17 November 2005

Demise of First Class

I miss first class.

This is an unashamedly elitist post – because I think it is slightly sad.

Air New Zealand quietly ceased providing a First Class service on its long haul flights earlier this year. This is in line with the introduction of its new class structure. It keeps economy - I mean scum class – by providing new seats and a fully interactive entertainment system. It provides premier economy class, which is like business class 15 or so years ago, with 6 inches more legroom, double the recline and a slightly classier food and drink service for more money –and business class has seats that recline fully to a flat bed with pillow and duvet – very nice indeed, not the sloping flat seats of (summaries of the business class products on these links) Qantas, Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific - but not first class.

Now admittedly Air New Zealand’s First Class seats are not as good as the new business ones, and its first class service was not quite up to that of the likes of Singapore Airlines or British Airways, but there was something about providing 5 star service on a plane that made it special. Touches like having a soup course, as well as a choice of entrees, constant attentiveness and separate quieter cabin – more amenities for the bathroom, and more separate check in from business – it was something for those who wanted nothing spared for their comfort and enjoyment inflight – and now the top product is for the well heeled business traveller or tourist, not the CEO.

Other airlines have dropped first class – Qantas dropped it from Auckland-LA flights, KLM, Scandinavian, Alitalia, Austrian, Finnair all have dropped first. Virgin Atlantic never had it – calling its top Upper Class- first class service at business class prices, and they are right, to a point.

Maybe it’s because few New Zealanders can afford first class or few first class travellers fly to New Zealand, maybe business class is just so good, that the next step isn’t worth it, maybe it costs so much to upgrade plane cabins to the next level (some Emirates planes have almost separate cabins for first class) that they better be filled or there is no point having them.

I remember when business class (and first class initially with Ansett) came to New Zealand domestic flights – that all disappeared when Air NZ realised that almost all of those seats were either taken up by MPs, or international travellers connecting to flights – very few wanted to pay to fly Wellington to Dunedin business class. Even Trans Tasman flights used to have first class with Air NZ and Qantas, now it is a cheap business class.

Still the market provides what it can bear. I flew first class four times on Air NZ, always upgrades from paid business class seats- it felt special, although a bit antiquated most recently. It was like a mini 5 star restaurant – and I got offered a separate DVD player (as it was recognised that the current tape based in flight entertainment system used in business class is kind of crappy) or Video Walkman with a selection of films to choose from. I sat in the former first class a couple of months ago flying to London- seat 1A no less – with business class service. It’s not the same, the big elaborate fruit and cheese board is gone, instead of selecting those I wanted, I got a small plate, pre-selected, handed to me. The rest of the meal was a good, albeit small, business class meal – and the service was still good- but it wasn’t first class.

and if you are thinking "what a wanker, I only fly economy class" then tough - I find flying long distances economy class to be little better than being shipped like cargo. You queue up like sheep at airports, at gates, cram yourself into tiny spaces in small seats, and expected to sleep upright while periodically some other pleb asks you to wake up and get out of your seat so they can join the 15 minute queue to go to the toilet. You wait for half an hour to an hour for your luggage at the other end. I'm 35, I've done that a few times and I will avoid it for trips of more than 5 hours now. Premium economy class can be a good compromise, but real travelling is business or first class- and the only people who deny it are those who haven't done it!


yingyangyo said...

I have done a lot of international travel, recently on a long flight I tried to recall how many international airlines I have flown on, and I got to 46. Now many of them have been only once or twice, but I have flown a long way internationally on Air NZ, Qantas, Singapore, Thai, Malaysian, Cathay, Emirates, BA, United and Lufthansa. Of them all I rate Air New Zealand the worst, quite possibly the worst I've ever experienced. Their service, both ground and in the air, is lousy. Their disregard for the paying customer is palpable. The telephone reservation agents are appalling. They refuse to pass on to the traveler the same benefits as other Star Alliance airlines make freely available. They make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible to use air points. I could give you multiple examples to illustrate why this is an airline to avoid anytime there is a reasonably competitively priced alternative. Which is what I tell everybody who asks me for an opinion, when planning a trip down under.

I confess to never having flown first class on Air NZ, though I fly first or business on all the other airlines I've used. Whatever Air NZ gave you up front to compensate for the appalling experience that most have to put up with, must have been pretty good.

CD said...

I just flew on Pacific Blue, which while far from luxury, I thoroughly enjoyed.

It was only a 3 hour hop over to Oz, so I didn't care about having all the luxuries poured on and it was the only airline I've been on when the crew were actually fun.

PA Announcement: "We have four channels on our in-flight audio system today; classic rock, easy listening, slow jazz and erotic bedtime stories read by Helen Clark"

They cracked jokes for the whole flight there and back and were real good fun. They have been the only two flights that the cabin crew have been applauded after their final PA announcement upon landing :-)

Libertyscott said...

Yingyangyo- I have to say my worst experiences have always been on US carriers - though in terms of Star Alliance carriers I think NZ far outranks Lufthansa and SAS as well, both of which have continuously dropped standards. Once proud European carriers have largely all given up, with the exception of BA/Virgin Atlantic. Of course Ryanair is the ultimate no service airline - when it is late or cancels, tough luck basically, you're stuck.

I think airlines vary greatly in classes - best economy class food is Virgin Atlantic, best business class food is Singapore, best business seat is NZ/Virgin Atlantic (the new NZ seat not the old one). NZ has the best economy class longhaul seating, 3 inches more pitch than almost all other airlines.

http://www.airlinequality.com is a good website to check out for some degree of objective analysis.

CD- The Virgin group does do this, so does Easyjet, although some Virgin crews do vary. The ones down under are still fresh, some of the Virgin Atlantic crews are vapid and a bunch of young tall blonde pretty girls who don't give a shit. I've tended to like Virgin flights, but I wont do Virgin Atlantic longhaul economy again - 12 hours with seat pitch worse than Air NZ domestic flights - I kid you not.

darren said...

The only times I have flown business class is as an IT journalist and I have been to Tokyo and back and Singapore and back.
Singapore Airlines is far better than Air NZ.
On long distance trips to the UK, Emirates is far superior than anyone else. Lovely entertainment systems and great food.
Thai Airways isn't bad.
Korean Air is cheap but nasty.
Domestically, and on the trans-tasman route, yes, Qantas is better than Air NZ and Emirates is best of all.

Libertyscott said...

Emirates has slipped badly. Its business class seating is like what Air NZ is now replacing, and it is the only airline I know of that puts people 10 abreast in economy class on a Boeing 777 - all others go 9 abreast (Singapore, BA, United, NZ). It rested on laurels it had earnt - but that is it, and trans tasman it doesn't really show. Its entertainment system is good, but Singapore and Virgin Atlantic both have as good, and the new Air NZ system is as well.