- First-class passengers get perks beyond the airplane
- First class may become obsolete as business-class service improves
- Some passengers will pay for first-class amenities no matter what, airlines say
If you want to fly nonstop first class from Tokyo to London and want the privacy afforded by a suite, be prepared to pay as much as US$27,000 on All Nippon Airways or Japan Air Lines. Or just slum it in ANA business class for $9,000 and change.
If you don't mind less privacy, for a mere $4,900, you can fly the same route nonstop business class on Virgin Atlantic and still be plenty pampered.
If you still insist on first class but don't mind one stop, you can fly China Southern Airlines for $11,465.
Price differences between first- and business-class fares can be dramatic, but what do passengers in first class get for the additional money?
More importantly, for those in a position to make the call, is first class worth all the extra cha-ching?
Differences you don't see
Tokyo-London has by far the highest first-class fares found on three major routes recently spot-checked by CNN.
But fluctuating pricing for flying first class with "open suites" or business class with lie-flat beds varies widely depending on whether you're flying nonstop or one-stop and the amount of pampering you want both in the air and on the ground.
The highly traveled New York-Frankfurt route is typical.
If you're flying first class from Frankfurt on your way to the Big Apple, there are many perks beyond what you get on the airplane.
Lufthansa offers first-class passengers a dedicated lounge at Frankfurt, along with a full dinner before boarding a late-night flight, if customers prefer sleep to onboard meals.
The lounge also offers beds, showers, office space, special security screening and chauffeured limousines directly to the aircraft, allowing passengers to avoid bumping elbows with mere mortals who buy business-class or coach tickets.
You're out of luck if you're boarding in any other Lufthansa city, however. Only in Frankfurt do first-class travelers enjoy such ground perks.
Once onboard, it might be tough to discern the differences between first and business, beyond the obvious: a suite and more space versus a lie-flat seat. The food is plentiful and the booze is free.
Don Buckenburg, Lufthansa's managing director for sales, North America, says that many airlines offer a suite of enclosed space with a door, creating a passenger's "own little cabin."
"When we developed first class, we asked customers, and our customers like open space, but they also like privacy," says Buckenburg. "You have a seat, but a wall that separates you. You press a button, and a wall comes up."
The retractable wall allows couples or fellow travelers to decide whether to be connected or separated.
Buckenburg says the first-class value differential over business class is space, privacy, a larger, longer and wider seat and additional crew per passenger in first class.
In addition, according to Buckenburg, flight attendants are specially trained to serve first class, knowing how to "read" the passenger differently and knowing the wine and menus with precision.
For good measure, "We're one of the last airlines to serve caviar," Buckenburg says.
First class may become obsolete
Buckenburg acknowledges not all markets can support first class, and in those, Lufthansa offers only business and coach service.
Mary Kirby, editor of the Airline Passenger Experience (APEX) magazine and blog, believes the first-class value proposition not only is diminishing, but also that the class will disappear in five years.
The trend toward lie-flat seats in business class, along with amenities that are similar to first, diminish the value of first, she says.
Lufthansa's Buckenburg disagrees. There remains a passenger segment that wants the privacy of suites.
He says CEOs, financiers and Hollywood types are among those who will pay for first class for the onboard experience and the privileges of airport services reserved for them.
"Lufthansa has invested quite a bit of money in keeping a first-class product because a lot of airlines are moving out of first-class where there is not enough traffic to warrant it," says Buckenburg. "There is still a market segment willing to pay for first class. The demand is still there, but not everywhere."
United Airlines remains a hybrid.
Legacy United has largely favored the first, business and economy (and recently introduced Premium Economy) model. Merger partner Continental Airlines favored two-class business and economy.
The legacy Continental aircraft continue to have just two classes. Legacy United's Boeing 747s are three class. About half the merged fleet's Boeing 777s are three class and the others are two class.
"It is less about our perspective on the values than the customers who buy it," says United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. "There are customers who appreciate and value all the attributes of GlobalFirst (United's name for first-class). Ultimately the pricing is a function of the demand and value that customers have for that service.
"In a nutshell, there are customers who choose to pay for this additional privacy and additional space and additional luxury and the higher level of personalized service."
But United also says that not all very long-haul routes merit first-class service.
"The value proposition for the lie-flat in first has been significantly diminished," says APEX's Kirby. "It's the reason a lot of airlines are going to a single-class premium service. It's why you see Lufthansa pulling out of first in some markets, and even Emirates Airlines is thinking of going all-business on the A380."
Blurring the line between first and business
Virgin Atlantic began operations in 1984 and never has offered first class.
Instead, its business class is named Upper Class, a first-class product at business-class prices, says spokeswoman Anna Catchpole.
"The Upper Class suite has been designed to be separately both the most comfortable bed and the most comfortable seat in the air," Catchpole says. "Instead of extending from a seat into a bed, Virgin Atlantic's seat provides the passenger with a luxury leather armchair to relax on which then flips over into a separate bed with a mattress to sleep on."
In a throwback to the early days of Boeing 747 service, Virgin offers a bar area in Upper Class, all for prices far below first-class on other carriers.
Virgin's Upper Class passengers also benefit from ground amenities at select airports. At London Heathrow Airport, Upper Class passengers have access to a limo and a dedicated security channel a short walk from the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse.
"Upper Class passengers and Flying Club Gold members making their own way to the airport can check in at the Upper Class check-in, in Zone A of the main terminal, before taking a priority lift straight to the dedicated security channel," says Catchpole. "Upper Class customers ... can now check in 40 minutes prior to their scheduled departure time at the latest, and whiz through the dedicated security channel straight to the gate."
As for the ultimate question -- Is first class worth it? -- the market seems to be reacting the way it usually does to luxury products and premium services: yes, it's worth it, if you can afford it and if those products and services are perceived as being unique.
With the growing affordability of private and corporate jets, however, as well as with budget tightening and improvements in business-class comfort, more high-end travelers are likely to put business before the ultimate pleasure.