First class airline seats versus business class: Why flying first class is out of favour

"A light was upon it for which his language had no name… He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring."

That's Frodo describing his first view of Lorien in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and his words could also apply to a real-life Shangri-la where few of us will ever tread. It's called the first-class cabin.

First-class air travel first appeared in the 1950s, and while it's evolved into a no-holds-barred luxury experience, first class is a threatened species. Only a small number of the world's airlines offer a first-class service these days.

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First-class cabins are more likely to be found on wide-bodied aircraft, with the Airbus A380 as the airlines' favourite for the spruce-up treatment. As some of the world's longest-haul flyers, Australians get a fair choice of carriers with first-class cabins. According to Seatguru, Singapore Airlines has 12 closed first-class suites on its A380s, Emirates has 14 and Qantas has the same number, although these are open suites. Etihad has nine first-class seats on its A380s, 12 on its A340s. Qatar has up to 12 on some of its A330s.

There are also some notable omissions from the list of first-class carriers, such as Virgin Australia, although it does offer a much-lauded business class on the three-class Boeing 777-300ER aircraft between Australia and Los Angeles, as well as aboard its two-class Airbus A330-200 flying between Melbourne and Hong Kong. According to a Qantas spokesperson, the new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that the airline will operate on its Perth-London non-stop flight, set to commence in 2018, will not have a first-class cabin.

See also: Qantas' non-stop Perth to London flights go on sale

In the main, demand for first-class seating is limited to senior executives flying long haul between major commercial centres, with a sprinkling of megastars, top-level sports stars and the occasional royal. Middle Eastern carriers draw many of their first-class clients from the wealthy ruling elite of the Gulf states.

A seat in the first-class cabin costs roughly double the price of business class. A round-trip ticket from Melbourne to London flying with Qantas or Emirates in April 2018 will set you back almost $16,000, and about $2500 less aboard Singapore Airlines.

That price differential is part of the reason for the decline of first class, but far more potent has been the blurring of the lines that divide first class from business. Business class has upped its game to the point where first class of two decades ago would be a pale shadow of today's business class. British Airways was the first to install a lie-flat seat in first-class cabins, in 1995, but on any premium carrier these days you can expect a lie-flat seat in business.

The new British Airways first class seat that opens to a fully flat bed is debuted December 7, 2000 in a Boeing 777 jet at O''Hare International Airport in Chicago. British Airways was unveiling their new 'First Business Bedroom in the Sky' Boeing 777 aircraft. The jet with 62 beds, christened 'The City of Chicago,' arrived at O''Hare Airport nonstop from London-Heathrow. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Newsmakers)

British Airways introduced fully flat beds to first class in 1995. Photo: Getty Images

Privacy screens, now a feature of leading business-class cabins, were unknown in first class 20 years ago. Other features that were once the exclusive preserve of first-class travel such as wide-screen inflight entertainment systems and noise-cancelling headphones have migrated to business class.

British Airways first class.

British Airways current first class, as modelled by actress Rachel Weisz.

The first cracks in the divide between first and business classes appeared 25 years ago when the late and lamented Continental Airlines introduced BusinessFirst. A game changer of epic proportions, BusinessFirst took the perks and comforts of a state-of-the-art first class of the day – the fat, sleeper seat with 55 inches of seat pitch, the champers, the silver-service meals, personal video with up to six video selections on a pull-out LCD screen – and sold those seats at a business-class price.

Competitors scrambled to meet and match Continental's BusinessFirst. Northwest and KLM dropped first and introduced a synthesised first-business class the following year, TWA began eliminating first class in 1994. Delta Airines ditched first class in 1998 and many European and Asian carriers followed in their footsteps.

At the time, Continental based its decision on the relative popularity of business class, noting "Business class generates more than half of the revenue airlines earn on overseas flights. In fact, business-class cabins are routinely more heavily booked than first or coach class."

That's the same rationale that has sustained the push away from first class and in favour of business ever since.

To see just why business class has eroded the appeal of first class you only have to look at the latest offering from Qatar Airways, described by the airline's CEO Akbar Al Baker as a "first class experience in business class" – although that particular horse bolted out the stable door wearing Continental's colours.

In March this year at ITB Berlin, the world's largest travel trade show, Qatar unveiled its QSuite business class, featuring the first-ever business class double bed for couples, with privacy panels that close to create a private "room".

Qatar Airways' new business class seat, the 'QSuite'.

Qatar Airways' new business class seat, the 'QSuite'.

In the past double beds have been exclusively available only to a select few, travelling in the highest class on top-tier carriers, such as the Suites class on Singapore Airlines' Airbus A380, although that comes with refinements that put it into a class of its own.

Four travelling together in Qatar's QSuite can create a pod with facing seats, adjustable panels and movable inflight entertainment monitors. Families, friends or colleagues travelling together can transform their space into a private suite. This comes on top of Qatar's "dine on demand" service, allowing business flyers to choose mealtimes, and a wake-up express breakfast for those looking to max out their sleep time.

The QSuite made its debut on Qatar's fleet of Boeing 777s and A350s in June this year.

Note that Qatar took out the number one spot for the World's Best Business Class at the 2017 Skytrax awards, repeating its gold-medal performance at the 2016 awards.

See: Qatar named world's best airline for 2017 as Qantas hits lowest ranking

Although they still shine, the gilded uplands of first class air travel ain't what they used to be.

See also: Dress well for an upgrade? The 10 biggest myths about air travel, busted

See also: The best business class seats revealed: Not all seats are equal

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