RIP First Class

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Air travel has changed dramatically over the past half century or so. Planes have become more crammed, the service has worsened, and what can only be described as a race to the bottom has left airlines offering the bare minimum and customers not expecting much for their money.

In the 60s and 70s, traveling in coach still meant people dressed up, the service was top-notch, and there was enough space to stretch your legs. Service in business and first class involved being offered your own, albeit branded, overnight bag. Proper food was served, and you weren’t expected to cut a steak with a butter knife. You were generally allowed two checked bags weighing in a generous 70 pounds… What happened?

Several things contributed to the current state of affairs. Cost pressures resulting from the oil crisis in the 70s, left airlines scrambling to save money.  Budget airlines going mainstream in the 80s didn’t do much to help the struggling major carriers in the years to come. Finally, equal opportunity employment, baggage handlers’ unions, and terrorism have reshaped the industry beyond recognition. But there may be one further change coming our way… the disappearance of the first class cabin.

For a long time first and business class seats became airlines’ cash-cows, charging up to 10 times more for flying someone in the front of the plane. This is particularly truth for the Gulf airlines, many of which have up to 50% of their revenues generated in these two classes.

However, things seem to be shifting.  Many companies have announced reductions in first class seats, while others are considering scrapping the first class cabin altogether in some routes. Upon a closer look, airline analysts pinpoint two major forces affecting this phenomenon:

Bottom-up: with the introduction of lie-flat seats in business class, the is no real justification for companies to pay for their executives to fly in first class on a long-haul trip. In the past, the idea that you can get some sleep on board and land fresh and rested, meant you could start working ASAP therefore becoming more productive. Now, the same can be achieved flying on business class, this shifts the use of first class to a status element, that companies would be reluctant to offer to anyone but their top executives.

Top-down: private jet ownership has soared over the past decade. Never in the history of the world have there been more millionaires and billionaires now, and no self respecting billionaire would be caught dead flying commercial. But private jets are not the sole domain of billionaires, now a days, you have jet sharing services, where you can purchase a jet, and have a company put it to work for you, guaranteeing you a ride in a similar plane whenever you need it.  Massive tax incentives in the US for the purchase of a private jet has also been a decisive factor.

So, with business class getting better and private jets more widely spread and affordable, the first class seat is being crunched from both sides of the spectrum. Many of the major global airlines are cutting their number of first class seats, or eliminating them altogether in several routes.  Don’t be surprised if in a few years the first class cabin is something of the past just like many of the foregone perks of the 60s and 70s.

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