In the early decades of commercial aviation, flying was a luxurious experience—think lobster dinners in economy, with unlimited alcohol served in real glassware for free. They don’t call the era the Golden Age of Flight for nothing. But aviation quickly changed, with legroom becoming tighter, service becoming less refined, and passengers, more or less, being herded like cattle. While economy might be an affordable way to fly, there’s been an incredible period of innovation for first- and business-class seats, which are becoming more popular with travelers today.
The question is: What’s next for first class?
Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy , acknowledges the recent transformations in first-class cabin design. “The top global carriers like Emirates and Singapore have been racing to outdo one another when it comes to wooing their highest-spending passengers with incredible first-class products,” he says. “This year has been amazing for first-class innovation! Emirates came out strong with its enclosed suite on the 777 at the Dubai Airshow in November—and just weeks later Singapore unveiled an extraordinary suite of its own [on the A380].”
On the Emirates Boeing 777, passengers in first class sit in fully private suites with partitions that stretch from the floor to the ceiling. The seats, which transition to flat beds, use NASA-inspired technology to create a “zero gravity” sensation. And, impressively, the Emirates 777 is the first aircraft to use virtual windows on the interior first-class suites, which offer live streams from cameras mounted on the exterior of the aircraft.
One of Singapore Airlines' new A380 Suites.
On the Singapore A380, the suites are not fully enclosed (think more of a luxurious cubicle with taller-than-average walls), but they do offer both a reclining seat as well as a proper bed—all outfitted with Lalique accoutrements, we might add. Should you be flying with a partner, you can book adjacent suites that will form a double bed when combined.
And it won’t stop there. “The new concept that we have developed for Singapore Airlines is really our vision for the future,” says designer Jacques Pierrejean, whose firm, Pierrejean Design Studio, developed both the Emirates 777 and the Singapore A380 first-class cabins. “We can imagine a full enclosed suite with an individual washroom in the next few years.” In fact, this already exists in Etihad’s The Residence, which comprises a living room, bedroom, and private bathroom aboard its A380 aircraft.
A first-class lavatory aboard Singapore Airlines.
“In this way, as per a hotel room, you can live onboard free to rest, to sleep, or to work at any time without be disturbed by the general cabin lighting of the aircraft or your neighbors,” says Pierrejean. “Of course, if you want to mingle with some other passengers, you are free to move to some specially designed social area, like a bar [which is offered on the A380].”
But despite these advancements, Kelly thinks the first-class race is over—for now. While he acknowledges the trend towards privacy and predicts that both first-class and business cabins in airlines around the world will offer suite-style seats on many planes, there are two major issues for radically new first-class cabins: space and weight. “To really make something like [Etihad’s The Residence] work, you need a giant airplane—and there’s only one around that’s big enough, the Airbus A380,” says Kelly. “In fact, it may even be too big for airlines, because it’s selling poorly and may even get shut down.” He adds that while we’re technically able to put a spa in a first-class cabin, flying something that heavy for hours would take a lot of fuel.
“Virtual reality in-flight entertainment is also making big strides,” says The Points Guy founder Brian Kelly, such as in this rendering of a concept by Airbus.
Another consideration is the amount of time it takes to develop a new style of first-class cabin. “We started to design the Mini Suites for Emirates Airlines with a total privacy concept in 1998,” says Pierrejean, whose Emirates 777 suites are the fourth iteration of that design concept. Only today is the suite-style concept truly taking off (pardon the pun) on airlines around the world. “This concept is now a reference for all aircraft manufacturers,” says Pierrejean. “When an airline is planning to design the general arrangement, the aircraft manufacturer immediately asks, ‘Do you plan to install a Mini Suite onboard?’”
While aesthetics, of course, might change—what’s in vogue in the design world today will likely be very different in a few years—significant developments over the next decade might be limited to technology; that is, innovations like the virtual windows in the Emirates Boeing 777 first-class suites. “Virtual reality in-flight entertainment is also making big strides,” says Kelly.
To really peek into the future of first class, we have to look at what airplanes might look like in 20 to 30 years. Airbus has already created a concept plane for the year 2050, and it’s dramatically different than the planes we’re used to flying on today.
The Future by Airbus concept.
The Future by Airbus concept shows the possibility of a plane that not only has holographic touch screens for entertainment systems and onboard golf simulators, but also an entire seating area surrounded by a yet-to-be-developed transparent “membrane,” allowing passengers to take in the sky. Should this concept plane become a reality, designers will be tasked with creating a completely new kind of first-class cabin, one that probably looks nothing like the ones we know today.
Of course, there is the bottom line: Airlines need to make money. “Our job is to design products to be the most flexible for an airline, which has to sell tickets,” says Pierrejean. “In this way, we have to find solutions for a convertible space that can be adjusted on demand for the flight.” While an onboard spa might be a lovely amenity, it’s not going to help the airline increase profit. Real estate, of course, is pricey, and the bulk of a plane’s floor space needs to be dedicated to seated passengers.
While one day we might be able to fly first class on a transparent plane with holograms for TVs, the near future likely holds less sci-fi-esque innovations. But that sits just fine with us—we’ll happily take Etihad’s The Residence over economy any day.