Tony France on the Decline of First Class

I’m going to be nowhere near the internet today, and actually I’m probably sleeping right now. Why, you ask? Well this weekend is my bachelor party, and things kicked off last night. Of course, I didn’t want to leave you without anything today, so I’ve got a great guest post for you from Tony France, The Traveling Optimist.

I hope you enjoy the read, and I’ll approve any comments that need to be approved when I get back on Sunday.



In the earliest days of air travel the skies were the purview of the rich and the foolhardy. The train was the chic, convenient and classy way to travel, all in one. It stayed on the ground, traveled at speeds the human mind could understand and the Pullman services, since they had all week to reach New York, Chicago or Boston, were second to none. Crisp linens, sumptuous meals, porter service for every whim.

C. R. Smith in 1934 wanted some of that Pullman business for his fledgling American Airlines and called up Donald Douglas about an airplane that could convert to the first sleeper seats for overnight service. Thus with a phone call arose the DC-3. Needing an edge of its own, TWA made a phone call to Boeing about something larger and faster with the first pressurized cabin, the Stratoliner. After the Second World War the even larger Stratocruiser gave us private lounges reached by the first circular staircase to an alternate level on a double-deck airliner. These three silver birds would be combined in to one almighty aircraft, again, seemingly out of little more than a phone call between Juan Trippe at Pan Am and Bill Allen at Boeing:

“If I buy it will you build it?”

“If I build it will you buy it??”

All hail the 747, the first wide-body and featuring a First Class cabin (nose configuration) that arguably remains unsurpassed to this day.

Right up to the mid- and late-eighties the seat in First Class was never more than a large Barcalounger, wide enough for fat-cat hips with a deep enough recline to attempt some sleep on a flight rarely more than 10 hours in length. It was the food as well as the human touch that made First Class what it was.

I joined American in 1986 as a “B-Scale” baggage handler for American Airlines in 1987, thankful to have a job. My first vacation as a nonrev traveler was to Paris the following April to visit a friend from college. I was lucky enough to get a seat in First Class on the redoubtable “AA-#48” and what happened over the next eight hours lingers blissfully on my mind to this very day.

Leather and lambs’ wool covered the seat, American’s signature upholstery at the time. After take-off, the 767-200 we flew was transformed in to a Michelin rated restaurant. Linen carts to set the table, each set piece hand presented as if setting the stage for a magnificent culinary performance. Drink orders were taken and returned with the ubiquitous warm mixed nut offering. An appetizer followed – salmon in dill with capers and hard breads. A crust scraper was deftly deployed after every course.

The full caviar service was a first for me and it came with gracious assistance and a knowing smile from the flight attendant on how to prepare the treat to my liking since I’d never done it before! She enjoyed sharing in my first experience as much as I was enjoying sampling a world far beyond my means and imagination at the time. The salad cart followed, generously tossed with flourish and cracked pepper while we were somewhere over Tennessee.

“Sorbet?” “Don’t you mean sherbert?” The flight attendant chuckled softly as I contemplated another first, sorbet, of the grapefruit variety. I just stared at this unheard of frozen concoction and tiny little spoon in a fluted glass. “Savor it, let it linger so it will cleanse the palate,” my flight attendant advised. Wow, all this just to prepare for the main course? Was this only because we were flying to Paris, a local market thing, or was this on every long haul international flight American operated? Heck, what were the other airlines doing compared to this?

The main course followed, an exquisite filet in Madeira wine, followed by coffee or tea. Next came a cheeseboard with at least six varieties of English, Dutch and French cheeses along with grapes and accompanying port wines but the meal was hardly finished. The dessert cart appeared, offering something fancy and something simple; I settled for the simple – vanilla and chocolate ice cream with hot fudge and whipped cream. Aperitifs appeared to finish it all off, all traces of an elaborate production removed and I was left in the dark with a single glass of water, fantasy over, back to reality. I looked out the window at Cape Cod drifting into the indigo night behind me, open ocean, about three hours of sleep and Paris ahead of me.

Two hours before landing and the onboard crew is at it again. Hand set trays of linens and silver, hot towels and orange juice, warm croissants to start. A yogurt service was followed by a choice of cold cereals or a “Dutch” breakfast of breads and cold meats with butter and select jams. I’m well tucked in to my Euro-food when my flight attendant stops by and asks how I would like my eggs cooked. A small dribble of milk runs down my bulging cheek as my bewilderment takes in the question put to me.

“Uh, scrambled, please?”

Fresh, scrambled eggs, breakfast meats and potatoes with onions and peppers are placed before me with another flight attendant right behind pouring out yet another cup of tea to wash it all down. Amazing! No sorbet this time, but fresh fruit to take the garlic edge off and then, the telltale droning from outside the window. The engines were idling down, announcing we are beginning our vectors to land. One last glass of ice water, the immigration landing card, all window shades up and my Michelin rated restaurant was for the second time merely a cabin in a plane as if nothing special at all had happened. Rather, something special had indeed just happened and to probably the most impressionable passenger on board that night.

Rumblings were beginning even then, however, that the glamour was going out of air travel as carriers struggled to re-invent themselves. Bitter labor fights over B-scale wages, seriously fuel hungry fleets of 707s, 727s, dying airlines and the rise of fortress hubs dominated the headlines. The bottom line was coming in to ever sharper focus as airline realities changed from high-end travel options to complex economic engines where costs and profits were measured in pennies per mile. The big picture visionaries with outsized personalities who kept one eye on the future and did business with a handshake were slowly, inevitably replaced with Ivy League micro-managers who knew only P&L and ROI. Atmosphere is not quantifiable ergo luxury inevitably loses out to utility and optimization. Glamour, even my first fleeting taste of it, wasn’t to remain on the scene for much longer.

The caviar went first, a victim of conservationist activities as well as the most obvious “waste” on board the plane. One by one, everything almost down to the steak itself was removed and cost cut. Fresh eggs died an omelette with red sauce death long ago. Today’s premium passengers are essentially left to feel lucky they receive a meal at all. The entrees have become “lighter, healthier” and cheaper. The carved roasts and Maine lobsters are all in your dreams if you’re old enough to remember them at all.

Today’s First Class is not about the food at all; Robert Crandall himself once said as much. It’s the seat. As flights have gotten longer and markets more competitive it is the onboard hardware, a combination of a Borg energy pod and a spa cubicle that allegedly drives the customer’s decision. Like both of these entities, however, regardless of all the push-button gadgetry, the seat is neutral, impersonal and designed for isolation (except the double bed on Virgin Atlantic). Comfy but cold.

After the AirMap some airlines boast 600 titles of films, shows, music and games via “on demand” entertainment technology. What a waste. I used to think my own personal library of 1800 CDs and 600 DVDs was impressive until some of my more savvy friends corrected me. The iPod and the laptop each obviate the need for massive onboard libraries. Savvy, techie, family and busy travelers alike will have all they need with them in their own unedited hard drives so long as they can access onboard power.

The cabin real estate and cost to the airlines for these contraptions explains retail fares surpassing $12,000 one way (Qantas.com, LA to Sydney, First Class). Whether or not anyone actually pays that much, I feel the airlines have missed the point of what true First Class was, should and could be – the seat, the atmosphere and the food, in balance, to create the world discerning passengers want and airlines need to truly distinguish themselves. For $800/hour, at least Qantas brought back the caviar!

So keep all the movies and shows, fellas, my laptop screen offers a larger and better picture. Better yet, send that huge library of stuff back to the masses in coach since they don’t have onboard power but for the most part have individual screens. Do something with the walls other than the usual mood-neutral blues and beiges. How about a world mural, like TWA used to have, or commemorative artwork like Pan Am once gave away? Could Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” as a bulkhead piece help turn Alitalia around? Italian art, Italian food and hospitality, Italian wines and leathers? How could they go wrong? But I digress – at least it would be something, anything, to evoke the old romance and glamour of flying, of discovering new destinations, even if the guy in Seat 1K is a million-miler who has seen it all before.

Bring back the food, plain and simple. It’s been 21 years and numerous premium cabin experiences since that first time on American, but give me the complete experience I had again on that first, First Class flight to Paris. Carpeted walls textured the cabin and each course was a sequence of events in a grand adventure expertly guided by an inflight crew that exuded pride in their role while being willing to initiate the neophyte through the finer points of their rarefied world.

With their reputation for engineering, I can well believe that, back in the day, Lufthansa had better seats but it was a no-brainer that Air France had better food! Thanks to mergers and acquisitions, economics and alliances, the unique touches once offered in the front cabins of the flag carriers of the world seem all to have sadly gone to ground with the great luminaries who created the great planes that introduced them all to begin with. Varig, I barely knew ye.

Shampag-knee, anyone?

22 Responses to Tony France on the Decline of First Class

  1. Zack Rules says:

    If you’ve ever flown Jet Airways or Emirates, you’ll find that First Class is alive and well. And the food is simply marvelous. When I was in India a few months ago, I took a domestic Jet Airways flight and even in economy class on an hour and half long flight, they served a pretty decent meal.

  2. Greg R says:

    As a child and young teenager, I had the very rare and special privilege of being able to fly first class on a Braniff International POS A flight pass. The perk of being the son of an EVP. In those days, I often flew DFW-PDX as regularly as once a month. The meal served on that flight was Chateaubriand and everything else you can imagine going with such an entree. The seat was leather and both wide with a good, reasonable pitch. As I look upon the “Business Class” offered on most legacy carriers today, it comes nowhere close.

    Despite all the miles flown in such luxury, Crandall is right in my opinion. It is the seat. I don’t really miss the food or more polite and service friendly flight attendants. I don’t miss the free beverages or magazines either. I do miss having a decent seat and going unintruded upon by fellow passengers and/or FA’s.

    I think some airlines have figured this basic differentiation (JetBlue, Airtran, etc) and many more have not.

  3. Greg says:

    This post, coming as it does around supper time for me, had me salivating at the thought. One of my great regrets in life is that I never got to fly during the golden age of air travel, when first class travel truly was something special.

    Excellent post, thanks for sharing.

  4. Daren S says:

    I have to agree with Zach Rules, outside the US First Class is alive and well. The US carriers really have absolutely no imagination when it comes to premium offerings and have failed to invest in it in recent years. I guess the domestic nature and focus of most of the US carriers’ business has somewhat challenged them when it comes to long haul. BA First and Club World both offer a touch of glamour, combining a comfortable seat, cosy cabin environment and a good dining experience. My dad flies Emirates First Class occasionally and I hear only great reports about it. Unfortunately he has an upcoming trip with Delta from ATL to JNB in what they believe is a premium offering in the form BusinessElite. I imagine 18.5 hours on those seats will feel far from glamourous.

  5. Rob says:

    This brings back a childhood memory from back in the mid-70′s:

    My sister and I flew from LAX to Washington, DC for our annual visit to our grandparents. For some reason, that flight (a United DC-10) had only about ten passengers that day. We all got to sit up front in first class, and they brought out all the food (I remember a delicious roast beef) and set it up buffet-style on a large fold-down table. It was essentially an all-you-can-eat party the whole way.

    United must have been doing a bit better back then. :-)

  6. David T says:

    Though I do enjoy getting a good meal in first (sometimes nowdays a bit of an oxymoron) I agree with Crandall, at 6’3 I’m all about the seat. I normally have to arrive after a transpac or transatlantic flight and that very night begin a series of lectures, I need a good nights sleep. I can fast if necesary, but let me stretch out, relax and sleep in comfort.
    I must say though, I did enjoy your expose on the way things used to be. Back in the 70s as a kid, I flew alot with my parents but never first. Even so, I can remember then the tons of little perks that existed. You could get free postcards from the FAs (Air Hostesses acutally!), amenity kits in coach on long haul flights, lavs were packed with amenities as well, a variety of popular magazines on board to read, etc etc etc! They were diferent times indeed.

  7. Chris says:

    Your description sounds pretty much like all the LH F flights I had over the last years. Except that of course the seat is a little nicer these days (even nicer on other airlines than LH, though)

  8. ageekymom says:

    My first trans-Atlantic flight was aboard Icelandic Air the Hippie Express) to Luxembourg in 1977. I sat in coach and remember having a fantastic meal which began with cocktails, followed by a hot meal with a choice of red or white wine and then a digestif and dessert. Being only 14, and being served wine, I thought it was fantastic! ;-)
    The stopover in Iceland was pretty amazing and when they served breakfast, it contained Icelandic smoked salmon.
    Those were the days!

  9. QRC says:

    Cranky…I feel like this is a bit sketchy. This poster hardly sounds like an optimist! Or even a seasoned first-class flyer nowadays, regardless! So negative! And so incorrect!

    I fly long-haul usually 2x a month, and do F class probably 50% of the time. For those who like champagne, I had Krug Grand Cuvee on my Cathay Pacific flight last week from HKG-LHR, and will be enjoying it again alongside a Tsar Nicolai caviar service, possibly followed with some Lynch Bages in two days back from SFO-HKG. Sure sure, Lufthansa seats are hard, all the US-based airlines F (and J) are pretty much crap, but I highly suspect the author hasn’t flown first class SQ (or even R class with them), CX or EK lately. Or possibly ever.

    Out of practicality, somethings cannot be served on a 17 hour flight from JFK-HKG as safety standards don’t allow someone to crack open a can of sterno and cook something in the galley, so sure some of whatever it is you want is lost. But this is not for a lack of effort. And the seat DOES matter! Come on…honestly here. Do you expect Singapore Airlines to use an Atari console with a black and white TV in their suites? It all seems a bit like those who romance about the “good ole days” without actually actually being one of those who use the product they’re romancing about!

  10. QRC says:

    Also, Virgin is not F class. That’s “upper class,” code name for business. Second, bad resolution in screens? The author has definitely not tried SQ and CX’s first class lately (or even J or Y class!). BA isn’t great, but it’s still not bad and has many of the culinary things worked out that the author complains so noisily about. QF isn’t bad either.

    Cranky, it’s well written but very out of date and clearly the words of an airline enthusiast reminiscing about his few times in F (or J? I can’t tell with him) back in the day without real context in today’s market, minus the US carriers. If you can get CX, SQ, EK, BA or QF to sponsor you I recommend you to see the absurdity of most of the complaints the author here has.

  11. The Traveling Optimist says:

    I respect the comments QRC made. We even agree on some points. I ask the individual, however, to consider the handful of pre-eminent carriers QRC regularly patronizes compared to the host of carriers from every corner of the world that once could proclaim the same level of service. It is that large majority of carriers around which my remarks were centered.

    The five carriers QRC is able to use regularly do not fly every major international route, leaving the numerical majority of travelers to “suffer” the offerings and diminished levels of service provided by the rest of the industry at large. QF does not serve Frankfurt – Sao Paulo and EK does not operate Chicago – Guangzhow.

    Over the last ten years, with rare exception, my international travel has been all First or Business Class to every continent except Africa and logging between 75,000 and 200,000 each year. I recently enjoyed AA from Dallas to Tokyo in First Class. Great plane, fantastic seat, ontime flight, top notch 25-year veteran flight attendant. She and I both agreed the meal service was not where it used to be, however, on a nonstop route Japan Airlines discontinued.

    My optimism rests in the fact that the five airlines QRC has mentioned, three of which I have in fact flown and have plans for two of them in the coming months, do offer the “romanticized” services I lament in the other carriers. My optimism further rests in the hope that the bar these airlines set today, as American did on that first trip for me 21 years ago, will be met by a rejuvenated, healthy, profitable and service oriented industry again one day. With gracefully aging 747-400s the backbone of its Australia and Hong Kong service in particular, United has the most to lose if its announced upgrade falls short of the Pullman cabins on SQ and EK.

    QRC and I both agree the US carriers have fallen far and, as someone who is also 6’3″ tall, the seat is critical to a long-haul flight experience. Outside of the Fabulous Five, however, it seems that even in First Class the passenger is all but dining cafeteria fare and fountain drinks in fully reclining leather upholstery!

    Finally, my comments on screen resolution simply revolve around economics and rapidly improving technology. At up to $80,000 per seat/cabin, multiplied over an entire long-haul fleet, individual passengers will upgrade their laptops more frequently than airlines can. Ask United. Their United Suite is eight years old (I bought my laptop last year) yet they seem quite comfortable charging the same fare as Qantas to Australia who is coming to Los Angeles in October with all new seats (and screens) on an all new airplane, the A380.

    Thank you, CF, for the opportunity to host a post in your clearly well read and greatly respected column. Thank you, QRC, for pointing out the things we agree upon and for allowing my blog to be exactly what it is….an opinion.

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  13. Charlotte says:

    As aflight attendant for a major carrier for 17 years, we still had caviar and a 3 cabin service when I first began. Eventually, there would only be 2 or 3 ppl. to pay to sit in first class, thus the modern “Business Class” and “Coach Class”. We still set our trays with linen and each piece of silver. But now, customers want to eat whenever they finish with what they are doing, or awake later, or only want portions of the menu. This is fine with us, but please remember, it does take away from the seamless service we once offered when everything was choreographed to “flow”. Now we have passengers who scoff at new food offerings, thing we have a hibachi to “grill”their steak more, and ask for port with their salad. The culture has changed from the passenger side as well. We have been forced by customer demand in Business Class to be short order servers….riflilng through each cart to get what each passenger wants when they want it. (The carts are still set up to present the “seamless” service). Health regulations require food to arrived “pre-cooked” and we just heat it up. If a passenger decides to sleep and we have already cooked their meal, that they requested, then they are left with an overcooked mess, and we are blamed for serving a poor meal.
    We also deal with the toe-nail cutters during flights, passengers strolling around barefoot, and the lavs leaving us wondering what happened to basic civility and basic hygiene.
    One last thing….I love the carriers that have the “one on one” attention, but please remember that many of these airlines are subsidized, so having 8 flight attendants in Business Class is a standard. One a plane where I once had anywhere from 12-14 flight attendants, I know have minimum staffing of 7 and am lucky to get my extra 2 load staffing….yes, all a sign of the times! My passengers still receive graciousness and conversation from me, but now I taking them somewhere with a little culinary diversion, not serving a restaurant meal. You don’t walk out of your favorite 5 star restaurant in another city.
    Thanks to all of you who are still loyal passengers.

  14. Eric says:

    When I was younger, I remember peeking across the 1980s curtain from coach into first. I remember seeing the 5-Star meals being enjoyed by the first class passengers, as we ate our airline chicken in coach. They sat in those big leather seats, while we had the worn cloth.

    The first time I upgraded to first class, I had such a romantic experience plotted out in my head… and then I got on board. Yes, the domestic F seat is leather, but it’s nothing special. My leather recliner at home is just as, if not more, comfortable. I was served a warmed over soup and an average cobb salad. It was not the romance I dreamed of. Although I have experimented with some great red South American wines from the front of the cabin, I have never been awe-struck by ridding up front.

    Yes, we would all live to see F-class live up to the glamour of yester-year but, I, like most, have never actually paid for the privladge of First Class. Untill people are willing to work over more, you will get less and less.

  15. David SF east bay says:

    I’m confused why anyone would fly a US airline overseas anyway if given the choice. We see how they can’t do domestic, so why would we think they can to a great international service.

    With the U.S. carriers codesharing with airlines from around the world, may sure if you or someone else is booking your international flights to book the codeshare flight if your company makes you fly the “U.S.” airline if they have a discount contract. In may cases the real U.S. carriers flight departs within a few minutes of the LH/NH/BA/QF/AF/JL flight and you will get a much better product in the air.

  16. QRC says:

    Not to scream here…but THESE ARE THE GOOD OLE DAYS FOR F CLASS! RIGHT NOW! Dare I say better than ever? Forget the US…everywhere else in the world is rolling out amazing F products!

    David SF east bay hits it right, again Eric not to beat the drum here but F products are extremely good nowadays! Domestic “F” is not “F” US airlines just insist on coding it that way – like an AA MD-80 whose F class would hardly cut it for premium economy in Asia – but it’s not the case for “true F”, as I think most people who fly a lot would really only categorize intl F class.

    UA and AA have done a decent job though on their F services like JFK-SFO, or JFK-LAX…and that’s to be applauded. The United PS F class is quite comfortable, and AA’s premium trans con services isn’t as good as UA but the service is quite excellent and it is much higher than US standards people are used to.

    I know it’s fun to look back on the “good ole days,” but honestly except for the US in the rest of the world there are a wide variety of excellent products, premium food, extremely-premium wines (wine bottles that retail for $100-$250, and sell in restaurants in some cases over $500), full beds (or even suites), great entertainment systems, and service that bows hand over fist to make you happy. Have you seen the premium terminal in Doha? IT IS SPECTACULAR…I am writing this a day after hanging out in the F lounge in LHR Terminal 5, and I didn’t think it was possible to top CX F lounge in HKG, but BA has done it in T5. The grandeur and size of Beijing’s new T3 itself should quiet anyone who complains about the “good ole days” of flying being in the past, and despite a few quirks it’s a great and convenient place to catch a flight.

    Sigh…

  17. A says:

    While I agree that the US Airlines have much to learn about service from their foreign competition I do think for the vast majority of the flying public the golden days of airtravel are behind us. Private charters are taking over airtravel for the corporate boardrooms, and only a small group of business elite get to travel in the front cabin on the foreign flag carriers. Most of the business travelers aren’t flying international and are stuck with the US based carriers. Additionally, most of us aren’t ever paying for first. We collect our premium status and try to get free upgrades to first, or burn some miles for that upgrade. Either way, the airline isn’t getting paid more $$$ for the ticket, thus I don’t blame them for the declining service. I do have some fond memories of the first class service in the 1980′s when my father was a half-million mile man on Continental. And more recently I have flown some European flag carriers across the Atlantic. The experience is comparable to the Continental experience from 20 years ago with more electronic toys. But for most of my flying criss-crossing the USA, I don’t need a futuristic lie flat bed with electronic gizmos all around. I want a nice seat with good service. That’s gone from what I’ve seen.

  18. Eric says:

    My issue is with domestic F. It’s now a lot like coach in the 90s.

  19. Bobber says:

    Just had my first (and probably only) experience of long-haul F class travel (LHR-SFO-LHR) on United, booked with miles in F as C and Y were unavailable. The real difference is lying flat to sleep, the food is not noticeably different to C class (on UA), and the service is the same as C. Unless money was absolutely no object (i.e. I was spending someone else’s!), I can’t see why you would pay for F (and even C, most of the time). Very pleasant flights, I have to say, but not worth the $4-6k price if you have to pay.

  20. QRC says:

    To the Traveling Optimist: Thank you much for your response, appreciate the well-written and thoughtful response.

  21. Randy says:

    Just flew Business class from Kiev to Paris on Air France. It was literally a coach seat with a coach pitch, but with an empty middle seat, whoop-dee-do. Had always heard the complaints about a “flat” bed that tilted slightly forward and how one slides forward when sleeping in it, damned if I didn’t slide forward on AF’s 777 business class seat from CDG to IAD. Granted I don’t get to fly F as much as QRC, but I have been on UA, SQ, NZ, and LH in F over the last year. Only SQ’s food was impressive, although I do laugh thinking that of the 4 flight attendents, two were women, and two were guys. When does their advertising campaign include the Singapore dude? They did have Kobe steak which was the best steak in the air or on the ground that I have had. While the seat and entertainment are the best ever in the history of airlines, the food and quality of service has declined. It has been a trade off. The old days had a barco-lounger and lousy entertainment, but the food and service was incredible. Carved roast beef, salads tossed at your seat, tubs of ice cream in order to serve sundaes, eggs cooked to order before landing. Service was also delivered with a smile by personable flight attendants. Now with all of the the travails in the industry, the employees at US carriers are shell shocked and have an attitude to match. The overseas carriers have employees that deliver a top notch product, but in a business-like and less personal manner. Only Qantas and Air New Zealand have had employees that looked like they truly had fun on the job. First class as it has evolved over the years has both improved and devolved. One’s opinion on whether it is the golden age of first class depends on what is important to you. For the seat and entertainment, it is nirvana right now. For personable service and an incredible meal, that has slipped from days of old. It’s not nostalgia for the past, just a trade-off in my mind. I haven’t been on BA, Cathay, or Emirates, but I have a JFK-Dubai A380 first class seat booked on November so I will see if they combine the holy quartet, seat, entertainment, service, and food.

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