First class versus business class air travel: Why first class is on the decline

"How often do you fly first class?"

That was one of the questions I took from a listener on morning radio recently.

"Not very often," was my reply.

I've flown first class on international flights about five times. In the old days, 15 years or so ago, first class wasn't quite as swish as it is now. Service standards were high, and the sense of space in the front of the cabin was luxurious, but chairs didn't lie flat and the entertainment systems weren't as sophisticated as now.

In fact, I remember once being assigned seat 1A on an Asian airline and being surprised to find out I'd been upgraded to first. It didn't seem that much different from business class. I would have been thrilled with ''lowly'' business class, but I didn't tell them that. So my memory of where I've been seated on planes is a bit fuzzy. These days, though, I'm less likely to forget a first class upgrade. The last long haul first class flight I took was about four years ago, on Etihad. I had my own compartment and wide leather bed and the on-board chef cooked meals on demand. The flight was delayed for three hours on the tarmac and I didn't mind one bit.

Since then Etihad has upped the ante with The Residence, a three-room suite in the sky, designed for two people travelling together. It features a double bed dressed with Italian linens, a living room with a leather sofa and two dining tables, a 32-inch TV, an en suite shower suite and VIP concierge services and chauffeur. Sydney to Abu Dhabi will set you back about $36,000 one way for two people. You don't get Nicole Kidman with it, despite the ads.

See: Etihad brings the world's most luxurious airline class to Australia

The World Airline Awards for 2015 listed the world's best first class in this order: Etihad, Singapore Airlines, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Qatar, Qantas, Emirates, Japan Airlines and Air France. I haven't flown first in any apart from Etihad, so I can't comment. But expect limousine transfers, private check-in areas (the champagne starts here), fabulous lounges with spas, on-board shower suites, caviar and lobster tail, designer amenities and effusive service.

See: World's best airlines named at annual awards

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However, many business class tickets provide a similar level of service and comfort. In the past year or two I've had really excellent long haul flights in business class on Emirates, British Airways, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Oman Air, Cathay Pacific and American Airlines. Business class is not always consistent and we all have our favourites but I would struggle to justify the extra cost for first when I can have my cosy flat bed, pyjamas and waiter service in business.

While the competition is fierce to capture those who have the wherewithal to fly in compartments as lavish as any luxury hotel, paradoxically many airlines are getting rid of first class in favour of enhanced business class offerings. The airlines have done the sums and find that the booming popularity of business class, which isn't entirely beyond the reach of ordinary travellers, means more room needs to be allocated for these seats, as well as increasingly popular premium economy seating.

Many corporations which once sent top executives first class are now pulling back, citing the economy and considering it politically not a good look. The rich are now mega-rich and they have their private jets anyway.

With business class improving so dramatically, the higher cost of travelling in first doesn't usually bring with it exponentially more comfort. There's the prestige of it, but most travellers are more pragmatic than that.

Cathay Pacific is not putting a first class cabin in its new Airbus A350-900s or 1000s to make more room for other classes. Singapore Airlines, Qatar and Finnair have no first class in the new A350s. Lufthansa is eliminating first class on some flights out of Munich. Many American airlines are following suit. A few years ago, sensing the zeitgeist, Qantas began the process of deleting two-thirds of its first class seating due to reduced demand. Last year I flew in Qantas business in the nose of the plane, sitting in what the flight attendant told me were the old first class seats.

What first class travellers lose, I suppose business and premium travellers gain. As for those seated in the back, there's probably not much satisfaction knowing this. I suggest bringing your own designer amenities, pyjamas, headphones and chocolate and being content with first class dreams.

Lee Tulloch was guest of Etihad.

See also: Airline review: Emirates first class

See also: How to feel like you're in first class when you're flying economy

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