The story of First-class air travel

From a new special Key Publishing magazine called ‘Luxury Air Travel’, Alex Preston in this article examines the development of first-class air travel over the decades

In the pioneering days of aviation, flying was regarded as a luxury, reserved for the wealthiest members of society or for those needing to travel for business. Even so, the experience for passengers was an often uncomfortable and harsh one. Cabins were noisy, draughty, and cold.

Things changed in 1926 with the first commercial flight of the Ford Tri-Motor, the largest civil aircraft in America at the time, and widely regarded as the first luxury airliner. Affectionately known as the Tin Goose, the all-metal, corrugated aluminium three-engine 4-AT plane could accommodate anything from seven to 14 passengers in its enclosed cabin, which was fitted out with wicker basket seats, rugs on carpeted flooring and wooden side panels. Onboard, an attendant served food and refreshments, and incredibly for the time, there was a toilet equipped with running water. Later models of the Ford Tri-Motor, including the 5-AT, featured aluminium seats covered with leather.

Such amenities promoted a ‘roomy and comfortable’ interior, with early marketing materials promising to provide passengers with “a degree of luxury comparable to a yacht, and a command over time that is of greatest value to those whose time is limited.”  Yet, the primary objective of such items was more prosaic – convince a sceptical population that flying was safe and dependable.

In 1938, the first Sydney-Southampton flight departs from Rose Bay. Qantas crews flew as far as Singapore where Imperial Airways took over the service to the UK.
In 1938, the first Sydney-Southampton flight departs from Rose Bay. Qantas crews flew as far as Singapore where Imperial Airways took over the service to the UK. Qantas

By the time production ceased in 1933 as more modern airliners began to appear, 199 Ford Tri-Motors had been built, seeing commercial service across North, Central, and South America, Europe, and even as far away as Australia and China.

The efforts of Ford and others worked. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, passenger traffic in the US grew from 6,000 passengers in 1930 to over 450,000 by 1934, and to a staggering 1.2 million by 1938.

But the industry was under intense financial and structural scrutiny, and to survive, airlines would need larger, better, and faster airplanes with improved range, that importantly could turn a profit. The government provided bonuses to airlines if their aircraft had multiple engines, two-way radios, and other equipment that promoted safety and speed, and could fly at night.

The Tin Goose. The Ford Tri-Motor introduced ‘luxuries’ to woo a sceptical flying public.
The Tin Goose. The Ford Tri-Motor introduced ‘luxuries’ to woo a sceptical flying public. The Henry Ford Museum

Red-eye flights

American Airways, Eastern Air Transport, and Swissair operated the Condor, which was the first aircraft in the world to provide sleeping berths, designed to emulate the Pullman berths of the railroad prevalent in both the UK and US at the time.

Indeed, American Airlines placed its ten model T-32s into sleep service between Fort Worth and Los Angeles, and even advertised its timetable as offering “the world’s first complete sleeper planes.”

On February 8, 1933, the Boeing Model 247, seen as the first modern airliner, made its inaugural flight. Of the many technological innovations that the model boasted, the 10 passengers and three crew members enjoyed excellent soundproofing, a low vibration level, plush seats, and, for the first time, cabin air conditioning.

However, its limited capacity and the reported claim that passengers found it awkward to step over the main spar in the aisle, meant production of the 247 was short-lived. Just 75 were built.

But it was the arrival of the Boeing B-314, a flying boat designed for trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific service, that set the standard for onboard luxury.

The Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT offered a refurbished cabin with leather seats.
The Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT offered a refurbished cabin with leather seats. The Henry Ford Museum

Cometh the Clippers

Weighing 40 tons and with a range capable of crossing the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Pan Am’s Clippers, a nod to their nautical counterparts, offered ‘one-class’ luxury travel for up to 74 passengers and 10 crew.

Described as a flying palace, the passenger deck was tailored to the elite, wealthy traveller. A round trip from New York to Southampton was US$675 or £540 (equivalent to $12,000 or £9,560 today), while a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong, was $760 or £605. Before then, the only way to reach Asia from the US was by ship, a trip that took weeks. With the China Clipper, that all changed, with the Boeing 314s crossing the Pacific in only five days, making overnight stops in Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam. 

The main lounge of the Boeing B-314 during meal service.
The main lounge of the Boeing B-314 during meal service. everthingPanAm.com

For this, the passenger deck was configured as a series of six standard lounges and one deluxe (a private ‘honeymoon suite’ located at the tail end of the plane), in alternating colour schemes — turquoise carpet with pale green walls or rust carpet with beige walls. The lounges featured thick carpeting, soft lighting, soundproofed walls, and rich upholstery in relaxing colours. There were also couches which were made into curtained beds at night that accommodated 40 passengers.

There were just 15 passengers on each B-314 flight, who could enjoy a spacious cabin with large windows and comfortable seats.
There were just 15 passengers on each B-314 flight, who could enjoy a spacious cabin with large windows and comfortable seats. Qantas

For decency, men and women were provided with separate dressing rooms, with the men’s toilet having the unusual feature of a urinal. They also featured the first flush toilets ever used on a transport aircraft.

At meal times, the main lounge was transformed into a 14-seat dining room, with galleys crewed by chefs from four-star hotels, and five- and six-course meals served by white-coated stewards on silver service and white tablecloths.

Cutaway drawing of the Boeing B-314.
Cutaway drawing of the Boeing B-314. everthingPanAm.com

A favoured passenger tipple on board the Clippers was the Clipper Cocktail, which consisted of 11/2oz of light or gold rum, 1/2oz of dry vermouth and half teaspoon of grenadine, combined and poured over cracked ice into a chilled cocktail glass.

To mark the first passenger flight across the Atlantic, the Dixie Clipper was equipped with the Edison Company’s Ediphone recorder, allowing passengers and crew to record their thoughts.

Passengers board the ‘American Clipper’ Boeing B-341 in San Francisco.
Passengers board the ‘American Clipper’ Boeing B-341 in San Francisco. everthingPanAm.com

Elsewhere, Qantas’ Short Empire flying boats, manufactured by Short Brothers of the UK, were taking three days to reach Singapore from Sydney, Australia and involved overnight stops in Townsville (Queensland, Australia), Darwin (Northern Territory, Australia), and Surabaya (Indonesia). Each flight offered up to 15 passengers saloon-style comfort, with silver service meals and cocktails served by smartly dressed stewards.

The outbreak of World War Two put paid to such luxury, and the Short Empire flying boat service was replaced by the long-range Catalina flying boat in 1943.

The production of Boeing’s 307 Stratoliner, first flown in late 1938, would bring further passenger comfort. The Stratoliner was the first airliner with a pressurised fuselage. Capable of carrying 33 passengers, it was fitted with sleeper berths and reclining seats.

Regarded as the first modern airliner, the Boeing 247 featured the luxury of cabin air conditioning.
Regarded as the first modern airliner, the Boeing 247 featured the luxury of cabin air conditioning. US Library of Congress

First-class redefined

Until the 1950s, everyone onboard enjoyed the same level of hospitality and service. It was truly democratic – if you could pay for it. But things would soon change, as international air travel would become more affordable as the trade associations - the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the US Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) - loosened their grip on the airline fare structure, paving the way for airlines to introduce multiple fares and multiple cabin classes.

Multi-class cabins, first introduced in the 1950s, put a price on that ‘golden’ experience. In 1955 TWA began offering two classes, First and Economy, on its Super Constellation aircraft. The launch of the Boeing 747 in 1969 ushered in an even more lavish world for high-flyers that included bars and lounges, world-class cuisine, not to mention, exceptional service.

In 1995 and 1996 Air France and British Airways upped the game introducing seats that converted to fully flat beds in their respective first-class cabins. The beds were truly horizontal and parallel to the floor and were hence referred to as ‘lie-flat’ beds.

Following the deregulation of air fares, a number of airlines introduced first-class cabins.

A limited number of seats (rarely more than 20) are situated at the front of the aircraft all with more space, comfort, service, and privacy than elsewhere on the aircraft.

The journey to Singapore took three days in total with stop-offs at Brisbane, Townsville, Groote Island, Darwin, and Surabaya in Indonesia.
The journey to Singapore took three days in total with stop-offs at Brisbane, Townsville, Groote Island, Darwin, and Surabaya in Indonesia. Qantas

First-class can vary from large reclining ‘off-the-shelf’ seat designs with more legroom and width than can be found in other classes, to completely bespoke suites with a fully reclining seat, workstation, buddy seats, and the latest gizmos and gadgets all surrounded by privacy dividers. With business-class seating moving upmarket, some airlines are reintroducing or modelling their first-class sections as suites. Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways and Emirates all offer fully enclosed ‘Super first-class’ suites that can encompass multiple rooms and even double beds.

In the US, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, what is normally regarded as regional business-class or ‘Premium Economy’ in the rest of the world is branded as ‘domestic first-class’ by US airlines. However, the service is generally below long-haul international business-class.

Emirates’ refurbished A380 first-class suite boasts a new colour palate.
Emirates’ refurbished A380 first-class suite boasts a new colour palate. Emirates

Going extinct?

According to Valour Consultancy, deregulation in the late 1970s and early 1980s began to alter the financial equation. By the mid-1980s, caught up in brutal price wars, US carriers were battling to keep offering first-class levels of service at reduced prices. The solution, devised in the mid-1970s, was business-class, which offered customers a slightly higher level of service (than those in economy-class) for lower but still expensive fares. Eventually, business-class grew more luxurious and began to cannibalise first-class. Today, business travellers can enjoy amenities that would have been considered first-class a few years ago, including lie-flat beds, better food and – increasingly – a door and privacy.

More importantly, says Valour Consultancy, it is possible to cram more business-class seats than first-class seats into the same amount of space, making business-class a winner for airlines, too. They cite that at top-end, full-service airlines, premium (first- and business-class) revenue can be of the order of 30-40% of total passenger revenue. The vast majority of this comes from business-class with first-class typically contributing a low single-digit share of total revenue.

Research conducted by the company has shown that annual installations of first-class seats have fallen in recent years as airlines increasingly look to reconfigure cabins and make better use of the available space on board their aircraft. Indeed, the installed base of first-class seats has almost plateaued thanks in part to the gradual retirement of the Boeing 747, which has been the mainstay of first-class travel for decades. The same can be said of the A340, variants of which are slowly leaving fleets.

Starting in 2024, American Airlines will do away with first-class on its long-haul flights. Speaking to investors in a conference call in 2022, American’s chief commercial officer, Vasu Raja, confirmed that: “The first-class will not exist at American Airlines for the simple reason that our customers aren’t buying it.” He continued: “The quality of the business-class seat has improved so much. And frankly, by removing [first-class] we can provide more business-class seats, which is what our customers most want or are most willing to pay for.”

Delta dropped international first-class in 1998 and United eliminated it in 2016.

In early 2022, EL AL announced that it would reconfigure its Boeing 777s with new cabins. The aircraft are the only ones in its fleet to feature first-class, but the introduction of a new business-class is putting paid to first-class.

In mid-2023, the then Qatar Airways CEO, Akbar Al Baker said the airline would not install a first-class cabin in their new generation aircraft, the 777X, because it’s not profitable enough. The national carrier of Qatar wants to focus more on its Qsuite business-class product, which is only slightly different than the current first-class offering.

Emirates’ A380 refreshed shower spa emphasises new design touches.
Emirates’ A380 refreshed shower spa emphasises new design touches. Emirates

First-class champions

Middle Eastern airline Oman Air introduced first-class mini-suites to its Dreamliner fleet of seven 787-9 aircraft in 2018, having originally launched the cabin on its A330-300 aircraft for a range of routes across Europe and Asia, including non-stop direct flights between Muscat and London Heathrow.

The new mini suites feature just six seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. The cabin embraces Omani design heritage for a distinctive interior that is inherently Oman Air. The unique arch shape on the feature wall and on each private suite door is inspired by the architectural form of the Omani archway — as seen on countless buildings in the region from centuries old forts through to the iconic modern Royal Opera House in the capital city of Muscat.

The new suite is designed with extra tall (1.4m high), soft closing sliding doors and a canopy behind each headrest to ensure absolute exclusivity. Centre seats also enjoy adjustable dividers at the touch of a button.

The seat, which has a width of 25.5in and pitch of 85.5in extends into a fully flat-bed (180o) with ottoman to 82in. It also features an electrically controlled backrest/seat bottom, electrically controlled leg rest, electrically adjusted seat depth and eight-point massage system. Settings can be saved into the memory function for use at a later stage of the flight.

There is also an individual wardrobe for coats and dedicated stowage for cabin-approved baggage while several large pockets around the console mean that all smaller personal belongings such as laptops, amenities, and glasses are kept handy.

A chilled minibar housing a selection of beverages and snacks is also provided for each guest.

Other features include a wireless IFE handset, backup IFE handset, reading and mood light controls, a 23in video screen, two USB plugs, an Ethernet socket (RJ45), and PC power outlet.

For fellow Middle Eastern airline, Emirates, first-class “remains hugely important to us,” according to company president Tim Clark. The airline is currently refurbishing its 120 A380s, with a refreshed upper deck first-class with Emirates’ latest cream-coloured leather upholstery and lighter-toned wood finishing, similar to the airline’s ‘game changer’ product. Emirates’ signature ghaf tree motif also features prominently throughout the interiors, including hand-stencilled panels in the first-class shower spa. 

During its 2023 Capital Markets Day presentation released by BA’s parent company International Airlines Group (IAG), British Airways chairman and CEO, Sean Doyle said its first-class product was a “USP across Atlantic routes”, and was a key premium market for the airline, which is committed to first. He added that “it [first-class] will be on about 65% of all our long-haul flights.”

Additionally, both Lufthansa and Qantas have unveiled details of their forthcoming new first-class products.

Lufthansa is reimagining first-class with its Allegris family product for its A350s.
Lufthansa is reimagining first-class with its Allegris family product for its A350s. Lufthansa

German excellence

Speaking at the launch event in Berlin, Jens Ritter, CEO of Lufthansa said: “Every guest has their own understanding of premium, which is why we focus on maximum individuality and exclusivity. The first-class Suite Plus conveys the feeling of privacy and individuality similar to a hotel room – only at an altitude of 11km.”

Lufthansa worked with long-time collaborator, London-based design agency PriestmanGoode on the new first-class cabin, which includes both the first-class Suite and first-class Suite Plus - flying private rooms.

 

The sun rises for Qantas

February 2023 also saw the unveiling of designs for Qantas’ new A350 fleet, dubbed Project Sunrise. In collaboration with Caon Design, the six first-class suites will be laid out in a 1-1-1 configuration.

Australian designer David Caon said every possible opportunity has been seized upon to promote wellbeing and comfort in the First and Business suites.

“We began designing this aircraft cabin five years ago, working with Airbus and Qantas to maximise space, as well as creating a tailored lighting program that will influence mood and sleep patterns,” said Caon.

“All the design and service elements will work together to significantly improve inflight comfort, convenience and health and wellbeing and help minimise the old nemesis of jetlag.

Qantas’ forthcoming A350s will fly to the likes of London and New York with a brand-new first-class enclosed suite.
Qantas’ forthcoming A350s will fly to the likes of London and New York with a brand-new first-class enclosed suite. Qantas

“Every element has been created for Qantas, from the reading light right down to the fabrics, to ensure that passengers spend their journey in refined comfort.

“There are also a number of storage design elements to keep personal items within arm’s reach so the space can be personalised by each individual passenger to feel just like they are in their own bed at home.”

The inaugural flights are scheduled for take-off in late 2025, starting with Sydney to London and New York.

First-class is dead. Long live first-class!

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