Air Transport World

Class action.

To meet customer demands, airlines are shifting service levels, redefining economy travel and turning first class from a noun into an adjective

China Southern has eliminated its first-class service across the Pacific. It didn't rip out any seats or reconfigure the front of the plane, it just restructured its fares. First class became business class J fare while the business-class section became full Y premium economy. No actual physical changes occurred in any of the cabins themselves.

The shift in fare structure makes China Southern the first Asian carrier to fly the Pacific with no first-class cabin, introducing into that market the creeping evolution of service structures that already has changed the character of transatlantic service. It also adds China Southern to Air Canada, Delta, Continental, Virgin Atlantic and a host of others who offer a first-class-equivalent service level but at business-class fares.

China Southern's move certainly is not going to cause a mass exodus from first class among Asian carriers. There will always be passengers willing to pay the extra fare for extra comfort during the long transpacific flight.

The question it raises, however, is "how much demand for first-class service is there across the Pacific," said Jim Jackson, managing director of AvSolutions. Inc., a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. "Perhaps with the exception of some of the premium markets such as Singapore and some of the premium carriers such as Singapore Airlines, there would seem to be more evolution toward business class. How can they justify having first class if nobody is paying for it? At some point in time, they have to consider that."

Scott Gibson, a senior fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington-based public policy body, said that in some transpacific markets, "companies and individuals are more willing to buy true first class." He noted that United is flying 747-400s with 30-plus first-class seats on the Chicago-Tokyo route, "although that is not just Chicago, that's all the feed segments coming in." Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong have considerable first-class business "depending on the U.S. gateway," he said.

The elimination of first class at Asian carriers "will probably come in time, it just might take a little bit longer," said David Tait, executive VP at Virgin Atlantic. …

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