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16 MAY 2022

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Article from BTNews 16 MAY 2022

COMMENT: Disappearing First Class *

Jeff Mills, BTN’s Editor-at-Large, asks have we seen the last of really civilised business travel?

Some comments made by the Indian airline Vistara’s Chief Executive Officer, Vinod Kannan, who was in London last week to formally launch what is now the carrier’s daily service between the UK capital and Delhi, started me reflecting on how business travel has changed over the years.

Asked why Vistara, a joint venture between India’s giant Tata group and Singapore Airlines, will not be offering a First Class cabin on its international long-haul flights (apart from London the others in Europe are Frankfurt and Paris), he was quick to respond that it made no sense to offer First Class if it meant removing a significant number of Economy seats to make room for them.

Vinod Kannan and his colleague, Chief Commercial Officer Deepak Rajawat, are far from alone in their views that the three classes offered by Vistara on board the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner it is using on the London – Delhi route (Economy, Premium Economy and Business) are adequate. It seems to be a trend in aviation that First Class is well on the way out. Which is rather sad in a way.

You could argue that the real pleasure in travelling on business trips ended with the advent of no-frills airlines, on-line hotel booking sites and all the other technology designed to confuse anyone aged over about 15.

Before it became necessary to take part in an undignified scramble at the airport’s boarding gates in order to secure a decent seat and, more importantly perhaps, space to take your carry-on bag on board, rather than have to relinquish it to the mercies of a staff member at the aircraft door, travelling was just so much more enjoyable. And travellers were much more polite. Or maybe that’s just my imagination.

Just think back to the time when you could turn up at the airport, check in at the desk and then just gently stroll through to the departure lounge, having waved your passport at a friendly immigration official on the way. No invasive security checks and x-rays administered by humourless staff in those days, even though there were usually enough staff members available to man the check-in desks and the security systems, unlike at many UK airports during the past few weeks.   

Perhaps it is just that the full-on pressure of today’s business environment has made everyone more impatient and selfish but I don’t think it is merely in my imagination that travelling used to be much more civilised and much more fun.

Travelling on business has always been a great perk but it was the differences in nationalities and their cultures which really made travelling interesting, even seemingly exotic, in those far-distant days. Many destinations seemed new and exciting.

The experience of being abroad all started when you boarded your aircraft, unless of course it was a British plane. Before the days of standardisation the airline staff were your first glimpse of what was to come when you arrived on foreign shores as national airlines provided a taste of their home country.  In fairness, some carriers do still.

Vistara and its cousin Air India are good examples, as are other Asian airlines, such as Thai, Singapore, Japan Airlines and Malaysia Airlines and a number of Middle East-based carriers typified by Emirates, Etihad, Gulf Air and Qatar Airways.

On board these and others you at least get a sense of the traditional clothes worn in their home countries and if you are lucky a taste of the food you can look forward to when you arrive at your destination.

It wasn’t always like this mind you. I well remember a business trip to Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, in the 1970s, for example. While the Balkan Air hostesses (they weren’t called flight attendants in those days) were polite and charming in an Eastern European kind of way, even making good use of the passenger list to address passengers by their names, it all started to go laughably downhill when it was time to roll out the in-flight catering.

There were no trolleys on board, I seem to remember, but instead a stewardess came down the aisle handing out glasses, followed by her colleague carrying a number of large bottles of beer, from which she dispensed drinks to each and every passenger, whether you wanted it or not.

The in-flight food was interesting, too. A flight attendant came along once more to dish out paper napkins, followed by her friend who had a huge loaf of bread in one hand and a large bread knife in the other, which she used to provide a doorstep-size slice to everybody. This parade was joined by a third crew member, whose job it was to dole out a slice of grey, nondescript meat, possibly beef, possibly not, onto each plate.

At the other end of the scale, it is rather sad that we must wave goodbye to some of the more charming traditions to be found when travelling.  

It was refreshing, for example, after checking in to the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong when a knock on my room door, rather than disclosing a staff member wanting to check the mini-bar or something else annoying, it turned out to be a chambermaid bearing a huge tray of full-size bars of virtually every kind of designer soap imaginable from which I was asked to choose my favourite.

Fast forward 50-odd years and it is worth taking a few minutes to reflect on how business travel etiquette has changed and continues to change as the pressures of both time and money put the squeeze on individuals and companies alike and at the same time the world seems smaller and more standardised.

Is First Class dead?  Thank goodness for people who still insist on travelling in style, maintaining the niceties and celebrating cultural differences while travelling.  It really does matter – and that’s no bad thing.

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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum


Don Lunn, England

In my opinion, people of my age without doubt lived through the best days of the Travel Industry. We came into it in itís infancy and grew with it as it expanded on a daily basis. The Industry is now driven by cost as indicated by the comment made by VISTARAíS CEO, VINOD KANNAN. I worked during the time when the difference in price for First Class Travel was reasonable. The introduction of Business class with flat beds had a large impact on the sale of First Class which only the very wealthy can afford now.


Robin Mead, St Leonards on Sea

Travelling by air was far more relaxed - and far more fun - in days of yore. Anyone remember BWIA? It was all party-party whichever part of the plane you' were in. But I agree with Malcolm Ginsberg that private jets are the way forward for first-class customers.


Don Lunn, England

In my opinion, people of my age without doubt lived through the best days of the Travel Industry. We came into it in itís infancy and grew with it as it expanded on a daily basis. The Industry is now driven by cost as indicated by the comment made by VISTARAíS CEO, VINOD KANNAN. I worked during the time when the difference in price for First Class Travel was reasonable. The introduction of Business class with flat beds had a large impact on the sale of First Class which only the very wealthy can afford now.


David Hurst, United Kingdom

Back in the day I remember being reminded that the passengers checking in for Concorde represented the people who travelled by air in the the 20s and 30s. Everyone else at the airport were how the market had expanded over the years. I also remember Sir Norman Payne, then chief executive of the British Airports Authority, saying in the 1970s that he feared that air travel would go the way of rail travel in those days. He was right in that - as he was in many things.


Barry Graham, Washington, DC

I don't believe that first class is on its way out. Both to and from Israel there was barely space for upgrades.


Malcolm Ginsberg, London

Jeff is right in saying that the standards of old have gone, but for the most part the in-flight standards have improved enormously over the years. Short-haul the private jets are the way forward for executive travel, not only usually quicker but missing out for the most part with the tedious airport transit. For long distance air travel First Class will remain on key routes offering privacy for those who require or demand it. Unless of course you are a oligarch with yacht and a 787.


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