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What’s the deal with business class?

Infrequent travelers may well be confused about the various classes of air service available to them, and even frequent travelers may not be aware of all the latest developments. One reader recently asked simply, “What do I get for the money in business class?” Of course, the answer is more complicated than the question, but I can at least try to provide a few general observations.

The class system

From the top down, here are the major classes of airline service you’re likely to encounter:

  • Intercontinental first class
  • Intercontinental business class
  • Domestic first class/business class
  • Intercontinental premium economy
  • North American semi-premium economy (very limited)
  • North American coach/economy
  • Sub-economy (mostly outside the U.S.)

This report concentrates on the several premium options.

Intercontinental first and business class

Intercontinental first class is as opulent as you can get at 550 miles per hour in an aluminum tube six miles above the ground. Recently installed or upgraded international first class these days includes roomy seats—often in some sort of “pod” or “capsule” offering privacy—that convert to lie-flat beds at night. Meal and beverage service is similarly deluxe. And fares are astronomical—so high, in fact, that demand is extremely limited.

Intercontinental business class is today’s true competitive arena for premium service. Quite a few important airlines, including Air Canada, Continental, Delta, KLM, Northwest, SAS, and US Airways, have eliminated intercontinental first class entirely, and Virgin Atlantic never had first class. Instead, these lines lead with their business-class product, and even the lines that still offer first class concentrate mainly on business class.

Overall, you get much the same sort of in-flight service in business class as in first class: extra roomy seats, opulent meals on china with bottomless beverage pourings, lots of personal attention, and good high-tech entertainment options. The total business-class package often includes express check-in, expedited baggage delivery, and sometimes access to a reserved airport lounge or club.

Seating, however, varies, as airlines continually try to one-up each other. You get lie-flat or lie-almost-flat seats on British Airways, Qantas (747-400s), and Virgin Atlantic (747s and new A340s). Seat pitch (the front-to-rear spacing of seat rows) is at least 78 inches. On most other planes, seat pitch is 55 to 60 inches—enough to lie back comfortably, but not flat. And on a few planes, including Air Canada (some 767s), Continental (some 767s), Delta (some 767s), Lufthansa (some A330s, A340s, and 747s), and SAS, pitch is a comparatively tight 48 to 50 inches. (All figures are based on data posted on

Legroom isn’t the only difference. Business-class seats are all much wider than seats in economy. As airlines report data, seat cushions in business class are usually some three to four inches wider than economy seats, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Because of much wider armrests, the actual space between the center of one seat and the center of the adjacent seat is usually at least six inches more than in economy. Although wider than economy seats, six-abreast business class seats in 767s provide less shoulder-width room than most others. You find those seats on at least some of the 767s operated by Air Canada, American, Continental, Delta, United, and US Airways.

Fares may be below first class, but they’re still extremely high. From Chicago to London, for example, the unrestricted round-trip fare in business class is a bit over $8,800. Fares are comparable on other transatlantic routes. That figure, however, is for immediate departure, with no restrictions or change penalties. With a few restrictions, even some big airlines are discounting business class. For a trip a month in advance, you can do the same trip for about $4,200. Big corporations with volume deals—and some discount agencies—can do even better. Published fares across the Pacific are usually less even though the distances are greater, and they’re also often discounted.

Nevertheless, even with a discount, business class is lots more expensive than economy. For that same trip from Chicago to London, you can fly in the back of the plane for just under $400 round-trip. That means you pay 10 to 20 times as much for a comfortable seat and adequate service. Sadly, that’s too rich for most leisure travelers or business travelers paying their own way.

How can airlines get away with charging 10 to 20 times as much for a business-class seat as for one in economy? The basic answer is that, so far, lots of big corporations authorize intercontinental travelers to fly business class. Even though they may require coach for trips within North America, business class is still OK for a large number of travelers whose tickets are paid for by their employers.

Low-fare (?) business start-ups

Late last year, two start-up lines began featuring reduced premium fares from New York to London/Stansted.

  • Eos offers a product that is on a par with the most opulent first class. The published round-trip fares are $6,500 unrestricted; $5,500 with a seven-day advance purchase. That’s high, but just about half of the big lines’ first-class asking prices. According to industry reports, Eos is discounting to corporate clients.
  • MaxJet’s product is more like the median level of regular business class—no lie-flat seats but outstanding cabin service. Round-trip fares start at $1,358, but the line ran a midweek promotion at $750 in February that may be repeated sometime. MaxJet is also reported to be discounting to corporate clients. MaxJet will even label your ticket as “economy” rather than “business” if you work for a company with a policy that requires flying economy. New flights from Washington to London are planned for March; from West Coast cities later.

North American flights

Most flights within North America these days operate with single-aisle planes: A319/320s, 717s, 737s, 757s, and DC9/MD80s. Most are two-class, first, and coach. That first class, however, is considerably less luxurious than intercontinental business, with seat pitch of 34 to 38 inches and cabin service that’s well below intercontinental standards. A few new low-cost lines offer what they call “business” rather than first class, but it’s essentially the same product as the big lines’ first class.

The big lines occasionally operate intercontinental planes on busy North American routes, especially transcons. If you have a premium ticket, those flights are certainly a good bet.

United operates “ps” (for premium service) 757s with first-, business-, and economy-class cabins on a few transcon routes. The business class on those planes is on a par with intercontinental business class.

Selecting your flight

As long as you (or someone else) is ponying up the big batch of money for a business-class ticket, you should make sure you’re getting the most for that money. Sure, your most important consideration is a good schedule, but where you have a choice, check around to see if some line offers a lie-flat or near-lie-flat seat. You can do some research online. Most lines show seating on their websites, and Seat Guru displays seat maps and measurement data for close to two dozen lines. But if the configuration for a flight you’re considering isn’t clear, by all means ask the airline.

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