Is the First Class the new Club Class? No, it is a serious question. There was a time when only the very rich flew First Class. If you were lucky enough to find yourself in a First Class cabin, then rock stars would be sipping champagne in the seat behind you and mega-millionaires would be busy, across the aisle, checking out what the vegetarian option was.
Then, First Class went through a bad patch. Airlines did market research which told them that fewer and fewer people flew First. Most well-heeled passengers, it was said, would rather travel Club Class than pay the premium (anywhere from 50% to 100%) that First Class entailed. Slowly, but surely, First Class seats were ripped out of airlines. On short and medium haul, First Class disappeared entirely—you would be lucky to find an airline that provides First Class on a European route. Our own Air India decided to restrict First Class to its services to New York. If you fly Air India to Tokyo, you will find lots of rich Japanese gawking around the Club Class cabin and wondering if there is First Class somewhere in the front of the aircraft. There is no First Class on Thai flights out of India. And you would be lucky to do better than Club on your way to West Asia.
Then, probably as the global prosperity of the last decade or so kicked in, airlines began to rethink their view of First Class. Perhaps this had something to do with the private plane boom. These days, you won’t find rock stars or mega-millionaires on commercial airlines. They all have their own planes. There is absolutely no way you could find yourself across the aisle from, say, Rupert Murdoch, Mukesh Ambani, L.N. Mittal, Vijay Mallya or even Michael Eisner. The very rich only travel in their own jets. And those who do not possess jets charter them for their flights. So, you might just see Sting on a British Airways flight (a friend of mine did, and said the pretentious bassist spent the whole flight doing yoga in his seat), and I once flew with Natalie Portman on Jet Airways Club Class (she was accompanied by a mean and meaty bouncer), but I doubt if you’ll get to see Angie playing with her latest baby while Brad Pitt looks all moody. And it is as unlikely that Mick Jagger will lean across and ask you what your favourite Stones track is. They will all be miles away in their private jets.
As the super-rich stopped flying commercial and corporate profits shot up, airlines began to reintroduce First Class. Sometimes, they were inconsistent (I am still not sure which months it is that Air France offers First Class from New Delhi; most times, the plane’s divisions seem to stop at Club). And sometimes, they were moody (I used to think that the best First Class between New Delhi and London was United, but then they terminated the flight). But mostly, they saw the wisdom in grabbing the big bucks that First Class offered (few airlines do better than break even on economy class; the profits all come from the front of the aircraft).
On the whole, the world’s airlines have followed the lead of British Airways, the one carrier that refused to abandon First and reinvented the experience. British Airways worked out that as Club got better and better, people wanted something to distinguish First from the rest. The answer lay in flexibility, British was the first airline to emphasize flexibility. You no longer saw the movie the airline wanted you to see. You chose a video from an onscreen library and watched it when you liked (this was in the days before movies on demand). You did not have to eat the meal when the airline was ready to serve it. You could order from a restaurant-style menu whenever you liked. And then—in a move that is controversial but widely copied, nevertheless—British introduced the concept of private pod-like spaces. These felt exclusive but the flip side was that if you were travelling with somebody, they seemed very far away.
Passengers sing the praises of Singapore’s First Class but I have only ever flown it on medium haul (India to Singapore) and it was good without being great. In terms of hardware, Air India First Class can be the worst—old planes, nothing works, no mod cons, et cetera) but if you have a good cabin crew, then the warmth of the service is almost unparalleled.
Now Air India is finally getting its act together. This column is being written on the new Boeing 777 non-stop service to New York, and, despite the absurd fares (my return ticket cost in excess of Rs4 lakh—thank God I am travelling on work), the experience is vastly superior to anything Air India has managed in the past, though the phones still don’t connect, the beds are hard and the crew is not sure how all the fancy add-ons operate.
Jet began its international services with only Club on leased aircraft but now that its own planes have arrived, it has introduced a First Class that has frequent flyers raving. I haven’t actually flown it but I found myself in Club on a flight to London two days after the two new planes had been delivered. Would we like to see the First Class, the hostess inquired. We would, we said. And so a small delegation of us Club Class passengers was led to the front of the aircraft where Amitabh Bachchan was already ensconced. We paid our respects to the great man, looked around the cabin (more private pods) and were then ushered back to our more modest accommodation.
So, is First Class worth it? Well, it rather depends on a) how rich you are and b) on who is paying. If you are very rich but still can’t afford a plane of your own, then I guess First Class is your natural habitat. For the rest of us, it is a terrific experience as long as we don’t have to pay for it ourselves. If the fare had to be paid out of my own bank account, then I reckon I would fly the Club and buy something that lasts for longer than 15 hours with the money I saved.
(Write to Vir at email@example.com)
(Read his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi)