Flying Business Class Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Flying Business Class

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Business class is available on many airlines and it costs two or three times more than the standard class. Everybody on the plane flies out from the airport1 at the same time and arrives at the destination airport together. Why is the price so much higher and when does it make sense to pay for it?

Business Class Benefits

Generally the benefits of business class include:

  • Little or no queuing to pick up your boarding pass or drop off bags, so you can get to the airport and be at the security gates in minutes.
  • Little or no queuing for security and passport checks in larger or business-oriented airports.
  • The ability to board the plane, once boarding starts, whenever you want: first, last or simply when you get to the gate.
  • Access to a lounge at the starting or at transfer airports. The lounges have clear views of departure schedule screens, food, drinks, comfortable chairs, showers, a work room with desks and a reasonably fast Internet connection. The quality and services offered by the lounges varies between airports but, in business-oriented airports, they are generally quite good and can be excellent.
  • Much better seats, tables and information systems on the plane. The tables can be better for working on a laptop or reading papers.
  • On overnight/very long flights you will often find your seat will become a bed that is flat (but not always horizontal!) and long enough for even tall people to sleep quite comfortably.
  • A much nicer selection of food and wine for the flight.
  • A much better toilet to passenger ratio than standard class.
  • Seating in front of the jet engines which is much quieter than behind them.
  • Huge frequent flier point bonuses.

Getting the most out of Business Class

An important part of travelling for work is making sure your mental state is good despite skipping between time zones or going to your next appointment before your next proper sleep. Business class is an easier way to travel with much of the work of navigating airports and planes simplified. The cost-effectiveness depends on what you are intending to do when you land and how you make use of what the airline provides you.

Business class queues are shorter (in some airports) meaning that you can get to the airport much later than you might dare with a standard class ticket. This can be a considerable benefit as anybody who has had their flight close while they are still waiting in a queue will know.

Overnight flights, especially the short but major West/East routes such as US to Europe and Singapore/Hong Kong to Australia and New Zealand, include access to a good lounge with food and drink. You can eat a decent, leisurely meal in the two or three hours the airports would like you to be present before your plane leaves. For a five or six hour overnight flight every moment of sleep on that 'lie flat bed' on the plane can be quite precious. Seasoned travellers schedule their eating, boarding and sleeping with care so that when they land they are as alert as anybody could be who have done such an unnatural thing as flying between continents.

For flights with multiple legs, such as all Europe to Australia/New Zealand flights, the lounge gives you a sense of place in the transfer airports. You get off your plane, go to the lounge and find a spot to sit or have a long, relaxing shower before going to the next gate and starting again. For standard class passengers, most of the large South East Asian transit airports now also provide showers and paid-for lounges but these need to be booked2. Rationally, it can seem overkill to pay for somewhere to sit for the 90 minute re-fuelling stop. What the free access to the lounge gives is a degree of control and freedom from worry.

The nicer selection of food and wine on the plane itself is lovely. For many people, this plus the extra leg room3 is the main reason for travelling business class for leisure journeys. There are two schools of thought though - some people would prefer, for short flights, to have their tables left clear for work and the price of the flight reduced. Others love the food and service. You don't have to eat the food!

On long haul flights which are five hours or longer, overnight or inter-continental, it can be mentally quite tough to land, get through passport/customs, travel to your next destination and be ready to start the day, all under the influence of Jet Lag. If the day rate for your job is greater than the cost of the upgrade then you should pay for the upgrade and squeeze the value from the extra services to deliver value to your work. Is it worth spending the money on the extra benefits? It is surprising how often the answer is 'yes' and that is how the airlines justify the price.

Frequent Flying

For frequent flyers who hold a top level membership status for their favourite airlines, lounge access and fast boarding becomes a way of life, regardless of the class of ticket for which they have paid to travel. On short flights, for many people there is little benefit in having a fancy seat, wine served with the in-flight meal or sitting in the much quieter part of the plane. The important benefits for their travel are all on the ground, making use of all of those hours before boarding, especially if the flight is in the middle of a working day. This makes getting their top level membership status a priority so these benefits are always available.

Airlines track their loyal customers by status points and by reward points4. Status points are awarded for flights actually boarded and flown. You get more status the higher the grade of cabin you fly in. These are used to calculate when you get business class on-ground experience even when you fly with an economy ticket. On the other hand, reward points can come from credit card deals and various loyalty schemes as well as flying. These points can be redeemed for free flights, including business and first class flights. Both types of frequent flyer benefit are desirable. As a rule of thumb you need to fly in business quite a bit to earn enough status points to get anything useful (for British Airways, four return flights from London to Istanbul will be enough).

Many airlines have a webpage on their booking site that shows the cheapest flights available by travel class for the next few months. A couple of weekends away using cheap business class fares can generate quite a lot of frequent flyer points and convert watchful customers to top level frequent flyer status.

How to get into That Cabin

If it is cost effective and you need to be at a place at a time and you will have to start work when you get there or work for every minute you are out of the office, then you simply buy the ticket. It is part of the cost of doing business. It will pay for itself.

For others, full fare business travel is too expensive. Fortunately airlines will do what they can to extract every coin you might possibly spend with them - which means they will encourage you to spend more by meeting you halfway with deals, sales and upgrades.

Sometimes the airline will upgrade a standard class passenger for free. Some airlines, especially in the US, have a policy of always keeping their business class cabins full. The majority of airlines will only upgrade a passenger if their cabin class is overbooked and the next class up has space. There are websites, books and lucky dolls dedicated to scoring an upgrade for free. The techniques that work best depend on the airline. In summary:

  • Be the best revenue-producing passenger in your class. Airlines keep good records on how much each passenger spends - separately from how often they fly or how well they negotiate sales. It isn't easy to be the highest revenue customer for an airline on a big flight, but if you are, your upgrade experience may be far from standard in any case5.
  • Be a good frequent flyer. Some airlines make a point of rewarding their most actively loyal customers.
  • Ask. If you are dressed nicely and have a standard class ticket, approach the booking desk in plenty of time and ask politely if an upgrade is available and you may well be successful6. If a better qualified passenger (see previous points) is travelling in the same class as you and is yet to appear, it may be that the desk will wait to offer them the upgrade ahead of you. If they don't show or decline the upgrade, it is not unknown for the upgrade to happen when your boarding pass is scanned at the entrance to the plane.

If you are prepared to pay some of your own money, other possibilities arise. Sometimes the airline will announce at the check-in desks that business class upgrades are available for a fee. This can make it worthwhile to use them rather than the check-in machines. Or, if your airline has an online service to manage your booking, sometimes you will see there a similar (or better) offer to upgrade.

On occasion, counter-intuitively, it can be cheaper to buy a business class ticket than a standard class one7. When choosing a flight, if your preferred airline has business class, check their website directly for all of their fares, and don't just rely on fare comparison sites. If you search for economy fares only, that is all you will see. It is amazing what you can find on odd days.

Lastly, business class airfares rise and fall, often being at their lowest between four and two weeks before the plane leaves. Many business-oriented airlines always try and have a seat available on the day for all flights. This is so very, very, very good clients who have urgent requirements to move staff around the world at no notice will see the airline as reliable. These last seats on each flight are stupidly expensive - high enough that nobody who does not absolutely have to be on that plane will buy them. Yet for the firms that do, the cost is less than the cost of failing to get a key person to their next work place on time.

Business or Pleasure

For a lot of business travellers, short business flights are best done on the better quality discount airlines. The fares are cheap, even at short notice, a good seat can be booked for a fixed fee and the planes run to a reasonable schedule. Admittedly any in-flight (paid for) food is inedible but that can be worked around. Longer flights are done using the top airlines in the better class cabin.

For leisure travel, these same people will always try and fly in business class even for short holidays. Nothing starts a holiday off like an hour in a lounge with a free glass of decent red and a light bite while reading one of a choice of the daily papers between looking out over the runway at the planes landing and taking off. Once on the plane, boarded when you arrive at the gate (ignoring the queues), a good wide seat and a couple of glasses of cold champagne fortify you for the hassle of landing, sorting out currency and then getting to the final destination. Returning, the champagne might be even more gratefully received.

If you have a lot of flexibility (especially if you don't even care where you fly to), book during sale periods and are prepared to hunt a bit, you can get some very good deals even quite late and have an experience of travelling through the air that is quite luxurious.

1See What to do when you get to the Airport.2If all you book business class for is the lounge, it is much cheaper to book economy class and lounges at all transit stops even if you don't use them. In most airports, eating a long, lovely meal at the most expensive restaurant in the airport with a fabulous bottle of wine will still be much less than the cost of upgrading to business class.3On short flights, business class doesn't always provide more legroom but you do almost always get wider seats.4Airlines share loyalty information and so flights on co-operating airlines can all contribute towards your points collection. They also share the benefits of their on-ground services between members of the individual loyalty programmes. This encourages dedicated frequent flyers to fly with airlines that can keep their points adding up.5Airlines sometimes offer such customers non-upgrades where they sit in their paid-for cabin but get access to the business drinks trolley and food. Top revenue customers will always have full access to business ground services regardless of the class of cabin they have booked.6This may happen more frequently on airlines that take large bookings. Japan Airlines, which books large numbers of school trips, has been known to offer quite a few upgrades over the years.7 This has been known to happen on tourist-heavy routes during summer when there are business class sales on. It also happens on train routes too.

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