Airlines Ditching First-Class Seats As Fliers Get Stingy
The global slowdown has put a damper on first-class flying as fewer corporate travelers can afford $15,000 seats. Premium traffic on international flights — which includes business and first class — fell 16% in 2009, the International Air Transport Association says. While demand has improved this year, premium traffic in August was still 11% down from the pre-downturn size in early 2008, it says.
Here's what's going on:
•AirTran (AAI), which is being bought by Southwest Airlines, will drop first-class seating once the merger is completed next year. Southwest (LUV), which has never had first- or business-class seats on its planes, says it'll phase out AirTran's first-class service.
•United Airlines has been revamping its long-haul aircraft since 2007 to reduce and improve first- and business-class seating while installing more coach seats. United's (UAL) merger with Continental Airlines has also triggered speculation that United may abandon its first class after the merger and adopt Continental's simpler approach of flying only two cabins: business and economy.
United "is evaluating which configuration or configurations make the most sense based on customer demand," United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson says. "Continental has fewer 13- and 14-hour flights than United does."
•Australian carrier Qantas said earlier this year that it's eliminating first-class service on most of its long-haul flights except for a few flagship routes to Los Angeles and London from Australia.
"There's been a clear trend for long-haul international flights to reduce or eliminate first-class cabins on all but the most lucrative and competitive routes," says Bryan Saltzburg of TripAdvisor.
Most aircraft flying in the U.S. typically have just two cabins: economy and a premium offering labeled business or first class. Demand for first class also has remained sluggish because airlines have dramatically improved business-class service in recent years, says Matt Daimler of SeatGuru.
As high-paying customers dwindle, intense competition for them has forced airlines to spend more on premium service. Lie-flat seats are now common in many business-class cabins, further blurring the distinction between first and business class.
"Business class is better than first class ever was 20 years ago. You didn't have flat beds 20 years ago," says Brett Snyder of The Cranky Flier blog.
Delta says it's installing more lie-flat seats in the business class of its long-haul 747 aircraft. Johnson of United Airlines says the carrier is removing several rows in first- and business-class cabins in its Boeing 747s, 767s and 777s to provide more legroom for premium seats.
United's Boeing 747s have about 20 fewer first- and business-class seats and 70 more economy seats in the new configuration. But the new business-class seats now recline fully as beds.
Meanwhile, fliers who can no longer afford business class are trading down to "premium economy," a new cabin type that offers economy seats with more legroom. "A huge gap has opened up between business and coach. (Premium economy) is the growing class," Snyder says.
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