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The Dead Cat Bounce in International First Class
Thursday, November 9, 2017 -- In Dubai on Sunday, Emirates Airline is scheduled to roll out a new first class cabin design for its Boeing 777s. Expect an electronic orgy from travel bloggers who will dissect every bit of bling, analyze each tiny upgrade--and then claim Emirates has created the first class cabin to end all international first class cabins.

We know this will happen because the bloggers creamed their electronics last week when Singapore Airlines unveiled its new A380 first class suites. Oooh, a nice bed, they moaned. Oooh, a separate swivel chair, they cooed. Oh, god, leather from an Italian company almost none of them actually know, they tweeted and blogged and Facebooked.

Permit me to cut through the hype and the orgasmic proclamations and explain it with a phrase most frequently used when financial markets tank: dead cat bounce. Any time you read about some lavish new upgrade in some airline's international first class cabin, just remember: dead cat bounce.

First class cabins on international runs are dying. They may be leaving remarkably good-looking corpses, as I suggested three years ago, but they are, in the end, corpses. Martin Deutsch has been talking about the decline of international first class since at least 1993.

Don't believe the hype about this bed or that first class perk. Believe the numbers:
      Singapore Airlines will cut the size of its first class cabin in half on the A380s. Right now, there are 12 suites. When the reconfiguration is complete, each of the carrier's eventual fleet of 19 A380s will have just six first class suites.
      The new Emirates first class on its 777s will have just six first class places, down from the current eight.
      Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier that made its big first class splash in 2014, last week announced the end of its Dallas/Fort Worth route. Flights disappear next year after a four-year run.
      Garuda Indonesia is dropping first class on two of the last three routes where it offered the cabin.

"You can count on your hands the number of routes that justify first class anywhere," the chief executive of one global carrier told me this week. "Paid numbers are dreary, frankly. It's a quirk of our fleet that we continue to offer F [first class] on any U.S. routes."

That last point is especially noteworthy. International first class to and from North America is withering faster than elsewhere. Save for a very few routes on American Airlines, U.S. or Canadian airline long ago abandoned international first class. British Airways and Lufthansa, the airlines that have more planes equipped with long-haul first class than any others, don't offer first on every route anymore. Air France's first class is down to four seats per aircraft. And that fancy new Singapore Airlines first class? Lots of luck finding it on a U.S. flight. Only one SIA route to or from the United States (New York/Kennedy-Frankfurt) operates with Airbus A380s. The first newly configured Airbus A380 will roll out next month, but SIA officials couldn't say when one would reach JFK-Frankfurt.

We talked about why first class is dying three years ago, but the new Singapore Airlines product raises still another issue: Carriers are running out of things they can do for you for the price they have to charge to fly up front.

Nice as it is, the new Singapore Airlines suite smacks of needless overkill. For starters, it consumes about 60 square feet of space, an insanely expensive commitment for one passenger. And while everyone really would like a separate swivel chair and foldaway bed on a long-haul flight, is it really necessary? (And, ironically, because the suites are so large and heavy, Singapore won't offer them on their longest routes, like the recently launched, 17.5-hour San Francisco-Singapore run.) Sliding doors? Nice for total privacy, but some premium flyers actually miss the days of more collegial flights. There are some excellent small touches--the in-suite storage with dedicated space for handbags is inventive--but hardly the kind of game changers that would lure anyone from the already lavish confines of Singapore Air's business class. In fact, business class beds on SIA's A380 are larger (78x34 inches) than the first class ones (76x27 inches).

The core new feature of the Singapore suite--the bed-and-chair combination--isn't even new. To slash first class capacity on older Boeing 747s back in 2011, Lufthansa went to a bed-and-chair arrangement. Although it clearly wasn't as sophisticated as the new SIA suite, Lufthansa got the basics seven years ago. I can go even further back than that. In 1993, Chris Barnett wrote in Frequent Flyer magazine about Bob Runyon, best-known as the inventor of the modern annual report. Frustrated by the comparatively confined quarters of early 1990s premium cabins, Runyon sketched an in-flight suite (see above) that bears an uncanny resemblance to what Singapore Airlines introduced last week.

In fairness, one can't ignore the trickle-down effect of these "halo" products. British Airways introduced the first modern bed in first class in 1995 and it did trickle down, not just to other first classes, but to business class, too. And I suppose you can claim Etihad's lavish first class products have forced other airlines to up their games. But Etihad may not even survive much longer, so halo products don't always make a brand--or an airline--a winner.

And there is a distinctly unsilvery lining to these gigantic first class accommodations that few purchase. To make room for them and keep planes flying profitably, airlines must shoehorn more and more seats onto the aircraft. That means less and less comfort for a greater percentage of flyers than ever before. The obvious example: After what Singapore Airlines claims is an $850 million investment, its 19 Airbus A380s will have a total of 471 seats, up from the current 379 or 441. And it is true of all multi-class airlines: The higher-paying passengers are fewer in number and get much more. The lower-paying passengers get squeezed to keep the planes economically viable. It's not so much that one class subsidies the other--a hoary old argument--but that fewer premium passengers require airlines to stuff aircraft to the gills with coach flyers.

Keep all this in mind when you find breathless, hands-in-your-pants prose in your news feeds Sunday night about Emirates' new first class. It's a dead cat bounce--and one we're not likely to see, either. Like Singapore Air's new first class, the new Emirates cabin may not even appear on U.S. routes. In fact, when the new first product premieres on December 1, Emirates says it'll be on routes from Dubai to Geneva and Brussels.

Update on Sunday, November 12: Emirates unveiled the new first class suites on its Boeing 777s. They are not as large as the Singapore Airlines suites and have a traditional chair-into-bed arrangement. Emirates also confirmed when similar suites are installed on its Airbus A380s, the "seat" count will drop to 11 from the current 14.

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