Was 2017 Fatal For International First Class?

For all the attention poured on new business class cabins in 2017, airlines did not bestow so much favor on international first class cabins.

Though heavyweight luxury carrier Emirates and Singapore launched much improved first class suites onboard their long-haul jets, enthusiasm for the private, front end of the plane waned among just about everyone else.

Singapore Airlines unveiled a new first class suite configuration in 2017 that looks more like Etihad’s apartment. Source: Singapore Airlines.

There appear to be fewer opportunities than ever before to redeem mileage awards for international first class travel. Who could forget the year-ending snafu in which Aeroplan surprised travellers by offering first class awards on Swiss Air, then canceling them en mass.

Even among those carriers that renewed investment in the quality of their first class cabins, improvement came at a steep reduction in capacity. Singapore is cutting its A380 first class suites cabin from 12 seats to 6. Emirates is similarly cutting it’s 777-300ER first class space from 12 seats to 9.

American, United Scrap First Altogether

Five years ago a first class cabin was offered on nearly every long-haul American Airlines and United Airlines flight. After changes this year, there will soon be only 20 U.S. aircraft operating international first class cabins.

The full range of Casper products in American Airlines long-haul First Class. Source: American Airlines

American Airlines now offers international first class on just one aircraft in its fleet, the Boeing 777-300ER. Source: American Airlines

While American has not announced plans to scrap its Flagship First cabin on its largest overseas jet — the Boeing 777-300ER — now complete retrofits of the remainder of American’s long-haul fleet is devoid of a first cabin.

Amid the rollout of its new Polaris business class cabin, United made plans to eliminate first class as it retrofits its long-haul aircraft. First class seats on long-haul flights are no longer available to purchase as of May 1, 2018, per One Mile At A Time.

Newest Jets Often Without First

Even on airlines renowned for international first class — Air France, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Qantas, to name a few — newer aircraft are often delivered without that special space up front.

Singapore Airlines' New Business Class onbaord the A350. Source: Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines’ new business class onbaord the A350. The airline’s newest long-haul jets don’t offer first class. Source: Singapore Airlines

None of Air France’s next generation Boeing 787 or Lufthansa’s Airbus A350 planes are equipped with first. New A350s introduced at Cathay and Singapore were also left without those airlines’ staple first class products. In South America, LATAM Brasil (formerly TAM) cut out its first class cabin in new 777-300 and A350 configurations.

It’s been clear for several years that flat-bed business class seats are set to cannibalize the market for first class travel.

“In the context of business class becoming so good, the incremental reason for most travelers to travel first class rather than business is not as compelling as it perhaps used to be before full lie-flat beds, before very, very wide seats, before the privacy and all of the other attributes that now come with our business class,” Singapore airlines Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Campbell Wilson said, speaking to Skift.

Fewer Routes, Better Service

With business class becoming more luxurious across the board, airlines are moving to limit first class service, both in terms of seating capacity and route diversity. But for the narrow market of super-elite travellers willing to shell out exorbitant quantities of cash, the first class experience is poised to transcend anything imaginable a few years ago.

New First Class on Emirates B777-300ER. Source: Emirates

New First Class on Emirates B777-300ER. Source: Emirates

For those holding out for an award first class flight, fewer options remain, but there are still fairly reliable options. Consider waiting until about a week before departure, and Lufthansa First Class becomes available through Aeroplan (AMEX transfer partner) and United (Chase transfer partner).

Lufthansa First Class on the 747. Photo by the author.

Lufthansa First Class on the 747-8 Intercontinental. Photo by the author.

Korean Air still makes a decent number of international first class seats available to its own SkyPass frequent flier program members (a Chase transfer partner), and if you’re willing to swallow a nasty fuel surcharge, British Airways petit version of first class is widely available.

Cathay Pacific and Etihad still make first class seats available to partners such as American, Alaska and British Airways, but award bookers have noticed tightening availability. Emirates first class awards can be equally challenging to find, and come with a heft fuel surcharge to boot. Asian Star Alliance carriers including ANA and Asiana still occasionally make first class seats available for awards.

Finding a first class seat is as daunting as ever. If you’re struggling, or don’t have the time to go globetrotting for scarce first class award space, consider using an award booking service like Juicy Miles.

Point Me To The Plane is reflecting on the year’s biggest trends in travel and aviation. Have a story you think we’ve missed? Share in the comments section below.


  1. Not many carriers with F int’l. But the ones that still have it are generally of good quality. I hope to add Garuda, MH, LX, Emirates, AF, BA, Ethihad, SQ, TG to my list of flown F int’l – and before some of those disappear. While Air India, Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Korea Air have F the reviews are not that thrilling, especially on the food front. The biggest plus to fly F IMHO is the quiet and space.

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