American Airlines has concluded that completely eliminating first class from its product offering would be detrimental business decision as demand for service a step above the evolving business-class product remains steady in some its important premium markets. But similar to other carriers, American does not believe first class is necessary on a wide swath of its fleet, a conclusion reflected in the carrier’s decision to reconfigure its 47-strong fleet of Boeing 777-200 widebodies with business, economy and its “Main Cabin Extra” premium economy offering.
The carrier is retaining a first class cabin with eight seats on its new flagship 777-300ER fleet that will serve as American’s primary premium international aircraft once the 10 jets on order are delivered. American becomes the sole US operator of the 777-300ER later this year when it begins flights with its first aircraft from Dallas to Sao Paulo in December.
Citing American’s “long history of doing a two-class, three-class analysis”, company managing director of commercial planning and performance Jim Butler explains, “I think you need to look the network need you have and the products that are competitive or better than competitive in each of the different cabins.”
American believes there are still premium markets – Sao Paulo and London Heathrow – where demand for a true first-class products still exists. “I don’t know if that is true for other carriers,” says airline managing director of onboard products Alice Liu. “For example, US Airways is a two-class carrier, Delta is a two-class carrier, but we don’t always have the same customer mix, nor do we have the same customer mix that we serve. We do have markets that demand a first class seat.”
Yet at the same time American’s overall first-class product is shrinking as the 16 seats dedicated to first class on its 777-200s are being eliminated in lieu of 45 lie-flat business cabin seats that each have exclusive aisle access. Instead of offering first class on 47 aircraft as is the case with its current fleet of 777-200s, American will feature first class on just 10 aircraft once it takes delivery of all its 777-300ERs and completes the retrofit programme on its existing widebody jets. Lufthansa is in the midst of a similar exercise after deciding to remove first class from 30 of its widebody aircraft. However, the airline has stressed roughly 70% of its long-haul fleet should retain a first class offering.
Key to the pair-down by American and Lufthansa of their first class cabins is the introduction of a fully-flat seat for customers travelling in business class. Angled and fully-flat seats have steadily been migrating from first to business class during the last 20 years, creating opportunities for carriers to right-size their first class cabins to strike a more effective balance in recouping the significant investment made in creating an ultra-exclusive area of the aircraft. Lufthansa previously offered 16 seats in first class, but has halved its offering to eight after concluding a smaller first-class configuration was more sustainable.
Butler of American stresses that as full-flat seats in business class become more widespread, “It is not a deficiency of having two-class versus three class.”
As American’s 777-200s become “repurposed”, Butler explains the aircraft are moving to markets “where we feel a two-class product is more appropriate”. He declines to name specific route pairings, but explains that with the new business class seat there are “a number of countries where we fly today that I think once you have a full-flat, all-aisle access product, having a two-class product just fits demand better”.
Interestingly, American has yet to make a decision of the configuration “on future aircraft like the  Dreamliner”, says Butler. The carrier has 42 of the Boeing widebodies on order, and the 787 is largely regarded as a 767 replacement. American operates its 58 767-300s in a two class configuration split between 30 business-class seats and 195 in the coach cabin. Its 15 767-200s feature 10 first-class seats, 30 in business and 128 in coach. American is retrofitting only a portion of its 767s with full-flat business seats as some aircraft are scheduled for retirement mid-decade.
The 767s American is retrofitting with the full-flat business seats will retain a two-class cabin as Butler concludes the carrier currently operates the aircraft to “a number of our destinations in core Europe and Latin America, and we see that as the right place to put a two-class product”.
NEW BARS GIVE AMERICAN “A DIFFERENT LOOK”
But even as American shrinks its first class, overall the carrier is still investing in improving the experience for its ultra-elite passengers. The carrier has been trumpeting its walk-up bar in the first-class cabin of its new 777-300ERs that coupled with other customer enhancements, “add up to a different look for American that will get us to where we believe our customers expect us to be”, says Butler.
Unlike a bar featured at the front of the first-class cabin onboard Lufthansa’s 747-8I widebody aircraft, American is placing its bar in area located “by the end of the cabin, we’re repurposing that area”, says Butler.
American took cues from the hospitality industry in opting to feature a bar on board its premium widebody fleet, says Liu. “When you walk through a hotel, you don’t usually walk through a kitchen, which is what an airline does typically to save space. But the first impression is such an important impression.”
The carrier worked with Boeing to create a “unique dome” ceiling over the bar as customers enter the first-class cabin that creates a spacious effect, which she believes will create a “potential social space” for passengers.
The bar will be stocked with various types of food and beverages that allow passengers to pick and choose what they like to consume during a flight. On a broader level, Butler explains the decision to install a bar on the aircraft is reflection of American’s desire to offer “a more premium product than unfortunately the last ten years has allowed us to provide”.