‘Premium’ seat traffic on airlines in significant decline

Here’s something you can check out: On your next international flight to Europe or Asia, take note of just how crowded the first class and, more importantly, business class cabins are as you shuffle on back to economy.

I did that the other week on a Continental flight from Berlin to Newark. Continental only has a “Business First” section, and during the flight I peaked through the curtain to behold only about four passengers sitting there.

You’ll probably notice the same.

And here’s why: The International Air Transport Association, a trade group, said yesterday that first and business class travel has experienced significant declines in recent months. Overall in 2008 first class and business class travel was down about 3 percent.

But in December it was down nearly 14 percent compared to the year before, and in November it was down nearly 12 percent. The IATA says premier travel will fall even more in the months ahead.

Why? The global financial crisis, which has bitten sharply into companies’ foreign business travel. Everyone is trying to save money, so executives that are still making trips are now often asked to go coach.

The route most affected by this downturn is easily Asia. Asia traffic is down 25 percent compared to 2007, the Associated Press reports.

Economy class traffic is also falling, but at a much slower rate. This past December saw declines of about 5 percent, compared to the 14 percent up front.