Last month, Korean Air announced it was scrapping first-class cabins across the majority of its short-haul flights. A few weeks later, Asiana Airlines – South Korea's second-largest carrier – also announced that it was scrapping first class. It will stop selling tickets in August this year.
Asian airlines are known for putting a major focus on first-class seats, so the news from these two carriers came as a bit of a surprise, despite similar announcements from Western airlines over the past couple of years.
In the UAE, first class still seems to be big business. Emirates remains a little bit in love with its first-class cabins, and perhaps it's no wonder, given they come with in-flight showers and on-board bars. In Abu Dhabi, Etihad's first-class offering is The Residence – an entire in-air apartment that promises nothing but the best. Middle Eastern carriers still sell more first-class tickets than all other airlines, but even in this luxury travel soft spot, there are signs that things are changing.
At this year's Arabian Travel Market, Sir Tim Clark, president of Emirates, took part in a panel discussion where he sat on stage and spoke openly about the airline's plans to introduce a new premium economy class from next year. This move could possibly see the carrier reduce its first-class seats to make space for a new style of travel. So it seems that even the world's most discerning aficionados are getting set to see less people turning left. But the slightly puzzling factor in all of this is: why?
Having had the pleasure of flying first class only once, on a short flight from Oman to Dubai, I can attest that the experience was quite something. From the minute I was picked up outside my hotel in a sleek limousine, to the point when the pilot came to personally introduce himself to me as I boarded the plane, I felt truly spoiled.
And the range of food, drinks, toiletries and seemingly endless services I could take advantage of during the flight was quite fantastic, so much so that I found myself wishing the journey had been a little bit longer. That said, now, when I think back to trips I've taken when I've flown business class, I struggle to recall any major differences between those and that coveted first-class flight.
In business, I still had access to the lounge before my flight and I could board at any time once proceedings began. I was still greeted by name after taking my seat, granted not by the captain, but by the flight purser – it's not a difference that had much impact on me. I still had a super-comfortable lie-flat bed, complete with blankets and pillows. I was still given a menu filled with mouthwatering dishes that I could order at any time throughout the flight. And I still received an amenity kit chock full of lovely luxury smelly things.
So perhaps the problem with first-class flying is one that the airlines have created themselves. In a bid to be better, to offer more and to clamour for a reputation that exudes luxury, airlines may just have bid themselves out of ‘business’.
On Korean Air the only major difference I can distinguish between flying first or business is that those up front get a pre-boarding meal and complimentary pyjamas – surely the most expensive sleepwear a passengers will have ever purchased.