Envision a pilot in the cockpit making his welcome-aboard announcement to the passengers saying, “The flight time today is five hours in first class and 12-½ hours in coach.” Of course, there are no differences in flight times between business and first class, but passengers who sit "up front" often remark that their flight felt faster thanks to the added comfort.
Even flight attendants prefer to travel first class. Wendy Sue Knecht, a former Pan Am flight attendant who wrote a memoir about her experiences, said she has “always preferred to work up front... More time to schmooze and I loved surrounding myself with elegance.”
Although the differences between first class and business class are not as significant as those between economy and first or business, there are still some variables to consider when making your travel choice. In general, first class costs about twice as much as business class. But that can vary significantly by route and airline.
Ben Schlappig, a consultant and travel blogger who flies an average of 400,000 miles a year, said he almost exclusively sits in first and business class and has noticed the business class section improving dramatically. “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," Schlappig said. "Nowadays business-class seats are better than first-class seats used to be. Meanwhile some of the first class seats we see nowadays have out-of-this-world products like double beds, showers or even apartments in the sky.”
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, both in first class and business, vary from country to country. “The best lounges are in Asia, followed by Europe and Australia," Schalppig said. "Some first-class lounges in the U.S. are getting better, especially the ones operated by foreign airlines. For example, there’s a fantastic Qantas first-class lounge at LAX.”
Lufthansa in Frankfurt offers an exclusive lounge for first-class passengers, who can skip the main terminal for their own terminal. Those passengers are then driven to their plane in a Porsche or Mercedes. In contrast, business-class lounges simply provide a quiet space to work and relax, with fast Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs and snacks, but no other extras.
Business- and first-class services offer a range of improvements and luxuries to help you get a good night's sleep and privacy. The best source of information on the configurations for any flight you are considering is seatguru.com. To decide between business and first class, consider the following before you buy your ticket: Will your seat turn into a bed? What’s the configuration of the cabin? How close will you be to other passengers? Will you have a double bed, your own “apartment," or a seat and a bed combined?
Airline pilot and Ask the Pilot blogger Patrick Smith said many carriers outfit their planes according to market demand. “An airline may have three or four different configurations in its 777 or A330 fleets, with specific planes dedicated to specific markets,” he said. “Take Emirates as an example. First class on Emirates doesn't differ much from plane to plane. Business class does.”
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 is rarely an experience,” Schlappig said.
In first class, customers often have food prepared under the auspices of a famous chef. For example, 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.” Business class on Emirates, Korean Air, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic have onboard bars where you can chat with your fellow passengers.
The Bottom Line
The major differences between first class and business class are the seats and the service, but differences vary among airlines, routes and airplane models. Still, first-class amenities generally supersede business class amenities on international flights, but research enough to make sure that you are getting what you are paying for.