Will COVID-19 kill first class? The airlines that are ditching the front cabin

There have been plenty of casualties in the travel industry thus far as a result of the planet-wide lockdown, with many more to come. And another could be first class flying. 

Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa are among the carriers to have temporarily scratched their very front cabins – and for good reason. 

Not only is virtually all long-haul travel either on hold or drastically reduced, those who are flying in premium classes are having to do with a very pared back service. Some airlines, Virgin Atlantic included, won't serve alcohol in Upper Class currently, and many carriers aren't even providing hot meals.

Qantas, which has spent millions revamping the first class cabins on its 12 A380s, grounded them all "for the foreseeable future" and even hinted that they may never return to service, since the planes will be out of action for "a significant percentage of their remaining useful life".

Singapore Airlines, which grounded more than 95 per cent of its capacity in March, won't sell tickets for its lavish 50-sq-ft first class cabins until at least November across any of its key services between Asia, London, the US and Australia.

Lufthansa, which only a year ago said it was committed to keeping its first class offering, has removed the option across almost its entire fleet; its A380s will be grounded at least until 2021.

Qatar Airways' CEO Akbar al-Baker, meanwhile, told Executive Traveler that it would be parking its ten A380s, and the flashy front cabins with them, for at least a year, and maybe forever. Qatar's rival Emirates is still offering first class, but has closed the onboard shower rooms and bars.

British Airways is among the airlines still selling first class tickets on its reduced fleet, and it's the only cabin where you'll be served hot food. Air China, Cathay Pacific and ANA haven't axed theirs either.

So what of the future for the priciest of aircraft seats? Long before the pandemic tore in to speed up the demise of certain travel experiences, there has been increased pressure on airlines to maximise profits on every single passenger; which is much harder to do if you've got too much empty space at the front of the plane.

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Experts have for years been predicting that first class flying will eventually become reserved for a minority of high-value routes (think Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha). Not least because of the blurred lines between first and the ever-improving business class.

"Business class now is as good as first class was five years ago," points out Arthur Wu, formally a creative director at aviation consultants Teague.

Travel expert Gilbert Ott, founder of God Save The Points, doesn't think first class will die out completely, even as a result of the pandemic. "The thing about first class is that it's not just about comfort, but opulence," he tells us. 

"Whereas business class is mostly about the comfy bed, first class is about the caviar, the fine champagne and the 1:1 style of service. With the current Covid-19 limitations, there's just no way to ensure that luxury travellers are at the pointiest end of happy right now, so while it won't kill first class off forever, it will certainly give it hell for another six months to a year."

He adds: "It's better not to offer something than offer a half-baked version that will alienate loyal customers. Once some version of new normal emerges, first class could come back strong among the elite; many of whom will be seeking seclusion from others more than ever. But ultimately, the biggest risk to first class may be private jets, not disease or the economy."

The Telegraph, London

See also: World's largest passenger plane stripped of seats to make way for cargo

See also: Qantas retires iconic 747 jumbo jets immediately, and deep-stores A380s

See also: First Emirates A380 superjumbo returns to the skies after fleet grounding

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