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.