Throughout the 20th century, especially the first half of it, traveling on board an aircraft was the epitome of luxury. Few could afford flying, as ticket prices were sky-high. The passenger that flew in a sleeper cabin on board a DC-3 probably could not imagine sitting on a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320 seat that does not even recline and is as wide as a screen of a television. Since then, while economy-class flying took over the masses, luxury travel was and still is around. However, First Class, which is the last remnant of the golden days of travel, is succumbing to a slow and painful death.
And the process could be further accelerated by the 1-2 combination of business aviation and the current pandemic.
Nostalgia for first-class luxury
Possibly a lot of people who were not around for the golden age of aviation are nostalgic for the same, aforementioned golden age. On the other hand, the wistfulness is there for a good reason, as luxury was the name of the game. For example, Lufthansa, in order to compete with other airlines that were already flying the Boeing 707 on trans-continental routes launched its “Senator” luxury service in November 1958.
“While the “Super Star” [Lockheed L-1649 Starliner – ed. note] carried up to 86 passengers on all-Economy Class flights, its “Senator” services offered only eight First Class seats, 18 Deluxe seats and four beds, for a grand total of 30. The walls of the elegant lounge were covered in leather. And the cabin crew was upgraded to include the airline’s own specially trained, in-flight chef, who prepared dishes à la carte, including potato pancakes, a dish highly appreciated and frequently requested by passengers,” Lufthansa’s historical chronicle describes the service on board its Lockheed turboprop.
But luxury and service unlike any other were inseparable from the name Pan American World Airways, or Pan Am. The Juan Trippe-led airline dominated the United States’ skies with its excellent service and unmatched passenger experience on board, until its unfortunate demise in the early-1990s. Hearing or seeing the name Pan Am invokes a feeling of warmth that is full of sentiment even if one has not flown on the airline.
Other airlines were also in the race to attract customers by offering their best for passenger experience. There were no websites that could compare different carriers’ ticket prices on the same route – while the price was still important, it had less emphasis back then. After all, low-cost carriers truly penetrated the market in the 21st century, including attempts to challenge legacy airlines on long-haul flights.
At the same time, air travel has come a long way in terms of comfort, safety and speed. Service, arguably, is not worse either. Perhaps it has lost its romance due to the fact that luxury, usually reserved for the rich, is now available to the masses to a certain extent through loyalty programs and deal-hunting. The growth of the middle class is also vividly evident, even in regions that were less developed or isolated from the outside world during the Cold War, further contributing to the general availability of business and first class.
Squeezed between economy and business
But the role of first class has shifted over the years, especially as airlines are more inclined to save on costs. First Class is an expensive venture in terms of the seat and the space it takes up in an aircraft, minimizing the amount of profit an airline can potentially make. An empty first class seat is more expensive to operate than a business or economy class seat, including the fact that first class pods or suites are almost as wide as three economy seats. At the same time, corporate travel is crucial for airlines, as business travelers do not mind splashing money on more expensive tickets as the need to travel emerges suddenly, rather than leisure passengers, who book tickets beforehand.