Imagine a pilot in the cockpit making his welcome-aboard announcement to the passengers: “The flight time today is five hours in first class and 12½ hours in coach.” Although that may not be literally true, ask passengers who sit “up front,” and you will often hear them remark on how fast the flight seemed to go and how comfortable they were. Daniel Switzer, who recently flew first class from New York City to Tokyo, commented: “When we landed, I thought, ‘that’s it?’ I would have liked to stay on board a little longer.” And it’s not just the passengers who prefer to travel business or first class. Wendy Sue Knecht, a former Pan Am flight attendant who wrote a memoir about her experiences, told us, “I always preferred to work ‘up front’...more time to schmooze and I loved surrounding myself with elegance.” So maybe the cartoonist got something right.
Business or First Class?
Although the differences between first class and business class are nowhere near as dramatic as those between economy and first or business, there are still some variables to consider when making your travel choice.
Taking the long view, Ben Schlappig, a consultant and travel blogger at onemileatatime.com who flies an average 400,000 miles a year almost exclusively in first and business class, says, “Overall we’re seeing more airlines eliminating first class and instead installing great business-class service, given that the market for first class is pretty limited. Nowadays business-class seats are better than first-class seats used to be...meanwhile some of the first class we see nowadays has out-of-this-world products like double beds, showers or even apartments in the sky.”
Here, then, five points of comparison between business class and first class.
The Waiting Game
You might expect that some of the perks of business- or first-class travel would kick in on the ground – in the pre-boarding lounge. For the most part, you’d be mistaken. The lounges in the U.S., both in first class and business, according to one frequent flyer, are “horrendous”; lounges abroad are much, much better, she insists. Schlappig is not quite so vehement but agrees in principle: “In general, I’d say the best lounges are in Asia, followed by Europe and Australia. Some first-class lounges in the U.S. are getting better, especially the ones operated by foreign airlines. For example, there’s a fantastic new Qantas first-class lounge at LAX.”
Lufthansa in Frankfurt goes even further than the offer of an exclusive lounge for first-class passengers. Schlappig reports that they get to skip the main terminal altogether and, instead, get their own terminal with none of the stresses usually associated with airports. Plus, once your flight is ready to board, “you’ll be driven to your plane in a Porsche or Mercedes,” he says.
Business-class lounges are generally focused on providing you with a quiet space to work and relax, with fast Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs and snacks. No eye-popping extras.
Many airlines board first- and business-class passengers together, so there’s no real benefit to first class over business there.
But on some airlines, the boarding privileges of first class are, frankly, awesome. According to Schlappig: “On a recent first-class flight on Air India I was personally escorted from my arriving flight to the lounge, and from the lounge to my departing flight by three airline staff: One carried my bags, one escorted me and one supervised the whole operation.”
As anyone flying coach knows, there’s a huge difference between real sleep and airplane sleep. To help you get a good night’s sleep and some privacy, business- and first-class services offer a range of improvements. To decide between business and first class, consider the following before you buy your ticket: Will your seat turn into a bed (so you can lie flat, not just incline) and what’s the configuration of the cabin? How close will you be to other passengers and how private will your space be? Will you have a double bed (Singapore A 380), your own “apartment” (Etihad A380), or a seat and a bed (on some Lufthansa 747-400 aircraft)? The best source of information on the configurations for any flight you are considering is seatguru.com, which was recommended by just about every expert we contacted.
One of these experts is airline pilot and Ask the Pilot blogger Patrick Smith, who explained that many carriers outfit their planes according to the market. “An airline may have three or four different configurations in its 777 or A330 fleets, with specific planes dedicated to specific markets,” he says. “Take Emirates as an example. First class on Emirates doesn’t differ much plane to plane. Business class does. On a 777, business-class seats are semi-sleepers in a very tight, seven-abreast configuration. On the A380 there are four-abreast mini-suites with fully flat beds, plus a luxurious lounge in the rear of the cabin...I’d be less inclined to splurge on a first-class seat if I were booked on an A380.”
Food and Drink
This is one of the two categories where business class and first class differ the most: “Business-class food is restaurant quality, but dining in business class rarely an ‘experience’” is how Schlappig puts it.
On first class you often have food prepared under the auspices of a famous chef – Air France, rated No.1 for in-flight food by the Robb Report – offers menus designed by Michelin-starred chefs.
When it comes to a before-dinner drink, Singapore Airlines, according to the UK-based Telegraph website, is “the only airline to offer both Krug Grande Cuvée and Dom Perignon 2004 – with caviar. And that’s before takeoff.”
If you don’t feel like drinking alone at your seat, business class on Emirates, Korean Air, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic have onboard bars where you can chat with your fellow passengers.
Although service in business class can feel a bit like an assembly line, in first class it is much more personalized – proactive, not reactive. Your glass will never be less than half full, and you can eat or drink whenever you’d like. On the flight to Japan that Switzer took, for instance, he and his wife had a flight attendant all to themselves.
The Bottom Line
The major differences between first class and business class are the seats and the service but the actual differences greatly depend on airlines, routes and airplane models. Still, according to USA Today, first class always supersedes business class on international flights. Do enough research to make sure that you are getting what you are paying for, since, in general, first class costs about twice as much as business class. But that, too, can vary enormously by route and airline.
Looking for more options? Read Time to Move from Business Class to a Private Jet Charter? and Private Jet Charter Vs. First Class: What's Best?