The World’s WORST First Class Airlines

A couple of days ago I wrote a post about the 10 airlines with the best international first class products. Several people asked if I could write a similar post about the worst first class products in the world.

While I’d generally rather focus on the “best of” rather than the “worst of” category, I thought this was a fun enough idea. The reality is that nowadays only just over two dozen airlines have international first class, so the reality is that there aren’t that many “bad” ones.

After all, in most cases if an airline is really bad they’d just eliminate first class, realizing that they can’t command much of a premium for a sub-par product.

I should note that I’ve flown every single airline in the world in first class except Kuwait Airways (I hope to do that in the coming months), so I can’t say one way or another whether they’d make this list or not.

So on my list I have just one airline that’s all around bad, and then the rest of the ratings are “worst” in specific categories. I’m not suggesting the below are the absolute worst when you take everything into account, but rather they’re mostly the worst in specific areas. That’s an important distinction.

Here’s the list, starting with the one airline I actually consider to be bad in first class:

TAAG Angola — the all around worst first class

I flew TAAG Angola from Lisbon to Luanda to Sao Paulo earlier this year. The first flight was pleasant enough, and was operated by a 777-300ER featuring their newest first class product.

The connection was operated by a 777-300ER featuring their older first class product.

The seats themselves were fine, though the soft product went from “not good” to downright “abysmal.” There was nothing about the food that was first class.

The service on the first flight was fairly well intentioned but not good, while on the second flight the service was awful, to the point that I didn’t feel comfortable on the plane with the intimidating purser.

Never again, TAAG!

EL AL — the worst first class seats

Late last year I flew EL AL’s 777 first class from Tel Aviv to London. I was really impressed by EL AL overall, both in their new 787 business class, and also in their 777 first class. The soft product on both flights was excellent.

However, there is something to be said about the quality of the seat, and that’s an area where EL AL disappoints. Their first class is in a 2-2-2 configuration, making them one of only two airlines in the world to not have direct aisle access from all first class seats (with the other being Korean Air’s A330). Considering that they operate this product on routes like their 15 hour flight from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, that’s not great.

So while EL AL on the whole exceeded my expectations, there’s not an airline with worse seats in first class.

Xiamen Air — the most pointless first class

Xiamen Air is one of mainland China’s best airlines, and I’ve found their business class to be excellent. I’ve flown their 787-8 business class, which features seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, and their 787-9 business class, which features reverse herringbone seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.

Their 787-8s also have a first class cabin, with just four seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.

My flight in Xiamen Air first class from Shenzhen to Seattle seemed to be very well intentioned, the crew was lovely, and I have no complaints. But there was also very little differentiation between first and business class in terms of the soft product. So in many ways I’d say Xiamen Air’s 787-9 business class is every bit as good as their 787-8 first class.

Korean Air — the most business class first class

Korean Air first class is excellent, with great service and food. However, I can’t help but give them a hard time for the fact that on the 787-9 their first and business class hard products are identical. Not just similar, but actually identical.

Admittedly these are excellent Apex Suites, which I love. Furthermore, they differentiate the first and business class soft product significantly.

But I also can’t help but feel like it’s kind of lazy to install the same exact seat in first and business class.

British Airways — the world’s most uncompetitive first class

I’m sure I’ll be scolded for this, so please let me clarify. I don’t think British Airways has one of the worst first class products in the world. However, I do think they have the most uncompetitive first class product in their competitive set.

Four European airlines have first class — Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Swiss. Air France, Lufthansa, and Swiss first class products are phenomenal. They have among the best ground services in the world, and their onboard products are exceptional as well.

British Airways first class, on the other hand, isn’t great at all, neither in the air and on the ground. I used to say British Airways first class is the world’s best business class, but given that Qatar Airways has Qsuites, I’d say it’s the world’s second best business class.

Now, there is some benefit to this. Of the above European airlines, British Airways is the only one that consistently makes first class award seats available to partner programs. Air France and Swiss only make award seats available to elite members of their own programs, and Lufthansa only makes award seats available to partners at most 15 days out.

So there is something to be said for the ease with which you can book British Airways first class, by comparison (even if it is costly when you factor in the carrier imposed surcharges).

China Southern — my most comically bad first class flight

I believe the airline has improved somewhat since then, but my 2014 China Southern A380 first class flight from Los Angeles to Guangzhou was probably my most comically bad first class flight ever.

I suspect the airline has improved, since I flew the same route in business class not too long ago and had a pleasant enough flight. However, for me personally, it was the most comically bad first class flight I’ve ever had (unlike TAAG first, which was not comical).

Bottom line

The only first class product on this list that I truly feel comfortable calling “bad” is TAAG Angola’s. Other than that, most of the other first class products are at a minimum well intentioned, so I don’t like bashing them. However, I do think each of the above is “worst” in one way or another.

For example, I think EL AL and Korean Air have phenomenal soft products, though there is something to be said for EL AL using a subpar business class seat for first class, and Korean Air using an excellent (albeit identical) business class seat for first class.

What do you think — am I being unfair to any airlines, or do any other airlines deserve to be on this list?

Comments

  1. A point you missed with BA is that while worse than other European firt class products it also has the advantage of being available on a much larger proportion of Long Haul flights than AF, SWISS or Lufthansa. Not only is it easier to redeem when available but also just flat out more common

  2. Has Saudia completely replaced their 2-2-2 first class product then? Or is this just a list of first class products where airlines are not in the process of phasing out?

    I’m surprised that Air India’s first class is nowhere on here. Award for “First class in Worst Condition?”

  3. @ JSEA — Some sort of chicken dish. Not sure what it was supposed to be, since they didn’t have menus.

  4. @jon

    UA is phasing our international F and AA has really, really upped their 777 first class. Their flagship first dining is phenomenal and it seems to me that the crew on my AA F have been very impressive.

  5. I’m not going to bash you about the BA comment – ultimately I think you are right, it is a great business class really in comparison with other major carriers – but from a points perspective, well you just can’t get the flights/routes/availability on the other 3 EU airlines in F, and sorry but SWISS aint all that. BA F is much better than AF/LH/LX J, I also think it’s better than AA. I knew you’d have BA in this list when I read the title; I just don’t think it should be if you look at things holisitcally.

  6. This is great lucky. Articles like this set your blog apart. Everything else is boring. Lately there has been too much boring stuff.

  7. I would award AA First the worst ice cream prize. An airline that proudly promotes Ben and Jerry or Dreyers on their F menu is having a laugh. Or pandering to Americans who think that’s a fancy dessert.

  8. That KE A330 F class is pretty disappointing. 1 row 2-2-2 but not the nice business class suites as on the 777. But I think it doesn’t fly on too many routes. If you’re flying on an F class award or fare connecting to a better F class (like the 777-300ER or even the A380) then it’s fine for a segment like BKK-ICN…however if you can get the A380 flight instead it’s a pretty big difference.

  9. I have flown on Bothell Lufthansa and British first class to Europe and I completely agree with the author. We loved the Lufthansa product everything from comfort service and food were truly first class the Frankfort first class lounge is amazing. British airways first has disappointed us twice. Food is unimpressive and serves ice is all but first class! The lounge at LHR is crowded with rude service.

  10. I’m surprised China Eastern isn’t on here with China Southern. Their food/drink/seat/ambiance looked similarly unspectacular to CZ

  11. Very surprised that United F is omitted from this list, even though it is on its way out. Pretty sure that there is 0 differentiation from Polaris other than the seat, and I would assume it is worse than Xiamen.

  12. Lucky you were correct on BA it is truly one of the worst FC both in seating ( which I found totally unacceptable ) to the food/service

  13. Between American, Delta, and United which would I have the best chance of not having to deal with a kid or baby in first class?

  14. @Marcus – not even close. China Southern, AA, UA, and DL have a special place reserved in hell for being the worst. They are the standards against which aghast first class services should be judged. There food, service, on ground experience, amenity kits, and courtesy are superior on AI compared to the four for whom I reserve a social

  15. I wish people besides me would contact the airlines and suggest childfree flights and or sections. Check out YouTube and see how most people don’t like flying with kids and Air Asia and Malaysia have provided quiet zones or won’t let kids in first class. Airlines could make more money since people would pay more for peaceful flights

  16. Looking at the China Southern review, I gotta say I like the color scheme on their PJs.

    Lucky, how many different pairs of airline PJs do you have at this point? Do you have a favorite?

  17. Lucky
    I agree that BA First is marginal I did 38 long haul flights on them over the past 20 months.
    Air France is in a class of its own. That being said, Air France operates its First on limited runs… but man is out of this world!!! I think it is better than Emirates.

  18. United Airlines between San Francisco and Los Angeles to Maui they sell it as first class but it’s definitely not

  19. Lucky, I am biased … as BAEC GGL, but truly BA First doesn’t belong on this list … the LPGS Champagne alone should mean it doesn’t make the list.

    Sitting in either 1A/1K as a couple in the nose of a 747 is truly special … and almost alwats the BA crews I’ve flown with (and I fly a combination of paid and miles in First 5-8 times a year) are well intentioned and attentive. We recently flew as a family to Miami and the CSD (Head Purser) came off the aircraft with us right the way through to the luggage carousel to ensure that our fragile checked bag was delivered in good condition.

    I get the issues in the Concorde Room at LHR T5, although the new(ish) staff are so much better than with the old provider. Lounge free pour LPGS on the is not common outside of LH/AF’s first terminals.

    I really enjoy your blog (and will continue to do so), but come on … AA First didn’t make your list and BA First did ??

  20. IMO, after 10 years of flying, TG has fallen to essentially BA’s level….uncompetitive to other Asian counterparts.

  21. India Air should be on this list. Food, blech. Seats, worn. Planes, dirty. Even boarding, fugetaboudit

  22. BA first is the worst I have experienced and is awful throughout their entire fleet.
    Even with a subpar seat on one type of plane, I can’t imagine KE ever falling as low as BA in terms of their soft product and service. In fact, I would expect that first class on Korean would be one of the nicer experiences out there, with excellent food, service, caviar etc.

    The lack of space is merely the price to pay for flying a direct flight on the 787 which makes routes available that don’t have enough passengers for 777s. If you hate it you can always take a bigger plane with a connection – the seats on the 777s are quite huge, even if not top-of-the-line.

  23. “I wish people besides me would contact the airlines and suggest childfree flights and or sections“

    Agreed

  24. I can’t believe you didn’t include AA in this list. Having got fed up with BA which can’t even chill the Champagne as they don’t stock enough ice these days due to cost cutting, we just flew AA from LHR to JFK and the service and food were appalling, the pajamas were made of sandpaper, and on the ground they served Cava which they called Champagne. BA may stand for ‘Bloody Awful’ but AA must stand for ‘Appallingly Awful’.

  25. What about Delta?????

    Their F sucks so bad, they only put it on domestic flights. 😉

    What about United????

  26. I agree with your point on BA but think the competitor set is different.

    Choosing to fly BA is usually because it’s direct between London and your long haul destination or origin, and so the competitor tends to be the national carriers of popular BA destinations like Singapore, HK, etc (and obviously all of those carriers out do BA First).

  27. I agree with others, even though UA Polaris First is on the way out, it doesn’t even get close to the top 10 Business Class products and even their CFO thinks it’s pointless!
    It deserves at least an honor-less mentioning.

  28. I’ll scold you for what you said about BA–I think you were too nice to them. Broken seats, poor flight staff, massive surcharges, subpar food, and the last time we flew BA First, my wife got food poisoning and we are sure it was due to lack of proper refrigeration of creams and mayo. The other thing where BA stands out is the First call center–unless it has changed, the wait time was 30 to 60 minutes on multiple occasions. They also refused to waive phone booking charges even though the only reason I had to call was because the website couldn’t book seats that were available. I was hoping to see BA here and was not disappointed–except that I think it is even worse than you said. the only good thing about BA first was the First check-in at Heathrow. That was actually nice. The rest of BA is loving on a 30-year-old reputation. I will take AA over BA anyday and AA isn’t that wonderful.

  29. I forgot to mention that they also completely smashed an “indestructible” suitcase, admitted that it was their fault, and then never paid me a dime for it. They made me go through the BA First line who always hung up, didn’t know the answer, or had the wrong answers.

  30. By any measure one of the finest airlines in the world in any class, but QR doesn’t seem to give as much love to F as it gives to J. There’s a reason why QR takes the #1 spot in the Best Business Class rankings, but doesn’t come all that close in F. The two Emirati full-service airlines really, really care about F, but QR, not so much. In fact, I don’t know whether any QR plane other than the A380 and 777 has First.

  31. Thanks for doing this post it was great. Can you please follow this up with the a “business class” version. Thanks Ben!!!

    Adam

  32. A bit overdone. The worst F are the domestic USA products and intra-Europe and intra-Asia products which offer crappy seats and even worse food. All of the above (except TAAG) are about 10x better.

  33. I agree that BA should be on this list. Spot on! that the products are simply not competitive compared to their rivals (not only the european carriers tho!!)
    Sure, Their availability is great but it doesn’t guarantee a great F product…

  34. First class on one version of the Korean Air A330 is identical to the seat and configuration in first class on the 787-9, which are both identical to the business-class seats on those aircraft. It is the only first class I’ve seen where SeatGuru makes all first class seats yellow.

  35. Lucky,
    You can’t write such an interesting blog on Angola’s TAAG and a purser who actually made you feel that strange and not tell us why man!
    Believe it or not, as an avid amateur photographer flying from Hong Kong to San Francisco on Singapore Airlines 10-12 years ago, the purser got it in his mind that the shades should stay down all night and I wanted to take shots of nighttime Tokyo.
    I felt defiant but being caned was just not my thing!

  36. @Sheila

    If you want to avoid babies and singing toddler parties, avoid AA. A quarter of my F flights last year had some form of child/baby incident. And AA flight attendants will not intervene.

    Good luck.

  37. BA’s first class product is weak, but uncompetitive? BA offers some extremely well-priced first class tickets, including direct from their hub, when compared to other airlines. I think they realise that it’s not quite up to scratch and sell it appropriately. There’s a lot I’d say that’s negative about BA, but it’s a competitive product for those actually paying cash for their tickets.

  38. Lucky, how would you compare BA F with Apex Suites and Delta One? Is BA F really better than them?

  39. British is simply not a comparable product cost wise. People get thrilled with $4500 Air France first class round trip flights while British has sales for nearly $2000 less. Their expectations should be miles above.

  40. Gus: “BA first is the worst I have experienced and is awful throughout their entire fleet.”

    I disagree. While I would actively avoid flying F on their 747’s and 777’s I find F on the A380’s and 787’9’s to be very competitive in terms of hard product.

    Fortunately as LHR-LAX/SFO is my ‘regular run’ I can almost always fly one of these aircraft types.

  41. Lucky now that you have pretty much flown all first class products you need to do a ranking of all first class products

  42. Hi Lucky,
    Kuwait Airways has both First class as well as Royal class (but only on the 777). I just took it from NYC-KWI direct and it was a great flight (had the cabin all to myself). Only annoyance is that they don’t have the seat bedding cover pad (to sleep on) – they just provide a blanket. Otherwise, great flight in a closed-suite seat with delicious food.

  43. Slagging off BA is easy and predictable. But once you factor in that BA fares are typically cheaper AND that it usually means a non-stop flight rather than a chance, and suddenly the overall experience is better, or at least better value.

    And LHR T5 First wing and the Concorde Room is pretty nice

  44. KE F without direct aisle access is installed on all 773(non-ER) majority of 333 and all of 332s. The furthest 773 would serve is Singapore (6.5hrs) but 332 or 333 serve quite long haul flights – up to 11 or 12 hours. (mainly Oceania and Europe. A 332 once served ICN-LAX-GRU) So this actually is quite an issue – a not-so-good business class seat being sold as a true long-haul first class seat, and at least ex-ICN, there is no discount for it.

  45. As someone whose never flown First Class I found these lists nonetheless really enjoyable to read. Great posts! Now, as someone who does fly business class, I’d be very interested to read similar best and worst lists for that!

  46. AA first over BA any time.
    The first Dinning in AA is miles ahead of the Concorde, the seat is wider and more comfortable and the FAs is always a random game in either of them.

    @sheila I completely support you on the no babies on F initiative. You should start a Twitter or other social media page about it.

  47. Thank you so much. Please check out YouTube videos on the subject and you will see where I encourage others to contact airlines and suggest bratless flights and or sections. There’s a demand for it but people besides me need to talk to the airlines since they are not going to listen to just me

  48. As Euro mentions, Saudia still have aircraft with the old 2-2-2 layout in first class (regularly found on seemingly premium routes like JED to LHR or CDG). And I haven’t heard anything about if / when these will be upgraded or replaced.

  49. British Airways first class has the same seating density as Virgin on the 747 but Virgin are honest and call it business class.

  50. Lucky,

    Thanks for the articles (‘blogs’ in modern parlance) on best and worst First Class products on airlines.

    As a regular BA F passenger on paid flights, I have had some excellent flights and meals, and also some horrible experiences. I do hope that Alex Cruz and his management team read your blog and take note. My individual feedback is rarely taken on board although on one occasion, when I provided feedback about the fact that their Mumbai-based crew do not serve F passengers on BOM-LHR flights (not that I have a preference, it was just an observation), on my next flight on that route they had every Indian crew member come by my seat – 1K – to greet me and ask if I needed anything! That was an immense surprise, they had been listening. It has not happened again though.

    As for the Lufthansa F lounge in Frankfurt that everyone seems to rave about, it comes across as cold and soulless with its stone floors and other similar features. Nevertheless, I will use it the next time I fly LH F while I continue to provide feedback to BA about the state of the carpets in their Concorde Room at LHR T5!

  51. @Lucky can you please do an article in the different terms airlines use for first, business and economy. All seems confusing from a consumer standpoint

  52. I booked corporate travel for years in Australia and the company had a policy of ‘no-one flies first class, ever’. Around the globe this wasn’t a problem as airlines with 3 cabin planes had First/Business/Economy. ‘Simples’.

    The problems arose only in the USA where 2 cabin craft refer to ‘First’ and ‘Coach’. So people flying in from Australia on business class would then have to do all internal USA flights in Coach (Economy) – so as not to break the ‘first’ class rule. The corporate travel agents we used, variously AMEX and CWT, all knew it was crazy – but the rules was the rules and the words ‘first’ class would never make it past the bean counters.

    Domestic ‘First’ in USA is nothing more or less than the crappy ‘Business’ intra-Europe. I believe some transcontinental East/West coast flights now have proper 3 cabin craft and a ‘First’ class cabin. If the USA Airlines used the terminology Business and Economy and stopped using ‘First’ for anything other than premium service in a 3 cabin craft, then confusion would be minimised though probably not eliminated.

    But I’m not holding my breath and it would probably take 3 generations for people to stop thinking they’d been downgraded since their company used to let them fly ‘first’ and now they’re in ‘business’.

  53. What the heck has BA put on your plate? Looks like an animal i think might live under a rock on the planet Mars… uggh

  54. I’m sorry – LH For should be on this list. Disinterested service, dirty cabin (found dirty ear swabs and used band aids in the storage the last time I flew), disgusting and dirty surfaces, lack of space and privacy, and horrid food. I’d also include AA and UA on that list.

  55. Can u do a list of top 10 easiest F to obtain for two that allows people to redeem miles months ahead? It’s nice to read about Air France or Cathay F, but not being able to redeem miles for them ahead of time or in Air France’s case, not at all unless elite status, is kinda pointless for those of us readers who like to plan months ahead for overseas trips. The only two airlines come to mind that release tons of F ahead of time is BA between US and Europe; and for trips to Asia from US, it is Korean Air. Would love to know other alternatives that have lots of availability ahead of time. Thank you!

  56. My recent BA F trip – the menu choice was Chicken Burger and Chips, or Mac n Cheese.

    Couldn’t believe it.

  57. There are other African and Asian carriers that do not have great first or business class products, service, or food, but I think it is also about your expectations. Do you really think Emirates or one of the other high end middle east carriers is comparable to the Angola airline, Thai, or Vietnam air… It also depends on the type of flight you are flying. For example, if it is the only or one of the few long haul flights for the carrier it can’t compare to one that has an ample number long haul flights. Furthermore, if you are going on a short segment versus a long segment, it also is not comparable. Hong Kong to Bali, for example, is not a long haul flight so the benefits won’t be the same as a trans-continental flight.

  58. @Lucky,
    Nice comparisons! Suggest that you do that you also do one on the worst frequent flyer programs. I would nominate Qatars Privilege Club as the most devaluated, sleazy and useless program after their “enhancements”…

  59. Hi, I see that you say that you have flown all the first class products in the world (except for Kuwait airways) but I think you don’t know about an airline from my country (Venezuela) called Avior airlines, who flies an Airbus A340-300 (ex-Air China) from Barcelona (BLA) to Miami, it’s an interesting ride for a 3,5 hour flight so I think you should check it out, it a interesting route like the ones that you love. Pd: they have 8 first class seats and 28 business in the aircraft. Greetings.

  60. Hello again Lucky.
    One of my worst First Class cabins was the then Air Lanka back in 1994. My wife and I had flown BA to the then Bombay and wanted to go on to Colombo, which BA did not fly to at that time. We were advised to book First Class seats on Air Lanka as any other seats were terrible. In the event, the First Class cabin was, at that time, a cross between the then BA Economy and BA Business in terms of its seating and similar to the then BA Economy for food. The GOOD part about this trip was that I paid GBP 590 with my AMEX card and was never booked for it. That happened quite often in those days (I still have the original invoices) but rarely today.
    At the other end of the scale, I worked in Oman for five years in the 1980s and, due to my position, I flew First Class on business. On many occasions after take-off on my Gulf Air flight bound for London on a hot night, the caviar served with ice-cold vodka was so delicious that the taste still lingers in my mouth.

  61. Jk you might be surprised. Most people are sick of screaming kicking kids and would pay more for peaceful flights. They need to let the airlines know unless you enjoy that kind of torture

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