Travel

The World’s Best First Class Airlines

I’m a huge airline product geek, and every year I like to publish a list of what I consider to be the world’s best first class products, best first class lounges, best business class seats, etc. First, I wanted to talk briefly about my methodology for ranking first class airlines, and then I’ll get into my rankings, with an explanation of each.

Why you should trust OMAAT flight reviews

Hopefully, I don’t have to explain this to regular OMAAT readers, but I feel like this is worth mentioning for those who aren’t regular readers…

All the time I see mainstream media outlets ranking different first class airlines, though almost without exception they’re just going off stock media images and how airlines describe their first class products, rather than actual firsthand experience.

Why should you trust OMAAT flight reviews?

  • I pay for all of my own flight tickets, either with cash or miles
  • With very few exceptions that I specifically disclose, I don’t let the airlines know that I’m reviewing flights, and go out of my way to remain as anonymous as possible
  • I’ve flown every single first class airline that I rank, and for that matter have flown almost every single first class product in the world (the only one I haven’t flown is Kuwait Airways first class)
  • I don’t have any sort of financial relationship with any airline
  • This is my passion, I’ve been reviewing airlines for 15+ years, I’ve written hundreds of flight reviews, and have logged millions of miles

There aren’t many sites that can say all of the above, and in the case of some other rating agencies (like Skytrax), I certainly wish we’d see a bit more transparency regarding the financial relationship they have with the airlines they rank.

My methodology for ranking first class airlines

Let me note upfront that my reviews are subjective, and that’s by design.

Some might say “well you should make this as objective as possible and use a scorecard to rank them.” I certainly could, but I don’t think that does justice to the special touches that some airlines offer, and also the variability in the experience from flight-to-flight.

A lot of what makes a first class experience great isn’t something you can rank on a scorecard, but rather is this intangible feeling you get when flying an airline, where you feel “wow, they really get it.” As far as I’m concerned, airlines also deserve bonus points for consistency across various flights, because it’s nice to know exactly what you’ll get.

The other issue is that the top first class products are all really exceptional. On a 100 points scale, I suspect all of these airlines would score a 90+ from me.

To give an example of the issue with a scorecard approach, inflight Wi-Fi is something I personally value, but not all of the airlines offer it in first class. If I said Wi-Fi was worth 10 points on a 100 point scale, that would automatically put any airline without it in last place, and that doesn’t seem right, since it’s something that many people don’t care about.

Again, I’m admitting my rankings are subjective, and what I rank #1 may be #10 for you, and vice versa. And that’s totally fine — I don’t think that makes anyone wrong.

I’ve taken flights on every single one of the airlines on the below list and said “that’s one of the best flights I’ve ever taken.” If anything, I recommend the takeaway from this being the airlines that I put in the top 12, rather than the very specific ranking of them.

Why I’m not fully updating rankings this year

Since the start of the pandemic it has been tough to update my list of the world’s best first class products:

  • Some airlines have grounded some planes, and have even temporarily discontinued first class
  • Some airlines have retired their best long haul aircraft, featuring the first class product that made my list
  • Most airlines have adjusted inflight service due to the pandemic, and as you’d expect, I haven’t been able to fly all of these first class products in the past 18 months

Nonetheless I think there’s value in keeping this list updated, so here’s what I’m going to do:

  • I’m not going to change my rankings compared to early 2020 (the last time I formally published my rankings)
  • With each product I’ll note any changes to availability of the product, or what airline executives have been saying about the product’s future
  • Even in situations where it has been suggested that airlines will retire certain planes, I’m not going to take them off the list of best first class products just yet, because all of this could be subject to change; we’ve seen a countless number of airlines backtrack repeatedly, so I think it’s too soon to count on anything as being certain

Hopefully the above makes sense, and my hope is that in 2023 the world returns to a point where I can update rankings that fully reflect the long-term changes airlines are making.

The world’s 12 best first class airlines

With the above explanation out of the way, below are what I consider to be the 12 best first class airlines, starting with the best. Let me emphasize that the post is specific to the onboard experience, and I rank first class lounges separately.

1. Emirates first class (Boeing 777-300ER)

Emirates introduced its new first class on select Boeing 777-300ERs several years ago, and the product is spectacular. Emirates is the first airline to introduce truly fully enclosed suites in first class.

The suites don’t just have doors that add privacy, but rather are enclosed floor-to-ceiling (Air France has curtains that go floor-to-ceiling, but I consider that to be different). As someone who values privacy, I love that.

Emirates first class seat Boeing 777-300ER
Emirates first class suite Boeing 777-300ER

The seat is also thoughtfully designed, with impeccable attention to detail. The suite is spacious, the TV screen huge, the bed extremely comfortable, and you can control the lighting and temperature in the suite.

Emirates first class bed Boeing 777-300ER

The soft product is also hard to beat, from free-flowing Dom Perignon to a dine on-demand menu with all kinds of great options (including caviar).

Emirates first class seat catering

While Emirates A380s don’t have seats that are as impressive, they have the advantage of having onboard showers and an onboard bar, so that’s a treat as well.

The only issue is how few Emirates 777s have these suites. Emirates only has these first class suites on nine of its planes, and there are no plans to retrofit existing planes with these seats. Upcoming Boeing 777Xs should feature these seats, but those won’t join Emirates’ fleet until 2024 at the earliest.

2. Air France first class (Boeing 777-300ER)

There are great first class products, and then there’s the perfection that is Air France first class. Air France’s 777-300ER first class cabin consists of a single row of seats, in a 1-2-1 configuration. The cabin is so elegant, and rather than offering suites with doors, the airline instead has curtains you can pull around your suite.

Air France first class seat Boeing 777-300ER

What really sets apart Air France is the first class soft product. The food is the best I’ve had on any airline, the service is flawless and oh-so-French, and every part of the experience is thought out.

Air France first class catering

When it’s time to sleep, Air France has some of the most comfortable bedding in the sky, and I love being able to draw a curtain around my seat for privacy.

Air France first class bed Boeing 777-300ER

The way I see it, Air France first class is the world’s most well-rounded first class product. While I do think Emirates wins out in terms of the onboard experience, Air France still offers the world’s most well-rounded first class experience, given that the airline also offers the world’s best first class lounge experience at its Paris Charles de Gaulle hub.

The main area where Air France first class could improve is with the addition of Wi-Fi, but that’s something that’s in the process of being added, and soon all La Premiere-equipped planes should feature this. At the moment only 777-300ERs have first class, but it’s rumored that some future delivery A350s could feature first class as well.

3. All Nippon Airways first class (Boeing 777-300ER)

This is the world’s most improved first class product in the past couple of years, in my opinion, as ANA introduced incredible new first and business class seats in mid-2019, now available on select 777-300ERs.

In the past I’ve always had a strong preference for Japan Airlines first class over All Nippon Airways first class, but that’s no longer the case. For one, ANA has greatly improved the quality of its seats, which now feature doors, are more spacious, and offer a better experience whether you’re traveling alone or with someone.

All Nippon Airways first class cabin Boeing 777-300ER
All Nippon Airways first class bed Boeing 777-300ER

ANA also has complimentary and improved high-speed Wi-Fi on its new 777s, which is much better than the old system.

Add in ANA’s exceptional service, food, drinks (including Krug champagne) and amenities, and this really is a world class product.

All Nippon Airways first class catering
All Nippon Airways first class catering

4. Garuda Indonesia first class (Boeing 777-300ER)

Garuda Indonesia is another airline that’s both consistent and tailors the experience from the time you arrive at the airport to when you arrive at your destination. Garuda Indonesia first class has eight suites with doors. The hard product is good, though not remarkable compared to some of the other airlines on the list.

Garuda Indonesia first class cabin Boeing 777-300ER

But everything about the soft product is perfection. I find Garuda Indonesia to have the best flight attendants of any airline, and the airline even has an onboard chef in first class.

The airline offers tasty food, great wine pairings, exceptional presentation, free Wi-Fi for first class passengers, etc. If you have any special requests for your flight, you can even make those before departure.

Garuda Indonesia first class catering

But really it’s the crews that make the experience. Many surveys rank Garuda Indonesia as having the best cabin crew, and I have to agree. The warmth of the Garuda Indonesia flight attendants I had on both of my first class flights was unrivaled.

Garuda Indonesia crew

The only area where Garuda Indonesia can improve is with its bedding. While it’s good, it’s not nearly as plush as what some other airlines offer.

Unfortunately Garuda Indonesia’s first class product may soon be history. Currently only two Garuda Indonesia plans have first class. On top of that, the airline is undergoing a restructuring whereby the airline plans to retire its 777s, which would spell the end of first class. We’ll see how this evolves, but I fear this airline will be off the list next year.

5. Singapore Airlines Suites (Airbus A380)

Singapore Airlines is known for being one of the best airlines in the world, and the airline introduced its new Suites in late 2017. Some might be surprised that this isn’t in one of the top few spots on my list.

The new Suites are impressive. They’re in a 1-1 layout, with just six suites at the front of the upper deck of the A380. Singapore has dedicated more square footage to each first class passenger than any other airline.

Singapore Airlines Suites cabin Airbus A380

Each Suite has both a seat and a separate bed, which is a mighty nice feature.

Singapore Airlines Suites Airbus A380

On a good day, Singapore’s Suites might be the best first class soft product in the world. On a lunch or dinner flight departing Singapore the catering is typically excellent, and there’s usually caviar, satay, etc. You can even “book the cook” in advance, and order from a huge menu that’s not otherwise available onboard.

Singapore Airlines Suites catering

Singapore is also the only airline to offer both Dom Perignon and Krug onboard, which is a pretty awesome choice to have.

Singapore Airlines Suites champagne

Service on Singapore Airlines is typically excellent.

Based on that, how the heck am I not ranking this product higher? It really kills me to say this, but Singapore Airlines just didn’t put much thought into the design of the Suites. The cabin looks beautiful, and the seats look impressive, but when it comes down to it, the individual components aren’t great.

The seat is wobbly and has limited recline. You can only eat facing the aisle, where you’re looking directly at another passenger. The bed is no bigger than on any other top airline, and it’s extremely hard. There are no individual air nozzles, and air flow is limited.

This is still a world class product, all things considered. However, despite the amount of space Singapore Airlines invested in the Suites, I can’t help but feel disappointed in the fact that the space wasn’t used in a more creative way, to create the world’s most comfortable bed on a plane. The airline certainly had the space to do so.

6. Cathay Pacific first class (Boeing 777-300ER)

Cathay Pacific exclusively has first class on Boeing 777-300ERs. First class has just six seats, in a 1-1-1 configuration. While the seats aren’t fully enclosed, they’re angled away from the aisle and sufficiently spacious so that there’s no need for them to be. It makes the product feel less claustrophobic, which I appreciate.

Cathay Pacific first class cabin Boeing 777-300ER

Cathay Pacific has one of the most comfortable beds in the sky — the bed is wide, and the bedding is some of the best out there.

Cathay Pacific first class bed Boeing 777-300ER

I also love the ability to dine face-to-face with a companion. Caviar and good champagne at 37,000 feet is a heck of a date night. I also appreciate that Cathay Pacific offers a full meal service even on departures in the middle of the night.

Cathay Pacific crews are also consistent and attentive. They’re always there during the meals, and when you need something during the flight, they appear in just a couple of seconds after pushing the call button.

The airline is also installing Wi-Fi throughout its fleet, and in first class Cathay Pacific offers free Gogo 2Ku Wi-Fi, which is tough to beat.

With everything going on in Hong Kong, I can’t help but wonder after Cathay Pacific’s survival prospects, at least in its current form. Here’s to hoping that Cathay Pacific eventually returns to its glory days.

Cathay Pacific first class catering

7. Japan Airlines first class (Boeing 777-300ER)

There’s no country where there’s more pride in the service industry than Japan, and that’s incredibly evident when flying Japan Airlines first class. It’s like getting a taste of Japan before you even get there. Japan Airlines has fully flat beds in first class with direct aisle access, though the seats as such don’t stand out that much.

Japan Airlines first class cabin Boeing 777-300ER

What does stand out is the excellent food (caviar, sushi, wagyu beef, etc.), champagne, the free and fast Wi-Fi, the ability to choose the firmness of your mattress pad, and the perfect service.

Japan Airlines first class catering
Japan Airlines first class champagne

The Japan Airlines first class soft product is pretty close to perfect, as far as I’m concerned.

8. Etihad Airways first class (Airbus A380)

Etihad was the first airline to have a single-aisle configuration in first class on its A380s.

Etihad Airways first class cabin Airbus A380

The First Class “Apartments,” as they’re called, will take your breath away. I remember being speechless the first time I boarded an Etihad A380.

Etihad Airways first class suite Airbus A380

Etihad has a dine on demand menu with some customization options, an onboard shower, and the second most square footage dedicated to each first class passenger.

Etihad Airways first class catering

However, there are some areas where Etihad is style over substance, in my opinion. While the suite is huge, it isn’t actually that practically designed, as the seat doesn’t recline that far back, and the bed isn’t that large. This is the same issue I have with Singapore’s new Suites.

Unfortunately this might be a product that never comes back. Etihad was planning on retiring its entire Airbus A380 fleet, meaning that the only planes to feature first class would be five Boeing 787-9s. And those planes feature a far inferior first class product. Recent reports suggest that the Etihad A380 could make a comeback, so let’s cross our fingers that this is the case.

9. Korean Air first class (Boeing 747-8)

Korean Air offers a consistent first class product. By far my favorite first class cabin offered by the airline is on the 747-8, where there are just six seats in the nose of the plane.

Korean Air first class cabin Boeing 747-8

The seats are spacious, the amenities are excellent, and the food and drinks are very good as well.

Korean Air first class bed Boeing 747-8
Korean Air first class champagne

The only thing I don’t love about Korean Air is their entertainment selection and lack of Wi-Fi.

The good news is that this product should still be around for a while, as Korean Air plans to keep 747-8s into the 2030s.

10. Lufthansa first class (Boeing 747-8)

Maybe I’m biased due to my German background, but I love Lufthansa first class for how consistent and elegant it is. No, Lufthansa doesn’t have the most private first class seats out there, but the cabins are elegant (in a German way), the service is among the best of any western airline, and the airline is remarkably consistent in terms of its offerings.

Lufthansa first class cabin Boeing 747-8

There’s just something about the pre-flight champagne, nuts, and roses that makes me feel like I’m at home in Lufthansa first class.

Lufthansa first class champagne
Lufthansa first class catering

Lufthansa has great bedding in first class, and offers first class passengers free Wi-Fi, and it’s even quite fast.

While Lufthansa has significantly scaled back its first class product, there are still quite a few Boeing 747-8s flying around with these cabins.

11. SWISS first class (Boeing 777-300ER)

It’s a toss-up between Lufthansa first class and SWISS first class, so I could have just as easily ranked SWISS ahead of Lufthansa. SWISS’ 777-300ER first class cabins have eight seats, in a 1-2-1 configuration.

SWISS first class cabin Boeing 777-300ER

The food presentation and quality are definitely higher-end feeling than on Lufthansa, even though the airline doesn’t consistently have caviar.

SWISS first class catering

I’ve had great service in SWISS first class, though I’ve also had pretty bad service, so I find that part of the product to be a bit inconsistent.

SWISS’ first class bedding is plush and comfortable, so a great night of sleep on SWISS is a given.

SWISS first class bed Boeing 777-300ER

12. Oman Air first class (Boeing 787-9)

A few years ago Oman Air introduced a new first class product, which is exclusively on its 787-9s flying between Muscat and London. The cabin consists of eight seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. These aren’t the most spacious seats, but they’re very comfortable and have a sleek design.

Oman Air first class cabin Boeing 787-9
Oman Air first class bed Boeing 787-9

What makes Oman Air so great is the soft product — Cristal champagne, an incredibly customized menu that you can order in advance, and some beautiful Omani touches.

Oman Air first class catering

Honorable mention: Etihad Airways A380 The Residence

This can’t be included on the list since it’s not technically a first class product, but rather is the most incredible experience you can have in commercial aviation. Unfortunately it’s also priced accordingly (or was, when it was offered). Having your own three room suite, including a private bedroom and shower, with butler service, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and then some.

Etihad Residence living room Airbus A380
Etihad Residence bedroom Airbus A380
Etihad Residence butler service Airbus A380

Man, how fondly I think back on my flight in the Residence. That’s even more the case when you consider that this product may be a thing of the past, given that Etihad could retire its A380 fleet.

Bottom line

There you have it. Those are what I consider to be the world’s 12 best first class airline products. Admittedly this is a tough time to rank products like this, given all that’s changing, though hopefully the above is still useful. Unfortunately two of the above 12 products are unlikely to be around much longer, if at all (Etihad’s A380 first class and Garuda Indonesia’s 777 first class).

I’d like to once again emphasize that I think anyone would be reasonable to think that the above products should be in a different order, but hopefully this is at least a useful list in terms of the 12 all around best first class products.

For anyone curious, I think I know what I’d rank as the next three first class products (13-15), roughly in order — QatarQantas, and Thai.

What do you rank as the world’s best first class airlines?

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