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Passengers go premium as first class popularity wanes

Emirates is sticking with first-class accommodation on its aircraft as the rest of the industry strips it out
  • Industry shifts to premium economy
  • First class ‘squeezed out’
  • Emirates promises new seat class

One of the key themes from this week’s Dubai Airshow was the fact that while first-class commercial travel will continue to be an option for Gulf carriers, its allure has waned, amidst an industry-wide shift towards premium economy.

Emirates airline, the Dubai-based flag carrier, is spending significant resources on premium economy as part of a $200 billion refurbishment programme, bringing the cabin to 120 planes in total in 67 Airbus A380 aircraft and 53 Boeing 777 aircraft.

Premium economy is currently available on 22 A380 aircraft covering 12 routes, with two more to be added by the end of December – Sao Paulo and Tokyo Narita.

“I must say when it comes to our number on the premium economy and what has been achieved so far, it’s beyond our expectations,” said Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman of Emirates.

“This is doing so well, and we will continue seeing it on different routes on Emirates.”

Sheikh Ahmed, speaking at a media event at Dubai Airshow, said first class would still remain a part of the airline’s repertoire. He also teased the introduction of a further class of seating.

“Emirates is continuing with first class and also you will see something else that will be delivered within the new aircraft,” Sheikh Ahmed said, adding that it would be “coming in the near future”.

The commitment came as the US plane manufacturer Boeing said that the popularity of premium economy and business class was squeezing first class out of the market.

“Business classes clearly have proven themselves to be very valuable, to the point where, in some cases, first class isn’t even needed any more because of the comfort and because of the products that are offered in there,” said Darren Hulst, vice-president of commercial marketing at Boeing.

Boeing’s latest commercial market outlook report said the number of first-class seats available in Middle Eastern fleets had fallen 8 percent since 2019, while business class was up marginally, by 1 percent.

Premium economy, on the other hand, had grown significantly, by 62 percent.

Aircraft, Airplane, TransportationEmirates
Premium economy is on 22 A380 aircraft covering 12 routes, with two more to be added soon
Business-class future

In June, the former CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, said that his airline would no longer be installing first-class berths in its next-generation long-haul aircraft.

In an interview with Fortune, Al Baker said the luxury seats were not financially viable, as business class provide similar perks.

Last year, American Airlines made a similar announcement, saying that it was replacing its first-class sections with business class seating from 2024.

Linus Bauer, founder of the aviation consultancy Bauer Aviation, said: “With the enhanced quality of business class offerings, such as the addition of lie-flat beds and private suite cabins, the justification for the added expense of first class has diminished.”

Sustainability issue

On top of expense, concerns about the impact on the planet is also a factor. In 2022 aviation accounted for 2 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, having grown faster in recent decades than rail, road or shipping, according to the International Energy Association (IEA).

Emissions for passengers flying in the first-class section of a wide-body aircraft are five times higher than emissions for passengers in the economy class of the same aircraft, data from the International Air Transport Association (Iata) says. 

Similarly, passengers flying first class in a narrow-body aircraft are responsible for 1.5 times higher emissions than passengers flying in economy class in the same aircraft.

The Hungarian multinational ultra-low-cost carrier Wizz Air, which includes Wizz Air Abu Dhabi in its group, said the route towards a sustainable future was by omitting both first and business class.

The single-aisle carrier previously ran a campaign called “Ban business class”.

“We encourage our customers to make smarter choices and you can see the consumer sentiment is changing. Particularly with the younger generation, they prefer to fly low-cost because they know that it’s more sustainable,” said Yvonne Moynihan, corporate and ESG officer for Wizz Air.