Reflecting on the differences between business and first class

Back in November I wrote a post entitled “What’s so great about international first class?” In it I shared why I consider the premium (in miles) for first class over business class to almost always be worth it.

I just returned from a trip to Asia via Europe where I had the opportunity to sample four different airlines in business class (Brussels, Austrian, and Turkish featured excellent fully flat products, while on LOT I got stuck on one of their old 767s). What this trip made me realize is that the premium for first class (in miles) is worth it, but for somewhat different reasons than I originally thought.

Let me start with the usual disclaimer that comparing premium airline products is the ultimate first world luxury. Air travel is a miracle in and of itself, regardless of which cabin you’re traveling in, and if you arrive a little tired after flying from New York to Tokyo in just 12 hours, so the hell what? You just traveled halfway around the world in hours, while it used to take months. But that’s kind of besides the point…

Anyway, previously my argument for first class over business class was that first class is an experience, while business class is merely a comfortable form of transportation. I think it more or less boiled down to this part of my previous post:

I have a confession to make, and perhaps I shouldn’t make this, because it hurts my case — in most cases I arrive more well rested at my destination flying a good fully flat business class product than a top first class product. Maybe I’ve become jaded, though to me business class is a form of transportation — a really, really comfortable form of transportation, but at the end of the day it’s not an “experience.” Don’t get me wrong, I think business class can be amazing, but it’s typically not a memorable enough experience so that you remember it years down the road. The flight attendants are usually going through the “motions” of providing a consistent and efficient service. And that’s why I usually arrive well rested in business class — I don’t feel like there’s something I need to stay up to “experience.” If I can arrive well rested at my destination and have a decent meal in business class, I’d say it’s a fantastic product.

The part of the previous post I still agree with is that in business class the flight attendants usually are going through the motions. They’re not there to take care of you, but rather you just happen to be seated between the front and back of the cabin, and in order to reach the back they have to at least ask if you’d like something. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as they can be really friendly about it.

But I was surprised that I found myself a bit more sheepish about asking for things in business class than first. For example, in first class I’d never even think twice about pushing the flight attendant call button for a drink between meals, while on some segments in business class I felt like I was inconveniencing the crews when doing so. I had the same feelings during the meal service, for example. If they’d roll through the aisle with the entree cart and it didn’t have the breadbasket on it, I felt like I’d be inconveniencing them by asking for something that wouldn’t otherwise be offered. And I’m sure part of that feeling is that they’re much busier in business class, and I felt like every time I asked for something not otherwise offered I’d be causing someone else in business class to be delayed and lose sleep (especially on a short transatlantic flight).

Maybe I’m crazy and that was all without merit, but there’s certainly a huge service gap between first class, where the service is about you, and business class, where you get more of the feeling like you’re part of an assembly line.

In my previous post I said the other big differentiator was the ground experience. But I think I overlooked the single biggest difference between first and business class, and that’s the comfort of the bed. Three of the four flights I flew in business class featured fully flat beds. To some degree I figured a fully flat bed is a fully flat bed, at least to the extent that I’d be able to get a decent night of sleep in any flat product. While I managed to snooze a bit on each flight, I didn’t find myself getting any “real” sleep on any of the flights.

Austrian business class

There’s no doubt that seats in first class are for the most part much more comfortable for sleeping. It’s not the length of the bed or even the direct width of the seat, but rather the open space around your seat, that allows you to bend your knees, stretch out, or generally not feel like you’re sleeping two inches from a wall no matter which way you face. I’m a side sleeper, and most business class seats are designed so that you sleep on your back, which is just very difficult for me.

And half of that is actually probably the quality of the bedding. In business class you’re given a pillow and a blanket, and that’s the extent of it. In most first class products nowadays you’re provided with some level of turndown service. This can range anywhere from American’s service, where you’re given an extremely thin mattress pad to make your seat softer, to near hotel style bedding on Qantas and Singapore.

American turndown service

Singapore Airlines turndown service

Or there are even Lufthansa’s 747-400s, which feature a separate seat and bed for all first class passengers. That’s probably the ultimate comfort for sleeping!

But the challenge with first class is really balancing the two extremes. On one hand you want to enjoy the amazing service on airlines like Cathay Pacific, Singapore, etc., and not just sleep through the entire flight and have no memory of it. On the other hand you want to actually take advantage of the flat bed to maximize the amount of sleep you can get and arrive at your destination well rested.

That can be a really tough balance on a shorter flight, but that’s the beauty 0f 14+ hour flights in first class, where you can enjoy the service over a couple of nice meals and still get a full night of rest.

Filed Under: Advice, Travel
  1. After having flown around the globe twice now in all First Class, I agree. From the ground staff, to the flight attendants, it is really amazing just how different it is. I just did ANA last week from NRT to JFK….wow, what an experience that was!

  2. You’re certainly right about the difference between busy-ness of the flight attendants. In F on almost any international flight, any airline, you can feel free to ask for what you want, when you want it. 99.9% of the time the FAs will bring it to you with pleasure, and you will feel you are inconveniencing neither them nor the other passengers. In business class, that level of personal attention is rare.

    But most people don’t need to be fawned over and served hand and foot. I love F for occasional blow-out vacations (what a GREAT way to start and finish a relaxing trip!), but certainly don’t need it. I’m perfectly happy to stretch out in C and reflect on how what I’m doing would be impossible in Y.

    That’s even more true now that I realize that food on an airplane is just never going to taste very good. As someone who really enjoys well prepared food, and trying new things, I’ve been consistently disappointed (with rare exceptions) in food in F. So all the fancy options that distinguish F from C on, say, Lufthansa are typically not worth the premium in miles. On the other hand, now that I know this, I’d be much more tempted to arrive at the F lounge early and have a real feast and skip the on-board offerings, as the food in F lounges tends to be very good (especially LH’s)!

  3. I’m surprised you didn’t comment about the bed in Emirates… I assume it’s somewhere between AA and Singapore (closer to Singapore)?

  4. @ Lantean — In terms of actual sleeping I didn’t find it to be the most comfortable in the sky. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good bed, but not the best in my opinion. Definitely somewhere between American and Singapore.

  5. Yeah, so I get the differences that you’ve highlighted. I don’t have the miles to travel first a lot. And you keep mentioning the 90K US Deal in Business to South Asia, which indeed is a great deal.

    I guess I wonder whether it’s better to take a Business flight each year or save for a first class trip every other year.

  6. @ wwk5d — It definitely makes a huge difference, and I’d say it’s one of the top three factors in choosing first over business. That being said I’ve found myself focusing less on lounges as I try to shorten connection times and get places faster… sometimes at least. :p

  7. @ Graham — Well if those are the two options I’d definitely do a trip in business class every year vs. one in first every two years.

  8. Lucky, you shouldn’t feel you are inconveniencing the FAs asking for bread or something not on their carts in C-cabin, they are there to serve to passengers.

  9. They’re all just seats in the end.
    Only LH’s 747 F with separate beds are truly beds.

    I even find it hard to sleep on EK’s suite’s with mattress pads.

    But that 747 bed with a 5″ mattress is amazing. Plus the superbly large upper deck space. I prefer it to the 74H. and A380.

    Now what I want to see is SQ’s 2013 F!

  10. I might say that it’s not your opinion that is changing but the airlines offerings in F and J.

    Everyone is using LH F as an example of how different F is from J but until little more than a year ago the LH F product was very crowded and not conducive to the “personal” experience with 16 seaters and 2 FAs. That was definately NOT an premium experience especially when the cabin was full.

    Clearly, the evolution of F is up and up, away from J, which is certainly going up and up in its own right, away from angled flat to fully lie flat seats.

    AAs new 777-300ER product is an example of how both premium cabins are offering well thought out, private, lie-flat seats. The AA F cabin though is being shrunk significantly.

    So I don’t think it’s so much your changing perceptions as it is the mobility of the F & J experiences now being offered by the airlines.

  11. Your post was interesting as I recently took a flight in J with LH having always flown them in F (they no-longer fly F out of YYZ) The difference is very noticeable. Business Class has now become the new Economy Class only with a better seat.

  12. As a business traveler I don’t usually care, I just want to board first, have a plug, eat quickly and go to bed (flat). NZ and SQ business are F equivalent to me. F is definitely better but never ever worth the price premium on longhaul. An upgrade is great but I would never pay for it assuming it’s lie flat in business. Downside is that lounge access (e.g., SQ lounge in Singapore) has become so easy that the difference is marked.

  13. There is no guilt in premium travel. Put me in any J cabin in the world and I’ll light up the call buttons like its a christmas tree.


  14. I’d be curious your view: How much longer will true first class be around, especially since airlines have to invest so much these days to have a competitive business class? Seems inevitable to me that most/all airlines eventually go the path of Delta with business only, but I don’t know if there are countervailing trends: Are there airlines that seem to be making international first class central to their business strategy, as opposed to a kind of elite novelty product?

  15. @ John — I think the trend will continue whereby airlines “trade in” first class in favor of premium economy.

    That being said, I think at the same time we’ll see some airlines focus on offering a stellar first class product on some “flagship” routes, while offering just business, premium economy, and coach, on most routes. For example, we see this with Malaysia Airlines and Qantas, both of which are just offering first class on their flagship A380s, while business class is the top cabin in the rest of their fleet.

    I think this is a pretty sound strategy since there definitely are still some markets where there’s a demand for first class, and if they limit first class to those routes it can probably still be a big money maker.

  16. @ jay — Well I should have added that the one exception to the above classification was the “herringbone suites” offered by Cathay Pacific, US Airways, American, etc. And I think in terms of the hard product, those are all in BA’s league.

  17. My first FC experience was a ridiculous upgrade from coach on El Al in 1984 – long before they had anything approaching a bed. After that, they offered Business Class upgrades, initially for $225 each way – a no-brainer if ever there was one. I remember telling people that the difference back then was in Coach, the vacation started on arrival while in the front of the plane, it starts the minute you board!

    Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have some great FC experiences – BA, Swiss, LH, AA and, last week, Cathay Pacific. Always a kick and, like Lucky said, an experience. Great posting – I agree with everything you said. However, I have a sense that with time, more and more airlines will ditch their FC seats and they may also be harder to get – just look at AF, LX and LH. So glad I will always have the memories!

  18. Not happy to find this out. As an AA flier, knowing AA’s new 777-300ERs will have diminished FC availability, I thought no problem. Fully flat is fully flat, and for fewer award miles. A n/s West Coast to LHR is over 10 hours, and with luck I get 6 hours of sleep in FC, even after a leisurely meal.

    But no way I’ll be able to sleep that long just on my back. I never ring my call button, or “eject button”, as they call it in the back of the plane. Since a little walking is a good idea on a long flight. But I do appreciate it when I walk up to the galley in FC, there is always someone happy to get me whatever I want instantly. Without a hint of “what do you want now”? Which I must admit I have experienced in J a time or two. Oh, they got me what I asked for, but I could feel the “inconvenience” factor from my interfering with their 4 hr mid-flight “break”.

  19. Great post. I usually stick w/business class thpugh as having a special meal on file diminishes the first class experience for me as other than bread and wine there isn’t much they can do for me. flying BA Club World I’ve had no issues w/crew being attentive especially as they seem to feel bad they can’t attend to me more and visit more. for me I can’t see the benefits of F other than the PJs but love to see what I’m missing if i could enjoy with your travels

  20. Just flew on LH 747-8 on LAX to FRA in Biz. A little narrow by the feet and head in flat bed mode. Also around the knees, there is no divider between the seats so a couple of times we knocked each other and woke the other up. I was in the center two seats on an aisle so I wasn’t trapped against a window or having the window person climb over me to get to the aisle. Lack of direct aisle access is a huge negative in my book. The Biz lounges, while better than a boarding lounge, are a big step down from the F lounges. Definitely a case of much better sleep possible in F, but you also want to enjoy the service. Definitely a tradeoff.

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