Why The Battle For First Class Will Be Waged On The Ground

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This year will see a wave of business class seats that resemble First Class more than ever before. Qatar Airways is introducing the new QSuite this month, Delta is introducing their new private business class suites and United has already rolled out their new business class product featuring all aisle access and fully flat seats. The fact is, what used to be only available to the upper echelon of travellers, is now available to all business class passengers.

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This means the lines are blurring between business and first class passengers. Over the past two decades, fully flat beds, followed by fully closed suites, or dine-on-demand used to be the signature elements to the very top level of commercial passenger service elements. How all of those are becoming mainstream in business class cabins, during a fierce drive to win the lucrative (and more frequent) business class passenger.

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All three Middle-Eastern carriers have continued to support First Class passengers, with only Etihad truly focussing on the business class passenger. Qatar Airways has placed its fleet-wide efforts in its new QSuite, with first class now only found on its A380s. Emirates has also recently released its new 777 First Class seat map, showing only 6 seats replacing its current 8 seats (meaning a wider, but not longer product) which will be showcased at the end of the year. Etihad however, is still offering first class in its A330s, A340s, 777s and A380s, and even 3-room “The Residence” found in its premium A380 long-haul services.

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But with most carriers scaling back First Class cabins, due to slackening demand, matched with increasing comfort levels in Business Class, what will happen to this once mysterious cabin class, only available to the truly rich and famous?

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We believe there is still room for signature, full service carriers to offer a First Class, and carriers like Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, the ME3, and even carriers such as Garuda Indonesia can afford a small cabin, but the battle for these lucrative passengers can no longer be waged in the skies. Where airlines have the ability to make the difference and afford the higher price bracket for these tickets can be found on the ground.

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While carriers are already offering separate lounges, chauffeur services and even private check in zones for their business class passengers, first class passengers can start to see true ‘hotel style’ ground services that mean paying a little extra can make sense.

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Etihad has already embraced the hotel mentality to their service offering, offering a residential element to their A380s. All premium cabins now reference residential elements (Studios, Apartments and The Residence) and the galleys even in economy have taken cues from hotel receptions.

However on the ground, passengers can still see scope for the best improvement on service. Most airports aren’t offering any real difference between business and first class passengers, as both enjoy the same fast track channels, security and in certain cases immigration.

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While most airlines invest in different lounges in their hubs for First Class passengers, most outstations share the same lounge space, or on certain key destinations a first class lounge, but with a fairly insignificant improvement on food, drink or comfort levels.

Where TheDesignAir sees the biggest opportunity to increase the gap between First Class and Business Class, is in the improvement of chauffeur services, fast track / immigration services or lounge offerings and customised personal service from curb to boarding. This is an area still relatively unexplored, and open to customisation.

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Airlines already pioneering this space include Etihad, who offer a separate check in area, a variety of lounges outside of their Abu Dhabi hub which include elements such as spas and restaurant service.

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Lufthansa has been offering a unique ground experience for years including chauffeur service taking passengers direct for the First Class terminal to their plane in Porsche 4×4 cars. Like a few other carriers, they are already offering baggage services too, meaning first class passengers will have their bags pulled off the carousel and placed in an easily accessible area on arrival too.

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Thai Airways has a fantastic ground product too, in Bangkok, passengers are treated to a relaxed First Class check in, including cold towels and refreshing drinks, along with gold cart escorts from check-in to lounge which even offers.

While some airlines are already leading the way with looking after First Class passengers on the ground, this is going to become an exciting area and the easiest environment for airlines to truly make a difference for their most prestigious passengers.

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While airlines such as British Airways are already improving their ground product for First Class passengers, taking passengers from curb straight to their Concorde Lounge via a dedicated check in and security lane, the question still stands whether a separate cabin with a different fully-flat bed is still warranted onboard.

TheDesignAir Trip Report: Etihad First Apartment

Could it be that First Class could be a ‘bolt on’ much like premium economy is to economy, where passengers can add on all the creature comforts to a similar seat experience at an additional cost, providing passengers the true benefits where they need them most?

A model like this will actually reduce costs, as development of a bespoke first class inflight hard product, along with differing (yet fairly similar) service offerings can cost an airline significant amount of money, which in comparison to a fully-flat business class product may no longer offer a big enough return.

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