First Class Vs. Business Class: What’s The Difference?

First Class Vs. Business Class: What’s The Difference?

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A reader recently asked me what the difference is between first class and business class. While longtime OMAAT readers will likely know the difference right off the bat, it also occurred to me that the answer is a bit more nuanced than initially meets the eye. So in this post I wanted to provide a detailed answer of that question.

Why there’s confusion about first class vs. business class

It’s understandable that there’s confusion about the difference between first class and business class. Let me explain why in the form of an example.

This is a first class seat…

American Eagle Embraer E175 first class

…and this is also a first class seat.

Air France Boeing 777-300ER first class

This is a business class seat…

Lufthansa Airbus A320 business class

…and this is also a business class seat.

All Nippon Airways Boeing 777-300ER business class

Yeah, as you can tell, the terms “first class” and “business class” as such don’t tell you a whole lot about what to expect.

First class vs. business class is sometimes a matter of marketing

The way I view it, here’s what “true” first class is:

  • It’s a situation where an airline has a cabin above business class
  • More often than not, in these situations airlines often have four cabins — first class, business class, premium economy, and economy
  • First class cabins can typically be found on long haul international flights, and tickets can often cost five figures

But that’s not the only time you’ll see a flight marketed as offering first class. For example, when you travel within the United States, the forward-most cabin on most domestic aircraft is generally marketed as first class rather than business class, even though it’s a fairly mediocre product that doesn’t compete with long haul business class.

American Airlines’ Boeing 737 first class

Why is that? Well, ultimately different regions of the world seem to approach the marketing of premium cabins differently:

  • On flights within the United States that have just two classes of service, the forward-most cabin is typically marketed as first class
  • On international flights with just two classes of service, the forward-most cabin is typically marketed as business class
  • Interestingly on US airlines, the same seats that are marketed as first class on domestic flights are marketed as business class on short haul international flights

To sum this up as simply as possible:

  • Sometimes first class vs. business class is just a matter of marketing, as airlines in different parts of the world approach this differently
  • When most people talk about “real” first class, they’re referring to long haul international first class on a plane that also features a business class cabin; these are the cabins that feature incredibly elevated service, and are priced accordingly (these tickets can often cost $10,000+)

What differentiates “real” first class from business class

What makes long haul international first class better than long haul international business class? While there’s a huge amount of variance in terms of airline quality (in both first class and business class), I figured I’d cover some of the major differences that you’ll find between the two experiences.

For a more detailed look at some of these products, check out all of my flight reviews, plus my posts about the best first class airlines, the best first class lounges, the best business class seats, etc.

Below are what I consider to be the six biggest differences between “true” first class and business class, in no particular order (and again, there’s quite a bit of variance, so this is very broad).

The ground experience

For many airlines, the first class experience starts the moment you check-in. That’s especially true if you’re visiting one of the world’s best first class lounges.

The services offered on the ground to first class passengers by some airlines are truly impressive. For example, if you’re flying Air France first class out of Paris you can expect to be driven to your plane by car, and can enjoy an incredible a la carte dining experience in the lounge.

Be driven to your plane when flying Air France first class

While there are some great business class lounges out there, like the Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Lounge Doha and the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse London, I’ve never had a business class ground experience which I found to be truly personalized in the same way.

The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse is great, but not to the same level

The personal space

The most precious resource on a plane is space (well, perhaps after oxygen), and that’s something first class generally provides more of. The thing is, there are some great business class products out there nowadays which feature direct aisle access, and are arguably better than first class was 10 years ago. Qatar Airways’ Qsuites, for example, is one of my favorites.

Qatar Airways’ Qsuites is an amazing business class

However, the innovation when it comes to first class hard products is on a different level. For example, take a look at Emirates’ new 777 first class, which features fully enclosed suites with individual temperature and lighting controls. You’ll almost forget you’re on an airplane.

Emirates’ new first class is my favorite

The amenities

In my opinion a good night of sleep isn’t just about the amount of personal space, but also about what the airline does to make it comfortable. Many first class products come with added amenities, like pajamas (and for that matter, some airlines even offer these in business class).

Pajamas in Emirates first class

However, in my opinion the single most important amenity is good bedding. Several first class products offer name brand bedding products, which can rival the sleep you’d get at home. To me that’s a huge point of differentiation, since a good mattress pad goes a long way.

Lufthansa has great bedding in first class

Okay, as far as amenities go, the Emirates A380 onboard shower, reserved exclusively for first class passengers, isn’t too bad either. 😉

The Emirates A380 shower

The service

There’s simply a different approach to service in first class vs. business class, and that comes down to staffing levels. In first class there’s usually one flight attendant for every few passengers, while in business class there’s maybe one flight attendant for every 10 passengers (or even more).

As a general rule of thumb, in business class I expect to be served like I’m part of an assembly line, given how many people need to be served at once.

There are lots of people to serve in business class

In first class my expectations of service are different, though. Service is generally much more attentive, where you feel like you’re being served in a restaurant and dining at your pace, rather than being served at a Medieval Times dinner & live show, where everything is brought out when it’s convenient for the crew.

Furthermore, I don’t feel as guilty asking for things in first class. In business class I sometimes feel bad ordering a cappuccino (assuming it’s offered) during a busy dinner service or breakfast, since I know the crew is busy, and they have a lot of people to take care of. I don’t have that same feeling in first class.

It’s much easier to provide attentive service in first class

The food

In business class I generally hope for food to be edible and (mediocre) restaurant quality, while in first class a meal can actually be a dining experience (of course there are limits to what can be served from aircraft galleys).

A first class meal may include many courses served how and when you want (with customization options), and will often include caviar.

Enjoying caviar in Cathay Pacific first class

The drinks

Admittedly this doesn’t appeal to everyone, but there’s no denying that some top airlines have an incredible alcohol selection in first class, whether it be Dom or Krug or Hennessy Paradis.

There’s a huge amount of variance here — China Southern first class has worse champagne than Qatar Airways business class (or at least used to) — but on the whole you’ll find some first class products with phenomenal drink selections.

Enjoying Dom Perignon in Emirates first class

For those who like coffee, I’d note that lots more airlines serve specialty coffee drinks in first class but not in business class.

Emirates has french press coffee in first class

Bottom line

There can be some confusion about the differences between first class and business class, given that it largely comes down to marketing. There are definitely regional norms that dictate what cabins are generally called.

For all practical purposes, I’d consider first and business class to be the same, unless you’re traveling on an international long haul flight in a cabin that’s marketed as first class. That’s where you’ll find the best experiences available in commercial aviation, and where the experience is truly differentiated.

It’s important to remember that not all products are created equal, though. Even among business class products, experiences can differ substantially, so keep in mind that this is intended to be more of a big-picture look at the differences between cabins.

Any questions about the difference between first and business class that I haven’t answered?

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  1. Marvin Guest

    Lufthansa's A320 business class is a joke. That's economy on Qatar airways Boeing 777

  2. Marciano Ragaza Guest

    Turkish Airiines BC has this too;
    A first class meal may include many courses served how and when you want (with customization options), and will often include caviar.

    Chefs in toque come to you to take your orders and exactly when you want them served.

  3. Nii Afutu Neequaye. Guest

    I would rather travel Emirates Business Class than British Airways 1st Class. Trust me,I have traveled both.

    1. Peter Brown Guest

      Right on. BA has been devatsed by Iberia management.

  4. Grant Gullickson Guest

    Over the years Customs and TSA have become Extra Nosey into your Personal life . Its time to fly on a Private plane . Nobody will find out a Thing about your Personal busness . Or how much Cash your carrying. !!

  5. Robbie Olson Guest

    The Very best Class is to Fly a Gulfstream 550 to Europe . TSA and all the Nosey government head hunters are looking to take Cash or Fancy jewelry or your marijuana away from you . Whats wrong with this Greedy country. ??

  6. Irina Guest

    The difference is that, no matter how much you pay, they will charge you no show fee with the COVID-19 positive results!!! Avoid them, all they say that you can re-book is a lie!

  7. Diana Guest

    United airlines international flights only offer business and it's called Polaris, it doesn't offer first class.

  8. Spencer Pierce Guest

    When I flew UA first from LAX to SYD the only difference was the seat, a soup course and my FAs were more ancient; whoops, I mean more senior. Most of the paxs in 1st were Non-Rev paxs. Everything was the same: same food, same champagne, and same wines. The only difference was access to UA 1st Class lounge.

  9. Charlie Guest

    As someone who has worked at Air France, British Airways in passenger Service out of JFK. The passenger Service agents need to complete a specialized training to even work at the First Class check-in counter. The product is amazing, the lounge is amazing. Even as employees, we were able to fly non Rev in tempo (Coach) or Business. However, out of JFK we often would be given a seat in first. Good Ole days...

  10. Molotov Pauling Guest

    There are limits on amount of attention to each passenger can be offered on a commercial airline ,if you require a exceptional level of attention on a aircraft just fly private

  11. Wendy McQuarrie Guest

    I will only fly Emirates 380 business class. Window seat is my preference. The service is excellent, as is the menu selection and meals. I love the bar at the back where you can stretch your legs and have almost anything you want to drink. Try the breakfast martini. There is always a selection of sweet and savoury nibbles available. The beds are very comfortable, plenty of space plus a private "bar" with a selection...

    I will only fly Emirates 380 business class. Window seat is my preference. The service is excellent, as is the menu selection and meals. I love the bar at the back where you can stretch your legs and have almost anything you want to drink. Try the breakfast martini. There is always a selection of sweet and savoury nibbles available. The beds are very comfortable, plenty of space plus a private "bar" with a selection of juices and water. My champagne experience has ranged from Moet to Bollinger depending on the route so can't complain and there is a good selection of wine to pair with the meals. Toiletries are always upmarket brands.

    1. Dog Guest

      Only first. BC is horrible

  12. Madonna Guest

    These pics look like planes from the 60's. They are dated. Business class are flat beds now

  13. Samo Guest

    In a nutshell, business class is what BA calls a first class.

  14. Carrie Guest

    It has always amused me that the American airlines label their premium domestic cabin 'first class'. Is this not a case of misleading and deceptive conduct?

    1. vw28 Guest

      Which airlines do that? I know United labels its domestic "first class" product as business class.

      The author has it correct in that long-haul international flights with a first class product offer a significantly elevated experience compared to business class.

      Its important to keep in mind too that the new United Polaris interiors (business class) are equal to my first class experience twenty years ago.

      Thats why its important to book...

      Which airlines do that? I know United labels its domestic "first class" product as business class.

      The author has it correct in that long-haul international flights with a first class product offer a significantly elevated experience compared to business class.

      Its important to keep in mind too that the new United Polaris interiors (business class) are equal to my first class experience twenty years ago.

      Thats why its important to book domestic business class flights arriving from international destinations. You'll find a better hard product by doing this.

    2. Gubmintmole Guest

      I don’t understand your last sentence. How would you book domestic business class arriving from international destinations. Could you give an example? Thanks

  15. SuitesFan Guest

    You also have airlines such as SQ with "Suites" that is marketed as "A class above First".
    SQ has First Class on its B777-300ER aircraft and Suites on its A380-800 aircraft.
    Having travelled in Suites, I can confidently say that SQ have hit the nail on the head when it comes to premium travel with its Suites class. EK probably has too, but I don't have a reason to travel with them.
    PS: Remember the "Residence" on EY? I wonder if that's still around...

  16. Edward Sobolewski Guest

    Dining service ISN'T "at the convenience of the crew." There are strict time-frames and policies for meal and drink services. Please don't trash the professionally trained (and monitored) crews.

  17. D3kingg Guest

    You always want to be in first class. Business class is for losers.

  18. Melwyn Mounter Guest

    I flew South African Airlines first class out of JKF and it was the worst experience ever. I’ve flown Economy on same route many times and I saw no difference except the space! Service in first class was mediocre; almost non existing!

  19. crosscourt Guest

    Mmmm Q Suites.... nope I'd say C Suites C for claustrophobic with badly positioned tables that one constantly knocks when the seat opens to a bed. No thanks.

  20. St James Guest

    Thus we can ignore whatever domestic american "first class" is.

    As intended, business class is a practical product (take that as you will, but bed + hit the ground running goes a long way). First class is a luxury product for people who don't need to work.
    It's also why AA international F sucks while J is alright. They misunderstand the purpose of F and that's probably partly cultural too of course. It is...

    Thus we can ignore whatever domestic american "first class" is.

    As intended, business class is a practical product (take that as you will, but bed + hit the ground running goes a long way). First class is a luxury product for people who don't need to work.
    It's also why AA international F sucks while J is alright. They misunderstand the purpose of F and that's probably partly cultural too of course. It is not for "look at me I'm a hustling businessman in my office in the sky look at how hard I work" nonono. It's supposed to be about relaxation.

  21. Shangster11 Guest

    The biggest difference is: corporate travel will pay for fares coded as business, but not for F.

  22. Leigh Gold

    The difference between First and Business has become so close.

    As long as I have direct aisle access and a flat bed, it's mostly all the same to me (exception only being Qatar).

    My question/thought is what airline might get innovative with Premium Economy. It will never be lie-flat, but remember the old BA cradle seats, and similar?...that would be awesome.

    And no, that PE product that NZ tried years ago was innovative...

    The difference between First and Business has become so close.

    As long as I have direct aisle access and a flat bed, it's mostly all the same to me (exception only being Qatar).

    My question/thought is what airline might get innovative with Premium Economy. It will never be lie-flat, but remember the old BA cradle seats, and similar?...that would be awesome.

    And no, that PE product that NZ tried years ago was innovative and attractive in appearance, but just awful in comfort.

  23. Billy Bob Guest

    I try not to be a mysoginist as a rule of thumb.
    However, I sure like tweaking the nose of any NPC in the cancel culture crowd.

  24. G Malet Guest

    On an Emerites flight Melbourne to Milan before the pandemic the shower screen in one bathroom collapsed and in the other bathroom the shower door did not close. The level of service was average as is the First Class lounge in Dubai.
    The seats were similar to the old Ethiad first class seats which turn into a bed. The doors close and that is an essential feature in long haul first class.
    The...

    On an Emerites flight Melbourne to Milan before the pandemic the shower screen in one bathroom collapsed and in the other bathroom the shower door did not close. The level of service was average as is the First Class lounge in Dubai.
    The seats were similar to the old Ethiad first class seats which turn into a bed. The doors close and that is an essential feature in long haul first class.
    The now defunct Ethiad A380 had the best first class cabin which was vastly superior to Emerites.

  25. Ran Batchelor Guest

    When I fly out of Houston to South East Asia, I flew mostly with EVA a Taiwan owned company. I received the best services than most American owned companies. Flying for 21 hours really wasn't bad at all, the food which was breakfast, lunch. And dinner was very delicious and the service was excellent. The price was very reasonable at only about 2.5 times the cost of coach ( which I had flown because the...

    When I fly out of Houston to South East Asia, I flew mostly with EVA a Taiwan owned company. I received the best services than most American owned companies. Flying for 21 hours really wasn't bad at all, the food which was breakfast, lunch. And dinner was very delicious and the service was excellent. The price was very reasonable at only about 2.5 times the cost of coach ( which I had flown because the 1st class was unavailable and was really not all that bad, a little cramped but was getting great services in coach) however the EVA AIRLINE'S first class was better than most others I've flown the past 5 years, so I'm hoping to fly with them again soon, and hope they continue their 2 flights a day again post pandemic.❤

    1. Stanley Guest

      When was this? Was this a flight from a long time ago? Eva Air does not have first class anymore. They have economy, premium economy, and business (Royal Laurel on Boeing 777-300 ER/787 in 1-2-1, Premium Laurel on Airbus 330 in 2-2-2, or just plain business on Airbus 321).

  26. JB Guest

    I have always explained it like this:

    The difference between First and Business is as significant as the difference between Business and Economy.

    1. TranceXplant Member

      With the exception of carriers like Emirates, that's generally not the case. The gap between international Y and J is usually so much larger than the gap between J and F that PE was created to bridge the ever-widening chasm.

  27. Maureen Guest

    My observation after being bumped up to first class on long haul flights from Asia is that it does not suit people travelling together, and certainly not with children. Even side by side in the most comfortable cushy cubicles, my husband and I could not talk without one of us getting out of our seat.
    Great for frequent fliers on expense accounts travelling alone.

  28. magice Member

    I frankly just define "First Class" as "one class higher than Business." Now, admittedly, some airlines market their business class as "First class" (glaring at domestic flights within USA), but they do let you redeemed at biz class rate in any event, so it's still technically biz.

    Again, "First Class" just means "the class above Business class, whatever Business Class happens to be." So it's kinda not fair to compare China Southern First with Qatar...

    I frankly just define "First Class" as "one class higher than Business." Now, admittedly, some airlines market their business class as "First class" (glaring at domestic flights within USA), but they do let you redeemed at biz class rate in any event, so it's still technically biz.

    Again, "First Class" just means "the class above Business class, whatever Business Class happens to be." So it's kinda not fair to compare China Southern First with Qatar Business (I don't think Qatar has First anymore, right?). Since China Southern Business probably is not as good as Qatar Business, First is nowhere guaranteed to be as good as Qatar. Now, if China Southern First is worse than their Biz, it would be a much more interesting situation ;)

  29. GBOAC Diamond

    My sense is that one better enjoy "true international first class" soon because I expect it to disappear completely within the decade. It will become harder and harder for airlines to justify the allocation of staff and high-end food/beverage to a smaller and smaller cohort of passengers. And look at the majority of airlines that have already abandoned first class.
    The good news is that most business class has become much better than what...

    My sense is that one better enjoy "true international first class" soon because I expect it to disappear completely within the decade. It will become harder and harder for airlines to justify the allocation of staff and high-end food/beverage to a smaller and smaller cohort of passengers. And look at the majority of airlines that have already abandoned first class.
    The good news is that most business class has become much better than what first class was back at the turn of this century.

    1. Lune Member

      Agreed. I think with private jet travel becoming cheaper (with netjets and other fractional share / leasing / charter / etc companies), and business class getting better, the market for first class is shrinking.

      Also, companies are getting stingier in what class of service they allow for their employee and let's face it, most people in first class are travelling on OPM...

  30. Jerry Diamond

    You may want to try to stop saying "rule of thumb. Myth or not, it's undeniably mysoginist.

    1. Yancy Guest

      Didn’t realize this and so I searched “rule of thumb misogynistic” and this is the first thing that popped up.

      https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1998-04-17-1998107056-story.html

      Thoughts?

    2. NFSF Gold

      If it is a myth, how could it be "undeniably mysoginist"?

    3. SSS Guest

      A modern folk etymology holds that the phrase is derived from the maximum width of a stick allowed for wife-beating under English common law, but no such law ever existed. This belief may have originated in a rumored statement by eighteenth-century judge Sir Francis Buller that a man may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. The rumor produced numerous jokes and satirical cartoons at Buller's expense, but there is no...

      A modern folk etymology holds that the phrase is derived from the maximum width of a stick allowed for wife-beating under English common law, but no such law ever existed. This belief may have originated in a rumored statement by eighteenth-century judge Sir Francis Buller that a man may beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. The rumor produced numerous jokes and satirical cartoons at Buller's expense, but there is no record that he made such a statement.

    4. Greg Guest

      I was involved in student government in one of the most liberal universities in the world (the sort of place where strong smelling deodorant was prohibited from being worn), and I live in one of the most liberal communities in the US, working in a role that has me receive 10-15 hours of sensitivity training annually. As a result, I consider myself very careful and thoughtful about the words and expressions I use. For example...

      I was involved in student government in one of the most liberal universities in the world (the sort of place where strong smelling deodorant was prohibited from being worn), and I live in one of the most liberal communities in the US, working in a role that has me receive 10-15 hours of sensitivity training annually. As a result, I consider myself very careful and thoughtful about the words and expressions I use. For example I no longer use the term "guys" to refer to a mixed or non-gendered group of people.

      And yet, I had never heard of "rule of thumb" being considered offensive until these comments. Reviewing the literature, it appears I wasn't missing anything prior to reading these comments. It's not.

  31. Super Member

    "Service is generally much more attentive... rather than being served at a Medieval Times dinner & live show" Now I'm picturing the FA's jousting on the trolley carts up and down the aisles for entertainment.

    Also your comment about China Southern made me really miss the pre-pandemic times when you would regularly be reviewing less "mainstream" airlines and having odd and hilarious experiences. Like the Chinese airline that had first class behind business class.

  32. echino Gold

    Sometimes there is no difference, and first class seats are exactly the same as business class seats on the same plane, and there is no difference in ground service, especially if not departing from the airline's hub. Korean Air comes to mind as an example.

  33. Leonard Lipkin Guest

    A big difference for me on American Airlines 777-300 is the footwell. Business class has a tapered, coffin-like footwell whereas first class is full width. With leg cramp problems this is crucial to me

    1. TranceXplant Member

      I agree. While I won't go so far as to say I dislike anything about the 777-300 business class experience (I've always enjoyed it), the seat and footwell in first class are noticeably more comfortable. And at often only a few hundred dollars more than J between Asia and the US, that and various other small improvements make it a relative bargain. (even more so back when EQM multiples were a factor)

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Super Member

"Service is generally much more attentive... rather than being served at a Medieval Times dinner & live show" Now I'm picturing the FA's jousting on the trolley carts up and down the aisles for entertainment. Also your comment about China Southern made me really miss the pre-pandemic times when you would regularly be reviewing less "mainstream" airlines and having odd and hilarious experiences. Like the Chinese airline that had first class behind business class.

2
TranceXplant Member

With the exception of carriers like Emirates, that's generally not the case. The gap between international Y and J is usually so much larger than the gap between J and F that PE was created to bridge the ever-widening chasm.

1
TranceXplant Member

I agree. While I won't go so far as to say I dislike anything about the 777-300 business class experience (I've always enjoyed it), the seat and footwell in first class are noticeably more comfortable. And at often only a few hundred dollars more than J between Asia and the US, that and various other small improvements make it a relative bargain. (even more so back when EQM multiples were a factor)

1
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