Forever first?

By Guy Bird for Aircraft Interiors International, Apr 2010

With some airlines stripping away their front cabins we ask what's the future of First class air travel?

“I think we’re witnessing the demise of first class,” says world-renowned product designer and Qantas design director, Marc Newson with a slightly hollow laugh. In light of the recent decision by Qantas to replace first class seats with business equivalents on a considerable chunk of its existing fleet and cancel their installation in the remaining eight A380s due from 2012, he’s certainly got direct experience to back up his assertion.

According to IATA, in early 2009 the rate of decline in ‘premium traffic’ (business and first class) exceeded 20% – twice the decrease of economy passengers – while total passenger demand for the full year was down 3.5%. In May 2009, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, first class passengers in particular plummeted by more than a quarter year-on-year (–25.9%). It wasn’t much better for business class in the same month – down by 23.8% – but the difference has been the divergence within premium travel since. Business class has slowly improved culminating in a +5.9% increase year-on-year in January 2010 but first class is still languishing at –3% for the same month (albeit after a brief spike of +4.5% in December 2009 perhaps accounted for by private travel over the Christmas holidays).

In May 2009, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, first class passengers plummeted by more than a quarter year-on-year

Noam Perski, CEO of JamesList.com – a website for luxury goods and services covering everything from yacht charter to supercar purchases – provides a useful high-end customer perspective: “If those people are flying with colleagues and leading a company asking its staff to make sacrifices, it’s hard to justify flying first. However I think this will only be a short-term rather than a long-term issue.” Qantas isn’t so sure and while it isn’t ducking out of first class altogether its future path is cautious, as chief executive officer, Alan Joyce puts it: “Maintaining a first offering on flagship routes is essential for Qantas as a premium airline. However, it is vital that we align this offering with forecast demand which is expected to be relatively slow compared to business, premium economy and economy.”

Less premium class travel is particularly bad news for airlines’ overall bottom line too, as Kevin Lau, an analyst at Hong Kong’s Daiwa Institute of Research makes clear in a recent report on Bloomberg.com: “Sometimes, just filling the first and business class sections are enough to make a profitable flight. The yields are very high.” Part of the problem with dwindling first class sales may be the vast improvement in many business class offerings, as Newson points out: “the standard has ramped up to such a degree the differences have become blurry. Business class is infinitely better than the first class of 10-15 years’ ago.” Indeed, some experts think things could get blurrier still with new product offerings that sit between these two traditional classes like those that already exist between economy and business.

Priestmangoode – the design agency behind Swiss Air’s first class cabin among others – has already developed a ‘business-first’ spec cabin for Kingfisher, although branded Kingfisher First. Founding director Nigel Goode explains: “The specification is much greater than standard business, with more control of the seat, more comfort, better control of your environment, and a large table that’s very robust. It’s not quite first class where you’d only expect four seats across. It’s a halfway house.” Richard Stevens, creative director of Forpeople – the design agency behind British Airways’ new First experience as well as work for luxury brands Alfred Dunhill and leather designer Bill Amberg – also believes such ‘hybrid’ classes between first and business will become more prevalent. But this will only reinforce the need to truly define first class above them all, as he suggests: “Business class propositions have improved – on the ground and in the air – so it has become increasingly difficult to justify and differentiate first class. It has to come down to the quality of all aspects of the journey experience, not just on onboard. As we move forward air travel will be more about customers paying a premium for a collection of experiences they need and desire at any particular time rather than simply for class segregation.”

“Business class has improved on the ground and in the air so it has become increasingly difficult to justify and differentiate first class. It has to come down to the quality of all aspects of the journey experience, not just on onboard”

So how can carriers re-attract passengers to first class and what role can design play? Stevens makes an obvious but all too often overlooked point – understand your customer: “Customers in this sector are looking for so much more now from their journey experiences, more so than in any other cabin, simply because of the frequency of their journeys. They are not interested in gimmicks but demand quality and consistency. First class customers are used to the highest standards of product, service and quality in all aspects of their everyday lives. These are people of stature and influence and have high expectations, always.”

All fair enough comment but how to deliver this? Stevens continues: “Passion and rigour in every detail of the design process is key. First impressions of a radical new cabin environment are great but a lack of thought, attention to detail and substance quickly becomes apparent, more than ever in a first class environment.” One tangible example he cites concerns positive customer feedback to BA’s new seats and their configuration to allow flyers to relax and doze off more easily even with the seat upright. Stevens says this detail clinched the loyalty of one particular BA customer, as he recounts: “The customer mentioned that while this is not something that is immediately apparent (or easily marketable) it is the reason that he chooses Club World over the competition because he felt reassured by the level British Airways will go in order to get things right for their customers. Style can attract people to you but substance is what makes them stay.”

For Nigel Goode a first class package is down to quality, “you don’t see many plastic or vac-formed panels in first,” he stresses. “With low production it’s hard to amortize the costs and you can end up with standard latches and switches but on the Swiss First cabin there is a lot of customisation. We spent a lot of time on special buttons, fit and finish, making sure the hand controller fits nicely in the hand and that the graphic user interface is easy to follow.”

First class cabin design needs to go beyond how easy things are to use and create an appropriate ambience as well – although its definition may vary according to customer and region, as Goode continues: “perhaps first class is also about being more understated although while for Swiss Air ‘less is more’, for some of the Middle Eastern carriers ‘more is still more’.” Either way, as JamesList’s Perski posits, first class cabins, especially those working long haul routes, fundamentally need to “create a sense of calm. You’re moving out of a relatively chaotic environment, even in the case of a first class lounge, so there needs to be a sense of space as you know you’re going to be there awhile.”

In terms of inspiration Perski says upmarket hotels are already having an influence – given their often good use of calm-creating space while from a manufacturing perspective Forpeople’s Stevens believes the aviation industry can learn design lessons from the car industry: “From a purely design perspective the value of the airline industry seeking inspiration from sectors like automotive is in my view, the only way forward. The typical argument from a cabin product supplier is always about economies of scale (particularly with the relatively low volumes of product in first class) but the key thing to take inspiration from is the simple processes that have been established in order to deliver consistent levels of quality. Particularly in trim and finish, which is often the most painful part of any airline project because, suppliers simply don’t understand the process. Their only solution being to throw money at the problem.” In broader terms the attitude of the whole travel industry needs to change, as independent trend-forecasting consultancy The Future Laboratory makes clear in its Leisure and Hospitality Futures Report.

As it says, after all the dropped prices, reassessed service offerings, redundancies, debt restructure, brand merging and unprofitable routes have been pared back, “brands will need to ensure that the customer experience is personal, familiar, anticipatory and engaging. Success is not in the large gesture but in the intimate, the ordinary and the everyday, carrying out basic tasks with consistency and humanity – a notion that exists in short supply in an industry that should be driven by the desire to please and to surpass guests’, not GMs’, expectations.”

”I don’t think for a minute that first class is dead, let’s put it like that”

On a more micro aviation level, while first class airline passenger numbers have fallen and may not ever recover fully for years to come, if ever, almost all those interviewed believe such a cabin and level of service has a viable future. While JamesList’s Perski believes short-haul flights are better served by private jets due to their convenience, he also believes there will always be a place for first class sections on long haul flights. But how will those spaces and services differ in ten years’ time compared to those available today? Perski envisions more multi-functional spaces that will be able to cope with work and leisure interests better and cater for group travel more ably by being configurable in their engineering – i.e. seats will be able to be moved around to suit customer needs – and he also foresees changes to the colour, lighting and trim being easier to achieve.

Qantas’s Newson hopes for more subtlety, modernity and quality while Priestmangoode’s Nigel Goode predicts a more loungey feel “rather than tiny pods where you are cocooned in your own little area” but is ultimately optimistic for the segment, as he concludes: “It’s being clever with the space, you’ve still got to be economic in terms of the number of seats but it could be about making things a little less symmetrical, so it’s not just rows and rows of the same product. I don’t think for a minute that first class is dead, let’s put it like that.”


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