He says CEOs, financiers and Hollywood types are among those who will pay for first class for the onboard experience and the privileges of airport services reserved for them.
"Lufthansa has invested quite a bit of money in keeping a first-class product because a lot of airlines are moving out of first-class where there is not enough traffic to warrant it," says Buckenburg. "There is still a market segment willing to pay for first class. The demand is still there, but not everywhere."
United Airlines remains a hybrid.
Legacy United has largely favored the first, business and economy (and recently introduced Premium Economy) model. Merger partner Continental Airlines favored two-class business and economy.
The legacy Continental aircraft continue to have just two classes. Legacy United's Boeing 747s are three class. About half the merged fleet's Boeing 777s are three class and the others are two class.
"It is less about our perspective on the values than the customers who buy it," says United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. "There are customers who appreciate and value all the attributes of GlobalFirst (United's name for first-class). Ultimately the pricing is a function of the demand and value that customers have for that service.
"In a nutshell, there are customers who choose to pay for this additional privacy and additional space and additional luxury and the higher level of personalized service."
But United also says that not all very long-haul routes merit first-class service.
"The value proposition for the lie-flat in first has been significantly diminished," says APEX's Kirby. "It's the reason a lot of airlines are going to a single-class premium service. It's why you see Lufthansa pulling out of first in some markets, and even Emirates Airlines is thinking of going all-business on the A380."
Blurring the line between first and business
Virgin Atlantic began operations in 2003 and never has offered first class.
Instead, its business class is named Upper Class, a first-class product at business-class prices, says spokeswoman Anna Catchpole.
"The Upper Class suite has been designed to be separately both the most comfortable bed and the most comfortable seat in the air," Catchpole says. "Instead of extending from a seat into a bed, Virgin Atlantic's seat provides the passenger with a luxury leather armchair to relax on which then flips over into a separate bed with a mattress to sleep on."
In a throwback to the early days of Boeing 747 service, Virgin offers a bar area in Upper Class, all for prices far below first-class on other carriers.
Virgin's Upper Class passengers also benefit from ground amenities at select airports. At London Heathrow Airport, Upper Class passengers have access to a limo and a dedicated security channel a short walk from the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse.
"Upper Class passengers and Flying Club Gold members making their own way to the airport can check in at the Upper Class check-in, in Zone A of the main terminal, before taking a priority lift straight to the dedicated security channel," says Catchpole. "Upper Class customers ... can now check in 40 minutes prior to their scheduled departure time at the latest, and whiz through the dedicated security channel straight to the gate."
As for the ultimate question -- Is first class worth it? -- the market seems to be reacting the way it usually does to luxury products and premium services: yes, it's worth it, if you can afford it and if those products and services are perceived as being unique.
With the growing affordability of private and corporate jets, however, as well as with budget tightening and improvements in business-class comfort, more high-end travelers are likely to put business before the ultimate pleasure.