First class is disappearing, and that’s a good thing!

I’m out of town for the next few weeks, so I’ve lined up some great guest posts. Today’s guest post comes from The Wandering Aramean, a/k/a Seth Miller. Seth is an aerophile and travel addict based in New York City. Seth writes his own travel blog, The Wandering Aramean, is a part of the PointsHoarder podcast focused on maximizing the value of loyalty points and is also a contributor for Fodors.com. He can be reached at @WanderngAramean on Twitter.

First class flying: the ultimate luxury experience in the air. Right? Everyone wants that opportunity and experience and yet the airlines are cutting back on first class services. Why? It turns out that, for many, business class is good enough. In fact, many carriers today are offering a business class product better than the first class of yore.

The Wall Street Journal had a piece out last week discussing the ever shrinking number of first class seats flying around the world. They’re calling it a “long, slow death” and focus on the change from a First/Business/Economy model to a Business/Premium Economy/Economy model among a number of carriers.

For decades, international first class was a symbol of self-indulgence in the sky, several rungs above its domestic cousin, which tends to be closer to economy class, but with free alcohol and bigger, cushier seats.

The top-drawer service, however, has been disappearing from U.S. airlines for decades. Of the more than 500 aircraft U.S. airlines regularly fly to Europe, Asia and South America, just 27% offer first class.

And there is plenty of truth in the story. The number of seats marketed as First Class is definitely decreasing. But from the perspective of “self-indulgence in the sky” things would seem to be a bit different. Business Class today is, by most measures, a more comfortable in-flight experience than First Class was 10 years ago. From that perspective First Class isn’t really dead; it just has a different name.

Within the Indian long-haul market there are still options for first class service. Air India, Jet Airways and Emirates all offer first class cabins. But not all routes offer the first class option on every flight. And tracking that down can create a challenge for passengers. Even more complicated, however, is figuring out if the value of flying in first class is worth it or not.

All three carriers have at least part of their fleet configured with a fully flat bed in their business class cabins, for example. And the multi-course meals are premium beverage options are also available, though not necessarily quite as premium.

Fewer and fewer companies pay for first class, owing in large part to the fact that business class is generally good enough for traveling employees to sleep well and show up ready to work. First class is no longer a necessity to be well-rested and comfortable; it is now an over-the-top luxury. More and more of the customers up front are getting there by redeeming miles rather than paying the cash fare. And while that’s useful to the airlines in reducing their liabilities, it doesn’t really make sense to keep the seats around, especially if they can sell more business class seats instead.

In other words, is there really value to the 3-cabin first class product? Or is the 2-cabin business class product good enough for most folks? First class is very, very nice when it is available. Taking a shower in the Emirates A380 first class lav was a wonderful experience. But business class lets you eat and sleep quite well. Is first worth paying extra for? Or even redeeming points? The answer is generally “no” for me.