Flies First Class Anymore?
Lie-flat sleeper bed
seats, first introduced by BA in 1996, are increasingly
common not only in first class cabins but in business class
The extra cost of business
class compared to coach class on international flights can
sometimes be startling - many thousands of dollars. But at
least there are some major differences in comfort and service in
return for the massive cost increase.
But the further additional cost
of first class compared to business class can add still more
many thousands of dollars to the ticket price, with much less
enhancement of comfort and service.
How much luxury do you need?
With improving business class seats and comfort and amenities,
does anyone still need first class?
Where the Money Comes From on a
Running an airline is all
about money, so we'll first look at the underlying money issues
an airline faces. Let's examine an imaginary
trans-Atlantic flight between somewhere in the US and somewhere
in Britain/Europe and see how it brings money in for its
in a fairly typical configuration has 14 first class
seats, 79 business class seats and 265 coach class seats, and
let's say it has typical fares of $14,000 for first class, $7,000 for
business class and $750 for coach class.
If all seats are sold, the
airline would be grossing $196,000 from first class ticket
sales, $553,000 from business class, and $198,750 from coach
class. Most money comes from business class,
and although there are only 14 first class seats on this plane,
the potential revenue from them is almost identical to the
revenue from 265 coach class seats.
So first class is - in
theory - important to an airline, even though the number of
first class seats is low. But let's now consider the real
world modifications of these numbers. The most important
real world factor is to recognize that very few people actually
pay full fare for their first class seat. Most people in
first class are either flying for free (ie airline employees and
frequent flier award travelers) or have been given courtesy
upgrades from business class.
The actual percentage of
travelers who pay full fare to fly in first class is hard to
establish, and varies depending on the route and airline.
Sometimes this number might be as low as 10% - yes, only one or
two of the people in the first class cabin have paid for their
Other airlines estimate perhaps 20% of their first
class passengers actually pay for their tickets. I've
flown on some flights where no-one in first class has paid for
their ticket (if you get a chance to glance at a flight
manifest, this will often show details of the types of fares
paid alongside each passenger name, especially if the passenger
is flying on other than a regular revenue fare).
So the actual first class
revenue is much less than you'd expect, and for most airlines,
the most vitally important profit driver is their business class
cabin. First class is their 'loss leader' and coach class
is their source of 'top up' income.
These two facts - few people
actually pay for first class, and business class is the biggest
generator of income - explains why many airlines have
discontinued first class entirely.
It also explains why the
airlines that have retained first class have focused more on
upgrading their business class cabins than their first class
cabins. The most competitive struggle
between airlines is for frequent business passengers who actually pay for
their business class tickets.
The Evolving Multi Cabin
When passenger airlines
started flying in the 1920s, they only offered one class of service.
To start with, this was a very uncomfortable class of service,
but it steadily improved and become more comfortable and
eventually extravagantly so.
example, in the late 1940s Constellations offered sleepers for
their passengers - indeed, this picture of the fold down beds on
a preserved Constellation seems to show not only a single berth
bed on the top, but a double bed on the bottom!
Air travel was not priced as
something ordinary people could afford, and so the airlines
thought it appropriate to have deluxe service to appeal to the
most wealthiest of potential passengers.
Coach Class arrives
With the development of
planes capable of carrying larger numbers of passengers - more
passengers than existed at the top end of the market, and the reduction in costs per passenger these
new planes offered,
the airlines realized they could split their planes and
passengers into two
categories - first class at high price, and a more numerous lower
class at lower price, and so we saw the development of the
traditional first class and economy/coach class layout.
Appearance of Business Class
This two cabin concept
remained untouched until 1979 when
Qantas introduced a
third category of service - business class.
This recognized that economy
class flying, especially over long distances, had become an
increasingly uncomfortable and unpleasant experience, and also
recognized that first class was 'too expensive' for most normal
people who would be prepared to pay more for something better
than economy class, but who wouldn't pay the large price
differential required to get into first class.
Business class quickly
became adopted by other airlines, and the percentage of seats
for business class steadily increased, as did
the quality of the business class service.
Over time, and as discussed
above, the importance of first class started to sink in
airlines' strategic thinking, and some airlines discontinued
their first class (usually described as 'combining' their first
and business class cabins) while continuing to add more features
to business class.
Yet another class
Then in 1992, Virgin
Atlantic - which previously operated two class services (business
or 'Upper' class and coach class) came out with a new
intermediate class - premium economy.
This recognized that the gap
between coach class and business class - both in terms of
experience and expense - had grown almost as wide as the earlier
gap between coach and first class.
Other airlines have been
slow to adopt this fourth category of service, although British
Airways in particular now offers all four cabin types on most of
its long haul flights - coach class (their World Traveler
cabin), premium economy (what they term their
World Traveler Plus), business
class (Club World) and First
Most airlines now have two
or three classes of service on their longer haul flights, and
one or two classes on their shorter haul services. Shorter
flights usually have much less impressive premium cabins, in
some cases almost indistinguishable from coach class.
The First Class Experience and
Expectation in General
First class is always a
stunning disappointment to me. Like most other
first class passengers, I have never personally paid for a first class
ticket - with the fare for a typical trans-Atlantic itinerary being
as much as $15,000,
that is alas out of the question.
other passengers are so abjectly grateful to be upgraded to
first class as to not view their experience from the perspective
of a $15,000 cost, but for me, I always think 'The airline is
valuing this as a $15,000 experience?' and measure by that very high standard.
Benefits of flying first class
What do you actually get for
your $15,000 that you wouldn't get for the cheapest coach fare,
costing perhaps thirty times less money?
You get to save
maybe half an hour standing in line when checking in, due to
the shorter wait for first class, and then get priority access
through security. You have a slightly greater free luggage
allowance. You get to sit in a more comfortable
seat in the first class lounge, and perhaps have a free drink or
two (or three....) and some free food there before boarding.
You may get to board the plane
slightly more conveniently, you have better food, drink, service, access
to toilets, and much more comfortable seating/sleeping (for a
flight that seldom exceeds ten hours each way).
Upon arrival, you'll be
among the first off your plane, and sometimes your bags might be
priority tagged and arrive into baggage claim ten to twenty
minutes before regular baggage.
But that's about all.
Benefits are minimal
If you focus on the individual elements of these benefits, they appear even
less substantial. For example, with online checkin and/or automatic checkin machines at the airport, the difference in wait times to
check in are not always as pronounced as they used to be.
Even with the reduced
limits, few of us exceed our free luggage allowances.
The so-called priority
access through security often-times actually takes as long or
longer to be processed than the regular line.
You can sometimes buy a one-off
admission to an airline lounge for about $50-100. This is
a lot of money by itself, but it is only a very small part of
the extra $10,000 or more than a first class ticket costs.
The food and drinks may be
better on board, but there's still a chance, if you're last to
be served, that they'll be down to only one or two remaining
entree choices, and how much premium liquor can you drink on your flight, anyway? Wouldn't you rather settle
for regular airline food but spend $200 on a truly great meal
and $100 on some memorable drinks somewhere at your destination?
For sure, the seating is
more comfortable, and you may be more rested upon arrival at the
destination, but how much is your comfort and time worth?
Is a $10,000 (or more) premium offset by one or two days more
billable/productive time? Or would you and your company be
better off to fly you in a lower class of service and give you
two or three days free vacation after the flight to recover from
the less comfortable flying?
As for being first off the
plane, that depends on which door the plane uses for
disembarkation. Often they use the door in the middle
of the business class section and people in business class leave
the plane first (as if this really matters, anyway).
Lastly, the priority luggage
service is capricious and it seems as often as not so-called
priority bags either are not tagged (especially if first
checking in on a domestic US flight that then connects with the
international flight at some intermediary airport) or for some other reason
do not emerge until well into when all the other regular bags
are appearing on the carousel.
Have you ever spent $15,000
for an improved version of two ten hour experiences? Other than perhaps heart
surgery and intensive care in a state of the art hospital,
there's almost nothing else, legal or illegal, that would cost
so much yet offer so little in return.
The Airlines Shoot Themselves
in the Foot
As the financial analysis
above explains, the most important service offered by most
airlines is business class. So, naturally, the airlines
have been steadily improving their business class service, while
doing precious little to enhance first class (and, in fairness,
there comes a point when there's nothing much more that can be
When business class first
came out, seats were spaced 39" apart - maybe 6" or so more than
coach class seats. They were slightly wider, they tilted
back a bit more, and had foot rests. Food was better than
coach class but not as good as first class.
After a couple of
'generations' of improvements with business class
seats, they had evolved to having a similar seat pitch (as much as 55") to first
class, tilted back almost as far, and the food, while still not
as good as first class, was entirely adequate for all but the
most demanding gourmand (who wouldn't be satisfied with first
class food in any event).
In 1996, British Airways
came out with a lie-flat sleeper bed seat for their first class
cabins. When you were seated, awake, it was a regular
seat, but it could recline all the way to horizontal, and the
leg rest became an extension of the seat, giving you a full
This created a compelling
new reason to upgrade from business to first class, but in 2000,
they neutralized this. British Airways added lie-flat
sleeper bed seats to their business class cabins too. The
bed/seats were a bit shorter and smaller, and were more tightly
packed in to the cabin, but these were questions of subtle
degree. The basic sleeper bed experience was now close to
identical, and for a cost almost half the first class fare.
It is now possible for a
passenger to have a lie-flat bed in either business or first
class, and almost without exception, all other differences
between first and business class have narrowed to relatively
For a while BA had a strong
lead over other airlines due to having the only lie-flat
business class sleeper beds, but now that other airlines are
catching up and releasing their own similar products, this lead
The $5000+ Question - and
With the differences between
business and first class being on the one hand minor (slightly
better food, slightly bigger sleeper bed, and little else) and
major on the other ($5000 or more in extra fare for the first
class ticket), who now chooses to buy first class over business
class, and why?
The obvious answer is
'almost no-one' and this answer is reflected in the growing
reduction of airlines with first class cabins.
Travel Insider readers
typically see little difference in other elements of first class
vs business class service. While some readers preferred
first class on planes that did not have the new lie-flat sleeper
bed seats in business class, for planes with this seating in
both cabins, there was little remaining reason to consider the
extra cost of first class.
For example, James writes
The service is about the same. Maybe the food is
better at times, but not much difference.
Mary Lou adds
have found that most of the time, first class is not much
better than business.
And they don't see any extra
value in the substantial extra cost of first class. Carol
(who flies in business class, usually on AA) writes
First class is absurdly expensive and not justifiable for a
Cyndi shows herself to be a
typical business/first class passenger when she says of her
travel to London
agree with your comment that first has deteriorated...and
why pay the HUGE upcharge. It's really not worth
it....besides I use up my award miles for first....I never
pay for it!
Ken confirms my thinking
when he says
have flown first class on many of these trips (mostly being
'bumped up' when seats in first were open), and it is quite
But it is NOT worth the extra money...especially now that
most airlines have business class seats that go to a fully
prone position for sleeping.
Reader Trey points out that
the differences in service can be very minimal indeed
went to the Orient this summer from Vancouver and traveled
Eva Air Super Business Class. The ticket for their Super
First Class was much more expensive and I noticed no
difference in service as the business cabin is directly
behind the first cabin on the upper deck of a 744. The same
F/A handled both classes.
Robert says these issues are
appreciated by people no matter what their wealth
had a number of upgrades to first class in longhaul flights
with BA & agree with you. The difference in cost is NO
way justified. Slightly bigger bed so if you are a
large person possibly necessary. Food & drink &
service level very similar.
One time a well known British/ Greek millionaire airline
owner joined us in club class, so he too agreed seemingly as
if he can easily afford first class but chooses not to.
Reader Peter confirms the
most important thing to him these days is the sleeping comfort
of the seats
fly Business Class about 8 times a year, mostly from East
Coast USA to S.E. Asia.
don't even consider First Class because of the added
expense. I do look to select the airline based on the
quality of the beds.
The "lie-flat' beds on JAL are a plus, and I like Malaysian
Reader Mark has a different
opinion on both business and first class
used to use my SkyMiles to upgrade to first class on Delta.
It was very nice, but mostly now I fly AA or BA to Europe
and the costs of Business Class or First Class in either
real dollars or frequent flier miles has crossed over into
the Twilight Zone of fare rationalization.
can’t eat or drink the $5000+ differential and I don't care
how flat they fold, that's just too much money for 4 hours
Give me $8 bucks of so so wine, a sandwich and an Ambien and
wake me when we get there.
Reader Carl has a similarly
it were a choice between first and coach I would go first,
otherwise business is great or even economy-plus.
don't drink booze and don't eat all that much so coach
amenities would get me to the destination. It is all about
extra room that matters.
Robert has good experiences
with BA's first class but still chooses to fly business class
For me First class is only for the super rich or people
wanting to blow their frequent flyer perks on a real treat.
Business is more than comfortable enough for an average trip
- the food, lounges, and normally great seats that these
days mostly turn into beds.
am a multi million miler on United and have stopped flying
with them in business or first as I believe their service
has deteriorated so much - for the last year I have only
been using BA or Virgin to London - I've been using
Northwest to Asia and been pleasantly surprised by how good
they are in Asia.
The only exception to this is BA's first class. For me it
has always stood out above everyone else's first class.
Don't get me wrong I'm very happy in business but if I had
limitless money I'd be in BA's first. They cosset and coddle
you like no other airline.
The food and wine list is truly superb - if you want to be
pampered in the sky BA's first is the place to be.
have had consistently good experiences the 4 or 5 times I've
been lucky enough to be in BAs first. I feel they continue
to strive to move first forward in front of anyone else -
mind you their first ticket prices reflect that too (!)
Personally my money has been going to Virgin Upper Class
recently because I think they offer the best value for money
in business with a bit of fun thrown in. I can't wait
for Virgin to start flying domestically in the US.
would concur with your assessment. The difference between
first and business class is inconsequential, except for the
price. The level of service, from what I have seen, is not
any different. Realizing that there are fewer first-class
passengers so maybe a little more attention but my
experience says no.
Who Has the Best First Class?
As of November 2006, 36
airlines offer first class on their long-haul international
routes, in addition to other airlines with a much lower but
still called first class product on shorter haul domestic routes
(eg within the US).
annual survey of these airlines by Forbes gives a good
pointer as to which airlines are the best. In November
2006, they deemed Cathay Pacific as having the very best first
class, followed by Emirates, Singapore Airlines, ANA, Qatar
Airways, Thai Airways, South African Airways, Malaysia Airlines,
British Airways and Gulf Air.
An Unanswerable Question?
So why upgrade to first
class? Who flies first class any more, and why? The airlines might hope this
is a question we don't carefully consider and answer. But
the reality seems clear.
For nearly all of us with
normal levels of income and with normal requirements, we are
better advised to seek out an airline with the most affordable
business class fares and lie-flat sleeper bed seats, rather than
pay potentially massive extra costs to fly an airline with
similar seats and service but labeled first class rather than
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06 Oct 2006, last update
28 Nov 2012
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