Korean Air becomes latest carrier to stop selling most first-class seats

Jul 27, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Flying in international first class is the holy grail of the miles and points world. This exclusive experience typically includes a top-notch, super-private seat, restaurant-quality dining and a plethora of onboard amenities.

However, during and after the coronavirus pandemic, airlines estimate that there’s going to be little demand for these luxurious seats. That’s why we’ve seen some carriers stop selling first class (or retire jets that used to feature it.)

The latest airline to do just that is South Korea-based Korean Air.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Korean Air pulling first-class inventory

As reported by One Mile at a Time, Korean Air has removed first-class inventory from most of its long-haul flights through 2021.

Only certain flagship routes, like those from Seoul (ICN) to Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK) still show first-class seats for sale. The rest of the Korean Air long-haul route network no longer has availability, even if the route is slated to be operated by a jet that features a first-class cabin.

Korean used to offer first on its fleet of Airbus A380s, Boeing 747s and (some) Boeing 777s. First-class flights to LAX and JFK are still showing operated by a mix of the A380 and 747-8, so fans of the double-decker airplane can still enjoy those jets in style.

We’ve heard reports from readers that they were offered a full refund or a route change if they were booked on a first-class itinerary that’s no longer offered.

Korean Air 747-8 first class (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

It’s unclear what exactly Korean plans to do with its planes that are equipped with a first-class hard product. Even if the airline doesn’t sell the cabin, it could offer the seats as a buy-up upgrade for business class passengers, or it could let elite frequent flyers assign them for free. Of course, the carrier could also decide to reinstate first-class availability on flights if it determines that there’s adequate demand. We reached out to Korean and will update the story if we hear back.

Korean’s move to eliminate first-class on most long-haul routes is reminiscent of what it did in mid-2019. On 1 June, 2019, the airline removed first-class seats from 27 shorter-haul international routes. On many of the aircraft that operated these routes, business and first-class cabins were virtually identical, so the only real difference was the onboard service.

Related: Is COVID threatening the future of international first class?

What’s the future of first class?

Korean Air is just one of the latest international carriers to eliminate (most) of its first-class flying.

Long-haul international first class had been falling out of favour well before the coronavirus pandemic began. Some airlines, like Asiana (another South Korean carrier), discontinued first class entirely.

Korean Air 747-8 first class (Photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy)

A number of different factors contributed to this, including airlines opting to replace their superjumbo jets with smaller, more fuel-efficient planes such as the 787 and A350, where first class takes up too much space. At the same time, airlines have improved the business class experience so much (with many now offering fully enclosed suites) that first class started to become obsolete.

And now the pandemic will likely be the nail in the coffin for these exclusive cabins — at least in the short term. Depending on how long the recovery takes, we may see airlines restart first-class service, but it’s anyone’s guess when that’ll be.

Related: These airlines have stopped offering first class due to the pandemic

Bottom line

The days of flying in a luxurious first-class suite may be coming to an end.

Korean Air is the latest international airline to remove first-class inventory for the foreseeable future. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as the world recovers from the pandemic, but the future of premium travel may really be all-in on business class.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.