First class: In the eye of the beholder?

Every major airline offers a first class section on its longer flights. But is “First Class” really first class? It depends on who you talk to.

Emirates' first class suite, Boeing 777 and Airbus A380
Emirates' first class suite
Photo by Carl Dombek
My first experience in a first class cabin was aboard a British Airways 747 flying from Seattle (SEA) to London’s Heathrow (LHR) airport in 1987.

Back then, traveling first class was still an event, even though flying in the main cabin had long since become humdrum. “Up front,” flight attendants addressed you by name and remembered it for the duration of the flight. Beverages were provided from take-off to touch-down. Meals were themed to the home country of the carrier and created in consultation with well-known chefs, even in those days before Food Network or the Cooking Channel.

Despite the variety of possibilities, however, first class cabins varied little from airline to airline.

Today, it’s a vastly different story. Each airline has its own take on first class, it seems. In large measure, the configuration and the amenities in the first class cabin depend on what the airline's passengers want.

United Arab Emirates’ based Emirates airlines offers individual suites for its first class passengers and they are reportedly well received. In its Airbus A-380 jets, the largest passenger jet in the world, the first class cabins include 14 such suites as well as a shower suite.

The La Première Suite
Photo courtesy Air France
As previously reported on TheTravelPro, Air France continues its move up-market and will introduce the La Première Suite in the first class cabins of widebody jets flying international routes starting in September. However, Air France will actually be reducing the number of first class seats available when it upgrades the cabins with the suites.

Other airlines have steered clear of such surroundings, and cite passenger attitude as the reason.

During a recent trip to Frankfurt, I visited the first class cabin of a Lufthansa 747-800 while it was in the maintenance hangar at Fraport (Frankfurt; FRA).

While touring the aircraft, I noted there were 12 first class seats in areas that were more spacious but otherwise closely resembled the arrangement in business class.

Lufthansa first class seats
Photo by Carl Dombek
My host, Lufthansa spokesperson Klaus Gorny, said the airline decided that a dozen seats was the optimal number based on input from the airline’s first class passengers. Any more than 12 and the cabin would lose its feel of exclusivity, its first class passengers told the airline. At the same time, the passengers were clear in that they did not wish to be sequestered in private cubicles; that, they felt, would be too restrictive. The feel of an exclusive club was more what they were seeking.

Similarly, Cathay Pacific – one of the most consistently well-rated airlines – offers individual pods that are open to the common cabin. No sequestering of first-class passengers by CP, either.

Cathay Pacific First Class
Photo courtesy Cathay Pacific
Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) only offers first class sections on some of its Boeing 777 aircraft, and in those cases, each plane has only eight first class seats. Its 787 Dreamliners don’t have first class sections at all.

The take-away message is that first class cabins, particularly on long-haul international flights, will vary from one airline to the next to reflect the personality of the airline and its passengers. If you’re contemplating or planning a trip “up front,” check your airline’s website for more specifics.

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