Value of First vs. Business Class

Most people travel via cheap fares, be they cheap airplane tickets, discount travel packages, or cheap vacation packages. However, a lucky few travel in more luxurious style.

Given that traveling via first class can cost as much as triple that of business class and that the quality of business class keeps improving, many are starting to wonder if first class travel is worth the price.

The biggest difference these days between these classes of service tends to be how you are treated at the airport, particularly when there is a layover stop. For example, Lufthansa offers its first class passengers a special lounge at Frankfurt, as well as a full dinner before boarding a late night flight.

The lounge comes with beds, showers, office space, special security screening, and chauffeured limousines directly to the plane.

Onboard the differences between first and business are less obvious beyond having a suite with more space versus a lie flat seat. Both classes of service come with plentiful food and free booze. Many airlines have started offering first class customers suites with enclosed space and a door, creating separate cabins.

First class typically differs from business class in space, privacy, a larger, longer and wider seat, and additional attentive crew per passenger.

Many experts believe that the first class value proposition is diminishing such that the class will disappear within the next five years. The increasing use of flat seats in business class, as well as improving business class amenities that are similar to first, diminish the value of first.

The future of first class also is being challenged by the growing affordability of private and corporate jets.

Some still expect first class to remain viable on specific long haul routes. CEOs, financiers, major sports figures, and Hollywood types often readily will pay for first class for the onboard experience and the special privileges of airport services reserved for them. Many such people also want the privacy that comes with suites in first class.

United Airlines is a hybrid in that some of its planes offer first, business, and economy seats whereas merger partner Continental Airlines offers only business and economy seats. Depending on the route, United has found that there remain customers willing to pay for the additional privacy, extra space, greater luxury, and higher level of personalized service that comes with first class.

Virgin Atlantic has been flying since 2003 and has never offered first class. Virgin calls its business class Upper Class, describing it as a first class product at business class prices. The airline claims it offers the most comfortable bed and most comfortable seat in the air.

The ultimate future of first class will depend on whether enough travelers can afford it and whether the products and services being offered are perceived as being truly unique and highly valued.

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