First Class, Then and Now

Posted Nov 9th 2010 11:09 AM

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The year was 1956. The setting: a berth on the old Pan Am Clipper, where Marlene Dietrich was sound asleep. Her sometime, and rather unlikely, lover Yul Brynner happened to be on the same flight. As the plane glided through the sky from New York to Los Angeles, Brynner slipped across the aisle from his berth to hers, and a night of wild love-making ensued.

The next morning, as Dietrich described to her dear friend Noel Coward, "I thought I had dreamt this. I looked through my curtains and saw his foot in the shoes I bought [him] from Italy on the floor of the opposite berth."

In those days, especially on Pan Am -- the only airline to offer berths -- flying was far more comfortable, and in some cases obviously far more sexy, than it often is today.

As jets began to enter airline fleets, officially named First Class service began to appear, with Pan Am again leading the way. Anne Sweeney, who was a Pan Am stewardess from 1964-75, and who now serves as Director of Communications for World Wings International, an association of former Pan Am flight attendants, remembers those days well.

"When I started, the standard of service in First Class was very high. We served a multi-course dinner, ostensibly by Maxim's of Paris, which meant that they planned the menus," Sweeney recalls. In those days, the stewardesses actually cooked the food -- including roasting beef -- creating gourmet fare in a "very small space," according to Sweeney. The Purser boarded armed with a meat thermometer. The stewardesses used to joke that their hair, post-flight, smelled like Eau de Boeing, an aromatic blend of beef, cigarettes and kerosene.

First Class, Then and Now

Douglas Miller, Keystone / Getty Images

Pan Am's First Class also included an upstairs lounge, which could be set up like a dining room. Sweeney recalls trying to create good matches for the table seating there. Once she seated Bill Cosby at a table with a rather uptight British businessman who didn't know who Cosby was, and who was rather amazed by the steady stream of comedy that accompanied the Iranian caviar, Turkish vodka, and ice cream served in a silver bowl, among other delicacies.

Later in the flight, some First Class passengers liked to stretch out in quiet of the upstairs lounge. "Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was Ambassador to India then. I would bring him a bottle of burgundy and a glass and then tuck him in and go back downstairs. He was always very gentlemanly," Sweeney says.

In the '80s, as jet travel became increasingly popular and planes became bigger, British Airways introduced its Club World, which offered actual lie-flat beds. The TWA 747 100 opened an upstairs piano bar for first class passengers. Airlines began to compete hard for the high-end traveler.

So What Happened?

Now, it appears, First Class has begun to experience significant death throes. Qantas, the Australian airline, recently announced that it will eliminate First Class on most of its runs. Continental has already eliminated First Class and United may do the same on its international flights. Delta no longer has an official First Class.

While premium air fares contribute significantly to an airline's bottom line -- as much as 27 percent of passenger revenues, according to Steve Lott, of the International Air Transport Association -- demand appears to be dropping.

Why? According to George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com, "a lot of corporations are cutting back, and the economy is also causing people to cut back on leisure, luxury travel."

Hobica, however, sees another issue. "There is a business justification for this. The airlines weren't selling enough First Class tickets. Many First Class passengers were there on upgrades, which is great for loyalty, but not so great for the bottom line."

Sure -- there are still die-hard First Class loyalists. Raymond Baron, who frequently flies on buying expeditions for a Texas store, always travels First Class, using his own funds to supplement what the business will reimburse. "The larger seats and greater leg room do make a difference in how rested you are when arriving after flying for a great length of time. It's all about the comfort level and not so much about the food any longer. I would not be happy if First Class disappeared," he says.

Is It Really Disappearing?

To many industry insiders, it looks as though First Class is not so much disappearing as it is experiencing a reshuffling and renaming. Hobica notes that many airlines may be finding that they just have too many classes. In addition to First Class, many now offer Business Class; Premium Economy, which, he says, is like what First Class was in the old-old days; and Economy.

"Now Business Class has become so comfortable, with lie-flat beds, that it has almost become First Class," Hobica notes, adding that there are currently big bargains in Business Class fares.

The luxury is often still there. It just has a different name.

First Class, Then and Now

Andrew Yates, AFP / Getty Images

That Old First Class Glamour . . . On Steroids

At the same time, reports of the death of First Class would seem to be highly exaggerated. In fact, airlines that have chosen to keep First Class -- largely because they have a passenger base that can and is willing to pay for it -- continue to up the ante in terms of luxury. The Dubai-based Emirates Airlines, which aspires to make Dubai a central gateway for global travel, has created ultra-luxurious First Class cabins on many of its growing fleet of planes. In fact, it has just dropped a rumored $11.5 billion to acquire 32 more double-decker Airbus A380 super jumbo jets that can easily accommodate top-tier First Class service.

Passengers pay a hefty price, but they enjoy the luxury of a private suite, complete with vanity desk and personal mini bar; a seat that converts into a full-length bed; and a 23-inch, wide-screen LCD screen (offering 600 channels of entertainment). The food and wine, of course, are as over the top as the setting.

The Mumbai, India-based Jet Airways also occupies a place in the fabulous First Class pantheon. Its First Class cabin includes eight private suites featuring nearly seven-foot-long beds, compete with eight-point massage system. Other details: A 23-inch flat-screen monitor, storage closets and a full-length hanging wardrobe, and a work table that can be transformed into a dining table for two. Menu choices include gourmet Indian fare and Western choices created by Michelin two-star chef Yves Mattagne. The wines are fine, and the champagne is either Dom Pérignon or Krug.

First Class now, it would seem, is every bit as luxurious as First Class then . . . even if you won't find Marlene Dietrich and Yul Brynner canoodling in one of the cabins.

Filed Under: Air Travel, Luxury

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