This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
Note many articles have been updated since they were first published.
First Class, in name at least, dates back to 1924 and the establishment of Imperial Airways.
It was at first the only class of travel, with Imperial Airways introducing second class in 1927. Of course, even with the Silver Wing service from London to Paris, also launched in 1927, First Class was far removed from what passengers expect today.
First Class was removed from short-haul aircraft in the early 1980s and it was only from the late 1970s did it start to evolve into the cabins we have today on long-haul aircraft.
Crown First Class
In the early 1980s, BA introduced Sleeper Seats to what was then known as Crown First Class with a 62″ pitch that reclined to a near horizontal position.
First Class was revamped in 1989, with an emphasis on service and improved catering.
The most significant change came in 1995 when BA introduced a new and radically different seat.
Designed by yacht interior specialists, this seat was a herringbone design. It was the first fully horizontal flat bed on any commercial airline.
The most significant aspect of this cabin was that BA went from merely offering a seat to a flexible space that could easily be adapted to meet passenger needs such as working, sleeping or dining with a partner. This seat also offered much greater privacy as 10 of the 14 seats faced towards the window. First Class was also rebranded as simply FIRST. This was a time when BA could genuinely claim to be a market leader in First Class.
In January 2001, the First Class cabin interior was redesigned by Kelly Hoppen MBE to give the cabin a more homely feel. This cabin also featured in the James Bond film Die Another Day.
BA also started to use the First Class cabin to showcase brands such as Wedgwood, Anya Hindmarch and Kiehl’s. More recently, BA has worked with brands such as Dartington, Liberty, Meridian Audio, Studio William and Temperley London.
The cabin has since been revamped with a new seats introduced on Boeing 747, Boeing 777, Airbus A380 and Boeing 787-9 aircraft. These have introduced evolutionary changes such as improved privacy, better storage, in-flight entertainments and at seat controls. BA has eschewed fully enclosed cabins introduced by airlines such as Singapore Airlines.
Whilst First Class is, since the withdrawal of Concorde, the flagship BA brand, it is not been immune from cut backs due to pressure on budgets. Like other BA cabins, it has gone through cycles of cut backs and reinvestment.
Whilst many airlines have withdrawn First Class altogether, BA looks set to retain the cabin, albeit on fewer routes and with fewer seats.
The first deliveries of Airbus A350-1000 aircraft do not feature First Class. As these are replacing Boeing 747 aircraft this inevitably means that First Class will come off some routes. Boeing 777-200 aircraft are also being reconfigured to reduce the number of First seats from 14 to 8. Future deliveries of Boeing 787-10 and 777-9 aircraft are expected to feature First Class.
The cabin does serve a purpose in offering an “aspirational reward” to members of the Executive Club and incentives for corporate customers such as complimentary upgrades to First Class on certain types of tickets.
The evolution of the cabin has also shown that, for the most part, what comes to First Class, will soon come to business class.
Services such as pre-flight dining, sleeper services, sleeper seats and fully flat beds were subsequently introduced in Club World. The one exception for BA is dining-on-demand for which the Club World cabin is simply too big on most aircraft.
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