The front-cabin quality gap

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 7, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: frequent flyer, Matthew Bennett, Editor of FirstClassFlyer.com.

Editor's note: This article was originally published by FirstClassFlyer.com in August 2005.

Once upon a time, business- and first-class cabins were created mostly equal. The advantages were easily understood: more legroom, more cushioning, more attention, free drinks. Overall, the deal remains the same, except these perks now represent just the bottom rungs of the business- and first-class ladder.

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Over the past decade some overseas carriers, notably Singapore Airlines, British Airways (BA), and Virgin Atlantic, have invested substantial sums in raising the bar. All three moved early to install lie-flat beds in business class, and they continue to embroider their premium services, whether by offering a restaurant-quality sit-down meal before takeoff (British Airways), mid-air massages (Virgin Atlantic), or the latest in lie-flat beds (Singapore's SpaceBed).

Most U.S. carriers have not kept pace. Today they lag in seats and service, especially on international routes where comfort often trumps cost.

This puts the business and leisure traveler in an interesting position: Pay top dollar on an airline that offers top comfort or go for the deeply discounted fares on an airline that hasn't upgraded its seats and, consequently, is forced to discount. That's right: The price of not investing in business and first class is having to flog inferior seats at a deep discount.

The inside track

I hear from corporate travel managers that the laggards, such as American and United, must discount twice as much as the leaders, like Virgin and BA. Now that the dust has settled, it's clear that Aer Lingus, which slashed business-class fares, should have instead invested in upgrading its product.

One way to tell if an airline is at the head or the tail in this regard is to visit its website and see if pictures of the business- and first-class seats are posted. Hint: When you've got nothing to show, you show nothing, and the websites of Aer Lingus and Icelandair are notable for not having pictures of seats.

The biggest beneficiaries of the disparity in front-cabin products are leisure travelers. That's because good seat or bad, the price of unrestricted business and first class—the most purchased fare, mostly for corporate travel—is about the same. It's the leisure fares, with their advance-purchase and minimum-stay requirements, that are heavily discounted.

So what does that mean for you? It depends on who you are when you board. If you're headed for a major meeting and have to deplane in tip-top shape, pay the premium for comfort and convenience in the air. If you don't have to rise and shine, or if you're on a tight corporate-travel budget, look to the laggards. If you're a leisure traveler, the decision hinges on the length of the trip. For a really long-haul journey, say Los Angeles to Singapore (17 hours) or the Maldives Islands (24 hours total in the air, plus a layover), I would go with Singapore Airlines. Comfort counts when you're spending this much time aloft. But if I were flying New York-to-Paris (seven hours), I might look at the second-tier and use the money I saved to dine out or upgrade to a suite.

Playing to Win

Business travelers: If your primary carrier has a low-luxe cabin, find out if one of its mileage partners has better quality seats and fly with them whenever you can.

Leisure travelers: Everyone has his own idea of what a frequent flyer mile is worth, but a mile that gets you a better-quality seat is worth more than one that doesn't. If you have to fly with a second-tier carrier, earn points in an A-carrier loyalty program.

Here's a rundown of the latest battles in business-class comfort and the impact it's having on fares.

To Asia

Best cabins: Cathay Pacific and Singapore are the leaders in this market and consequently neither have to discount much. (The exceptions: Cathay's two-for-one in the Amex Platinum Program and Singapore's offers with United's Ameniti.com, on some routes.) All Nippon, Japan Air Lines, and Thai Airways are among the latest carriers to roll out new seats, but only on some routes.

Best values: Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific on two-for-ones. Northwest, the one U.S. airline that has invested in new, near-lie-flat (176-degree recline) business-class seats, often offers fares that, given the seats, represent decent values, especially for solo travelers.

Lowest fares: Air China, Asiana, China Air, EVA Airways, Korean Air, Philippines Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and Thai Airways. The trade-off is usually a second-class premium cabin seat and mediocre service.

Worst of both worlds: American and Delta, where seats are second-class and fares are relatively high on Asian routes.

To Australia

Best cabins: Qantas, after upgrading its seats. But it is holding out for top dollar—now more than $10,000 for a business-class round-trip from Los Angeles to Sydney.

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