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Etihad Residence highlights the UAE airline ascension in first class travel, while others cut back

The new cabins from Etihad Airways may bring unprecedented levels of luxury to first class, but elsewhere the trend of long-haul first class is unequivocally one of decline. TAM is the latest airline to remove first class, while American’s removal of the cabin from its 777-200s will have an impact on some of the world’s largest first class routes ranked on available seats.

London Heathrow-New York JFK is the route with the most first class seats with 1,116 a week, but this figure is down considerably, following aircraft changes from American. Nine of the world’s 10 largest first class routes are to/from London Heathrow, while 15 of the top 25 are to/from London Heathrow. British Airways has the largest amount of first class capacity on nine of those 15 routes. 10 of the 25 routes are trans-Atlantic while Dubai is home to four; Singapore and Los Angeles three each; and Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Seoul home to just one each.

But meanwhile the Gulf is going from strength to strength. Overall Dubai is home to more long-haul first class routes than London Heathrow, and Emirates flies more long-haul first class seats than British Airways or Lufthansa.

Top 25 international routes over 3,500km ranked on number of weekly first class seats: 12-May-2014 to 18-May-2014

Rank

Route

First Class Seats

Average Daily First Seats

1

LHR-JFK

1116

159

2

LHR-DXB

850

121

3

LHR-ORD

658

94

4

LHR-BOM

504

72

5*

MIA-GRU

504

72

6

LHR-SIN

460

66

7

LHR-BOS

384

55

8

LHR-DFW

378

54

9

LHR-DEL

372

53

10

LHR-MIA

364

52

11

LHR-IAD

348

50

12

NRT-ORD

332

47

13

SYD-SIN

322

46

14

LHR-HKG

318

45

15

BKK-DXB

314

45

16

NRT-LAX

308

44

17*

LHR-LAX

308

44

18*

LHR-SFO

308

44

19

SYD-DXB

294

42

20

DXB-CDG

273

39

21

LHR-EWR

270

39

22

LHR-RUH

269

38

23

ICN-LAX

262

37

24

MEL-SIN

252

36

25*

FRA-ORD

252

36

London Heathrow-New York JFK is still the world’s most popular first class route

The international route longer than 3,500km with the largest number of first class seats (when business class is also offered) is London Heathrow-New York JFK with 1,116 weekly first class seats and an average of 159 seats a day.

This remains a comfortable lead over the second-largest first class route, London Heathrow-Dubai, with 850 weekly first class seats. London Heathrow-New York JFK’s 1,116 weekly first class seats is almost double the average 559 first class seats operated on the top 10 routes with most first class seats, and more than double the average 401 first class seats on the top 25 routes.

First class capacity between London Heathrow and New York JFK is led by British Airways, with about 80% of first class seats, followed by American Airlines with 15% and Kuwait Airways with the balance.

However this figure is down considerably as American Airlines has shifted from an all-777-200 operation between London and New York to all-777-300ERs. American’s 777-200s offered 16 first class seats, a disproportionately high figure compared to industry trends, while its 777-300ERs have only eight first class seats. American in May-2012 offered 560 first class seats across 35 weekly New York JFK-London Heathrow flights while in May-2014 offers 168 across 21 weekly flights. 

At the same time as this change, Qantas has commenced Dubai-London Heathrow services, adding to the number of first class seats between the two cities. Collectively American’s removal and Qantas’ addition has helped London Heathrow-Dubai narrow the gap with London Heathrow-New York JFK the world’s largest route for first class seats.

The trend towards Dubai may continue. Kuwait Airways, which operates with local pick-up rights, will surely reduce its first class presence. Emirates already has an all-A380 operation to London Heathrow. The A380 has the largest number of first class seats in the Emirates fleet, but Emirates could theoretically add additional London Heathrow services should it obtain slots.

Even if considering city-pairs and not specific routes between airports, London-New York retains an edge over London-Dubai. London Heathrow-New York JFK alone (without considering London-Newark) has more first class seats than flights from Dubai to London Heathrow and Gatwick combined. 

Qantas helps entrench London Heathrow-Dubai as second largest first class route - at the expense of Singapore

London Heathrow-Dubai is comfortably the second-largest first class route, edging out London Heathrow-Chicago. This position was cemented by Qantas’ Mar-2013 European restructure that saw it shift its stopover from Singapore to Dubai, the hub of partner Emirates. Without Qantas, London Heathrow-Dubai would have had only about 24 more first class seats than London Heathrow-Chicago, as opposed to its current lead of 192 seats. 

Between London Heathrow and Dubai, Emirates accounts for about 58% of first class seats, British Airways 22% and Qantas 20%. London Heathrow-Dubai is one of a handful of routes from London Heathrow where British Airways does not have the most amount of first class seats.

While the Qantas restructure helped Dubai, it came at the expense of Singapore, Qantas’ previous stopover point. If Qantas today still operated London Heathrow services via Singapore, London Heathrow-Singapore would be the fourth largest first class route, as opposed to its current ranking of sixth.

British Airways helps make London Heathrow home to nine of top 10 first class routes; 15 of top 25

The world’s largest first class routes underscore two points: first, London as a strong business destination. Second that growth constraints at London Heathrow have seen British Airways strategically grow through a larger share of high-yielding passengers (across premium passengers and premium economy). In absence of the ability to grow flights, British Airways has increased the number of premium seats. In 1997 British Airways had 332 economy seats on its 747-400; today it is about 185.

Nine of the world’s 10 largest first class routes are to/from London Heathrow while 15 of the top 25 are also to/from London Heathrow. Of the 15 routes to/from London Heathrow, British Airways is the largest first class operator on nine of them.

Top 25 international routes over 3,500km ranked on number of weekly first class seats, and British Airways' position on the routes: 12-May-2014 to 18-May-2014

Rank

Route

First Class Seats

Average Daily First Seats

BA Share of All First Class Seats

BA Largest F carrier?

1

LHR-JFK

1116

159

78%

Y

2

LHR-DXB

850

121

22%

N

3

LHR-ORD

658

94

30%

N

4

LHR-BOM

504

72

39%

N

5*

MIA-GRU

504

72

-

-

6

LHR-SIN

460

66

43%

N

7

LHR-BOS

384

55

100%

Y

8

LHR-DFW

378

54

26%

N

9

LHR-DEL

372

53

51%

Y

10

LHR-MIA

364

52

54%

Y

11

LHR-IAD

348

50

68%

Y

12

NRT-ORD

332

47

-

-

13*

SYD-SIN

322

46

-

-

14

LHR-HKG

318

45

60%

Y

15

BKK-DXB

314

45

-

-

16

NRT-LAX

308

44

-

-

17*

LHR-LAX

308

44

64%

Y

18

LHR-SFO

308

44

64%

Y

19

SYD-DXB

294

42

-

-

20

DXB-CDG

273

39

-

-

21

LHR-EWR

270

39

53%

Y

22

LHR-RUH

269

38

38%

N

23

ICN-LAX

262

37

-

-

24

MEL-SIN

252

36

-

-

25*

FRA-ORD

252

36

-

-

On two routes, from London Heathrow to Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth, British Airways operates the minority of capacity while American Airlines on both routes operates a larger number of first class seats. As American shifts to 777-300ERs with fewer first class seats and retrofits first class out of 777-200s, British Airways will likely gain a majority position while the routes drop in the ranking as overall first class seats decrease.

Miami-Sao Paulo, the fifth largest first class route, will see decreases

A similar impact from American’s re-fleeting will be observed on Miami-Sao Paulo. This is the world’s fifth largest route for first class seats, and is the largest first class route not to operate to/from London Heathrow. 

American accounts for 89% of first class seats while the remaining 11% is offered by TAM. American’s first seats will decrease while TAM will entirely remove first class seats from the market as it takes first class out of its 777s in favour of additional business class seats.

Within two years Miami-Sao Paulo will likely no longer be a top 25 first class route. Even if TAM removes first class from the route while American changes equipment on all flights from 777-200s to 777-300ERs (a generous assumption), Miami-Sao Paulo will have half the number of first class seats as the 25th largest first class route, Frankfurt-Chicago.

10 of the top 25 first class routes are trans-Atlantic

Of the 25 largest first class routes, 10 are trans-Atlantic, with nine from London Heathrow. The exception is Frankfurt-Chicago.

Four routes are from Europe to Asia, including two to India and one each to Hong Kong and Singapore. Trans-Pacific and Europe-Middle East each see three routes. For trans-Pacific this is Tokyo Narita-Chicago/Los Angeles (both served by American Airlines with a disproportionately high number of first class seats) and Seoul-Los Angeles. For Europe-Middle East this is two key Emirates routes (Dubai-London Heathrow/Paris CDG) as well as London Heathrow-Riyadh.

Even with Qantas' partial departure from Singapore, Asia-Australia contains two of the top 25 routes: Singapore-Melbourne/Sydney, reflecting Australia’s strategic importance to Singapore Airlines, which operates first class to Australia. In comparison, Asia’s other network giant, Cathay Pacific, does not operate first class from Hong Kong to Australia.

The Middle East-Far East market also sees two of the top 25 routes: Dubai-Bangkok, reflecting the strength of Bangkok as a tourist destination for all types of passengers, as well as Dubai-Sydney, reflecting the inroads Emirates has made in the Australian market as well as Qantas’ route between Sydney and Dubai (continuing to London Heathrow). Without Qantas’ presence, Sydney-Dubai would fail to make the top 25 ranking.

Dubai has more first class routes than London Heathrow

Month after month IATA's premium traffic report shows Middle East premium growth to/from most regions in double digits. Already, after London Heathrow Dubai is the airport home to the most routes in this top 25 ranking, thanks to service to Bangkok, London Heathrow, Paris CDG and Sydney. Emirates operates the majority of capacity on all four routes.

Dubai International sees long-haul first class service on 91 airline/route combinations, more than London Heathrow’s 76 routes. However, London Heathrow’s first class capacity is concentrated, with the airport seeing approximately 11,200 long-haul first class seats a week compared to Dubai’s 8,900. (This figure sees only a small dent from the runway works at Dubai International in May-2014 that are forcing a decrease in movements.)  

Hong Kong-London has fewer first class seats than Singapore-London, reflecting disciplined approach from Cathay

Flights from London to Asia’s two leading global business centres – Hong Kong and Singapore – each see two operators with first class seats, British Airways/Cathay Pacific and British Airways/Singapore Airlines.

London Heathrow-Hong Kong also sees service from Virgin Atlantic, but only with business class. Airlines have also exited: Qantas from Singapore-London Heathrow and Air New Zealand from Hong Kong-London Heathrow (although Air NZ did not operate first class).

Excluding Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Cathay operate about 2,600 weekly business class seats between Hong Kong and London, about 10% more than the 2,400 weekly business class seats from British Airways and Singapore Airlines between Singapore and London Heathrow. Despite Hong Kong-London being home to more business class seats than Singapore-London, Singapore-London has 45% more first class seats (460) than Hong Kong-London (318).

The difference is due almost exclusively to Cathay Pacific. British Airways operates almost the same number of first class seats to Hong Kong as Singapore, but Singapore Airlines has 264 first class seats to London compared to Cathay’s 126 first class seats to London. Singapore Airlines’ flagship long-haul fleet (A380s and 777-300ERs) all have first class whereas Cathay in recent years has introduced 777-300ERs without first class. While this may have been a rational decision, it was not one without debate.

Cathay sought to better match demand with supply whereas Singapore Airlines appears adamant on offering first class on flagship aircraft. Likewise, SWISS offers first class across its widebody fleet (although this is only 29 frames). 

Frankfurt has only one top 25 first class route

While Lufthansa was once Europe’s network carrier giant (a title it retains across the Atlantic), globally it is being eclipsed in the first class market. Lufthansa’s hub at Frankfurt sees only 4,300 weekly first class seats from all carriers, half that of Dubai.

Lufthansa globally operates approximately 7,800 weekly long-haul first class seats, half that of Emirates' 16,400. However a direct comparison may not be valid as Lufthansa for example will transport a transfer Europe-Asia passenger with a short-haul and long-haul seat while Emirates will do so with two long-haul seats.

Outlook: Further shrinkage of first class is inevitable - for most airlines

While Lufthansa headquarters may be engulfed in worry over internal labour disputes and the march of Gulf carriers, as far as first class is concerned, there is a sense of groundhog day: Lufthansa is removing first class from a number of long-haul aircraft, the exact same thing it did some years ago - only to re-install first class after a change in executive leadership that saw it as strategically important.

This time around, Lufthansa’s removal will probably be final. Airlines have cannibalised their first class with business class seats that become lie-flat. At the same time, first class is increasingly off limits for all but the top echelons of executives (or the wealthy leisure travellers, although they look more for discounts, and frequent flyer redemptions, which give a low yield).

This was stated clearly by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker to Bloomberg: “Executive travel returning to first class will never happen, I don’t think so… We decided that as load factors on first class were only 40 percent, that we better not have first class but give a very good business class product.” Those adding first class, like Garuda Indonesia, are few and without a clear business plan for the cabin.

The shift in the world’s top first class routes and number of seats is a story of changing partners and alliances, with Qantas boosting Dubai but detracting from Singapore. This helps accentuate the continued focus of the two major UAE airlines in the premium cabins, retaining their focus on first class travellers. It is also a story of pragmatism as American’s over-due retrofit of its 777-200s impacts a number of the world’s largest first class routes while Cathay Pacific arguably is more prudent than Singapore Airlines in deploying first class, which perhaps sees this as more about branding than profits.

Airlines have been rationalising, ending “strategic” routes thought to give glamour despite poor returns. But airlines are being slower at weaning themselves off prestige cabins. Only a handful of today’s first class operators can sustain the cabin, a feature that is accentuated as the UAE carriers attract increasingly large proportions of high end travellers on long-haul services. Etihad's new Residence product inevitably has a combination of strategic and commercial planning, but it goes a long way to emphasing where they and Emirates are positioning globally.

In modern history the front may be as extravagant as ever, but it is also becoming less common than ever on the traditional airlines. The vocal frequent flyers may rue this fact, but for airlines it is another healthy step towards a sustainable industry.

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