including Johannesburg, Los Angeles, London, Bangkok, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and San Francisco. First class is offered on the A380 and B747 aircraft. Qantas is however going to be upgrading and re-configuring its B747-400 aircraft. This includes removing the first class cabins and replacing them with business seats, thereby increasing the number of seats by 52. The aircraft will offer a three-class configuration, 58 business, 36 premium economy and 265 economy.

*Facilities and services:

The First Suite found on the A380 features a swivel seat that converts to an extra long fully flat bed. There is also a guest seat that allows you to invite a guest to dine with you during the flight. A state-of-the-art entertainment system with an HD 43cm widescreen monitor and noise cancelling headset are provided. A touch screen suite controller allows passengers to easily adjust the seat position, lighting and dual layer window shades. Passengers will sleep comfortably in Akira Isogawa pyjamas and slippers on sheepskin covered foam mattresses with multiple pillows, duvet and soft wool blanket. First class passengers have extra stowage including drawers for personal items.

Air France

Air France’s La Première class is available on all long haul Boeing 777 flights. It is also offered on the routes operated by an A380, which includes Johannesburg. La Première showcases French luxury by offering elegance, attentive service, peace of mind and privacy.

*Facilities and services:

Onboard, passengers are seated in the La Première private lounge where the seat folds out into a real two-metre bed, passengers can sample French gourmet dining from menus designed by Guy Martin. The A380 offers nine first class seats. At the front of the cabin there is a private changing cabin which features a dressing table and top-of-the-range beauty products. There is also a wardrobe available and each first class passenger is given a clothes bag in which to put all their belongings. The cabin also features a bar with magazines and a buffet. At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, La Première passengers have a personalised escort, dedicated check-in area, boarding by private car and an exclusive lounge.

Lufthansa

Lufthansa offers first class on almost all its long-haul routes including its flights to South Africa. From Johannesburg to Frankfurt, the airline operates the Boeing 747-400 which has 16 first class seats and during the seasonal Cape Town flights it operates an A340-600 which offers eight seats. The airline says on the South Africa route, the average seat load factor is over 90%.

*Facilities and services:

The dedicated First Class Terminal at Frankfurt Airport is available for passengers awaiting their flight departure. In addition, an exclusive limousine service is provided for First Class passengers at the major hubs in Frankfurt, Munich and Zurich. On board, First Class passengers can expect a sleeper seat with plenty of space for placing one’s belongings and a seat pitch of up to 229 cm. The seat converts easily into a completely horizontal bed, almost two metres in length. Each seat is additionally equipped with its own notebook port so that passengers can work during the flight. A flight attendant is assigned to a maximum of four to six passengers. Caviar and champagne are served, and there is wide choice of exquisite menus, created by top chefs as part of the Star Chef programme.

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific offers first class on most of its major long-haul routes, including Johannesburg to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to New York or Hong Kong to Australia and a few short-haul routes. Nine seats are offered in first class.

*Facilities and services:

First class passengers are given access to the dedicated First Class lounge in Hong Kong as well as priority boarding through dedicated First Class counters. Eligible first class passengers receive a free limousine service.

Qatar

Qatar Airways offers first class on all MENA (Middle East and North Africa) routes as well as selected long-haul routes including London, Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt and Munich. Depending on the aircraft, either eight or 12 seats are offered.

*Facilities and services:

First class passengers are personally chauffeured in a premium BMW 7-series limousine at Doha International Airport and have access to the exclusive Premium Terminal, which features a spa, fine dining and a cocktail bar. On board, passengers are treated to award winning cuisine. All first class seats convert into lie-flat beds which come with mattresses, duvets and pyjamas.

Swiss International Air Lines

Swiss Air Lines offers first class on all its intercontinental flights. There are eight seats on the Johannesburg-Zurich Route. The airline says Swiss first class is popular on this route and is usually booked to at least 80% capacity.

*Facilities and services:

First class passengers have access to lounges, faster check-in and more comfort in the air. The seat, or arm chair has an ottoman which is intended not only for your legs, but also for a second first class guest you may invite over. The table has room for two and folds away to the side when you are finished eating. The touch of a button converts your spacious arm chair into a comfortable bed. Passengers can enjoy à la carte dining in the gourmet restaurant. The meal is served whenever the passenger feels like eating. Passengers can select a meal of up to seven courses on fine bone china.

Etihad

Etihad Airways offers first class on selected flight including Australia, North America, Geneva, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Tokyo and other destinations in Europe and the Middle East. From Johannesburg and Cape Town, the airline operates a three cabin A330-200 on selected days of the week, mostly Wednesdays and Fridays. On the South African route the first class cabin seats ten passengers.

*Facilities and services:

The first class cabin offers 82-inch long private suites with 80,5-inch fully flat beds. Each suite has Arabic styled sliding privacy doors, 23-inch personal TV/video screens, personal mini-bars, illuminated wardrobes with personal mirrors, spacious compartment areas to store belongings and extra large wood finished meal tables. Guests dine on demand and can select from a varied menu. There is a luxury changing room with full length mirror and first/business class lounges are offered at Terminal 1 and 3 at Abu Dhabi airport