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What does ‘first class’ even mean anymore?

These days, it’s ‘basically un-coach’

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
6 min

We think of first class as the epitome of luxury: a cushy seat 38,000 feet in the air, caviar to nibble on, Champagne to savor and even a shower on some planes. But in the high-low landscape of modern airlines, all first-class sections are not alike — and some don’t have one at all.

American Airlines made headlines when it announced that it is doing away with first class on long-haul international flights in favor of a new upgraded business class. Many of its jets for international travel already included business instead of first-class sections, but none will offer first after the updates are complete.

“The first class will not exist ... at American Airlines for the simple reason that our customers aren’t buying it,” Vasu Raja, the airline’s chief commercial officer, said during an earnings call on Oct. 20.

“Frankly, by removing it, we can go provide more business-class seats, which is what our customers most want [or are] most willing to pay for.”

Competitors United and Delta got rid of international first class long before American made its move.

So what’s an air traveler with first-class aspirations to do? There are a few options.

Airline classes are complicated. Here’s how to know which one you need.

Don’t expect peak luxury on domestic flights

Major U.S. airlines, including American, United, Delta and Alaska, still offer first class on domestic flights — but don’t expect a seat in the lap of luxury.

It’s “basically un-coach,” said travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. “You are not in the economy cabin.”

Stephen Au, chief points strategist at Upgraded Points, a site for information about points travel and credit card rewards, said seats are typically wider with more legroom, travelers get some improved service and the menu is probably “a little bit better” than in coach.

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One big perk, he said, is that domestic first-class travelers like that they can leave the plane first. No need to linger in this top-of-the-line experience.

U.S. airlines talk up the “room to stretch out,” “thoughtful storage spaces,” faster check-in and security, priority baggage service, free alcohol and food choices, depending on the length of a flight. Even in first class, travelers generally have to pay for WiFi.

The cost, Au said, can be more than double the coach fare. A check on different airlines and routes in January shows the difference: A first-class ticket for a round trip between Dulles International and Houston on United is priced at $887, compared with $320 for the cheapest restricted fare and $389 for economy. On Delta, first class from Atlanta to Chicago O’Hare is $688, compared with $228 for basic economy and $288 for the main cabin. American has a $577 round-trip ticket for the main cabin between Charlotte and Dallas-Fort Worth, which spikes to $1,075 for first class.

Harteveldt called the option “spartan” and “borderline utilitarian” compared with what it was decades ago.

“Most airlines don’t even serve meals on flights of less than 900 miles,” he said. “They have a basket of snacks they offer and that’s about it.”

Planes really are dirtier. It's not your imagination.

Airlines are betting big on business class

As American noted, U.S. airlines have been investing more in business class, particularly for long-haul international flights and premium cross-country routes. The airline says its upcoming “Flagship Suite” seat will include “a privacy door, a chaise lounge seating option and more personal storage space.”

Business-class sections have more seats than first-class ones, so the experience is not as exclusive. But they also largely include high-end lounge access where available, lie-flat seats, priority boarding, at least some free checked baggage, high-end amenity kits and more elevated meals.

They have something else going for them: a lower price that experts say is more easily submitted on an expense account. Many companies are willing to pay for employees to fly in business class when they might not cover first class. An American Airlines round-trip flight from New York City to London in January is $8,422 for its current first-class offering, but $7,222 for business class.

“The difference between business class and economy is like an entire world apart,” said Au, owner and founder of AuPACS, a points and travel membership service. “One allows you to be productive and get some sleep on the plane; the other is a crappy experience. ... It is much more difficult to justify the jump from business class to first class.”

He said the service is better in first class, but that might not matter to the bosses.

“People are either unable or unwilling to pay the fares that airlines have charged for long-haul first class,” Harteveldt said.

“Airlines frankly have killed literally their golden goose by making business class very good and by charging too much money for first class.”

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Foreign first class is the best place to splurge

Want true luxury? Splurge on an airline from other parts of the world, which may have an agreement with your preferred U.S. carrier to let you earn or redeem frequent-flier miles.

Au said the “crème de la crème of first class” is on Emirates, the United Arab Emirates-based carrier. In certain cities, he said, the experience includes a chauffeur to the airport, an escorted check-in, an exclusive lounge and a private suite on the plane with sliding doors. Caviar and Champagne are included, of course, and even a shower on some planes.

Of course, travelers pay a pretty penny for the experience: A first-class Emirates round trip between Dulles International near D.C. and Dubai is priced at $21,572 in January, compared with $1,481 for economy and $7,533 for business.

“Everything about this experience, from beginning to end, is designed to make even celebrities feel special,” he said. Au said he has flown first class on Emirates five times for vacation.

He called out Singapore Airlines as being in the “highest echelons” of first class, and said Air France and Etihad also offer “amazing, amazing, amazing” first-class products.

British Airways, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Thai Airways are among others that still offer first class for international flights, Harteveldt said.

He said he has spoken to executives at a variety of European, Middle Eastern and Asian airlines in recent weeks about their long-haul first-class business. They all told him that they are seeing “very strong demand” for the product to and from the United States.

“However, they all said that a lot depends on how they choose to price their products, and they realize there’s only so much people can and will pay for first class,” Harteveldt said.