When aviation first took off, airplanes were designed with beds, dressing rooms, porcelain dinnerware, personalized service and onboard lounges for the elite who could afford to travel by air. For decades, airplanes only had a single cabin until the 1970s, when the British Caledonian (taken over by British Airways) created the true business class seat, ultimately paving the way to first class.
Years after the release of the first true business class in the 1980s, British Airways renamed their premium seats to be known as “Crown First Class”, offering passengers reclining seats and fantastic window views. In the same decade, British Airways began to offer amenity kits, swivel tray tables and curtains to separate first class and the other cabins.
In the 1990s, airlines including Air France and British Airways reinvented the first class experience by offering lie-flat seats. Previously, British Airways only had a reclining business class with up to 60 inches of pitch, so the lie-flat seat with a pitch of up to 85 inches was a huge step forward.
Just a few years later, Virgin Atlantic developed lie-flat seats in business class, which created competition and as a result, British Airways also converted its business class seats into ones that can be turned into a fully-flat bed. Regardless if you were sitting in business or first class, the delicious cuisines, service and seats were looking a little too similar to each other. Something needed to change to make up for the difference between classes.
So in 2007, Jet Airways developed a first class “suite”, initiating the design of pod-like business class seats—passengers had even more privacy than they did before. Carriers decided that it was time to do something completely different, and with the availability of the A380 and Boeing 787, Etihad took the lead by developing the Residence and First Class Apartment. This apartment-like setting became the true definition of a first class experience.
Some may say that the first class seat is short-lived. Today, airlines have begun to slowly remove first class from their fleet and only offering two to three classes ranging between economy, premium economy and business class. The shift away from first to business-only is due to the fact that airlines are opting for more fuel-efficient aircraft that have smaller cabin space, and because the overall cost to maintain a first class cabin is not profitable. But with business class seats like Qatar’s Qsuite, Delta One, Malaysia Airlines Business Suite, there’s no real need for first class seats anymore—other airlines have also followed suit.
Nonetheless, some of the most luxurious airlines including Singapore Airlines and Emirates have recently debuted new first class suites that are out of this world. The question remains, how long will first class truly last as we move forward towards the future of smaller jets that are more fuel-efficient and travel extremely long distances? Will first class ultimately fade into a black hole?