Why ‘business class’ isn’t for business travelers

Business class travel isn’t really for business people. That seems like a strange thing to say, but there’s truth there. And business class has changed over the years to become something very different than what it started out as.

The history of business class

In the middle of the 20th century all flying was expensive and considered a luxury. There really wasn’t a business class or a first class, because everything was first class. The whole idea of flying was luxurious. This is often referred to as the golden age of flying, but in reality, I’d just call it the exclusive age of flying. As prices slowly dropped airlines found ways to make flying accessible the regular public. One way in which they did is by selling the same product with different limitations.

Tourist class vs. Standard class

One of the things that airlines did in the 1950s was restrict what you could do with a ticket. They introduced tourist class tickets. These tickets had no flexibility. You had to fly on the day that you booked and could no change it. Standard class didn’t have these restrictions, but had a higher price tag. You paid for convenience. Giving up convenience wasn’t a problem for tourists, as trips were planned in advance. Business people, on the other hand, needed flexibility and were generally not paying for their own tickets.

The only difference between these two tickets was flexibility. There’s a great video on this and other economics of airline travel. It’s an interesting video that I’d recommend watching.

To summarize the video in a few sentences, business class originally was just about flexibility, but over time, businesses started planning better and just booking economy class tickets, so the airlines had to increase the status and value for these tickets, because business class is where major airlines still make most of their money.

The business of business class

The first thing that you need to know about business class is that it’s where airlines make a lot of their profit. The profit margins are much higher and the kind of traveler who pays for a business class seat tends to be more loyal, brings back more business, and is a good customer to keep. These clients are usually seasoned travellers and can be decision makers in organizations which can bring in even more business. Attracting and keeping these customers is a focus for many airlines.

This isn’t the case in economy class. For many customers in economy, travelling on an airplane is something they have to endure to get to their destination, and their choice of airline often starts and ends with the price of the ticket. They’ll give up flexibility, luggage, kneecaps, and elbow room to save a couple of bucks.

Economy class is about the destination… not the journey

Because customers who fly in business class are desirable, airlines compete for them with amenities, service, and nicer products. And it is in this competitive landscape where the real difference between business classes happens.

In reality, however, many business people fly much of the time in economy class. It makes more economic sense for businesses to give up flexibility and just pay a little extra for a flexible economy ticket, or what used to be called standard class. So then, who is business class really for if businesses aren’t paying for those seats?

Business class is actually first class

You may have noticed that many airlines simply do not have a first class cabin. There are only six transatlantic airlines that maintain a first-class cabin. Part of the reason first class cabins aren’t as common is because first class was about comfort and prestige, and over time business class has crept into this territory.

Business used to be the same seat as economy with a more flexible ticketing structure, but now it’s all about comfort, with wider seats. Most airlines that cross an ocean have business class seats that turn into beds. Premium Economy, or Economy Plus has taken the place of the old business class cabin, and business class, with it’s lay-flat beds, private pods and walled-off cubicles, and excellent service has become the top tier of many airlines. Today’s business class is in many cases what only first class offered a few years ago.

As business class creeped towards first class, it has turned into an aspirational cabin choice. Flying business class used to be about flexibility, but now it’s all about comfort in the skies. Granted, on long haul flights, companies DO send SOME employees on business class tickets, but for the most part, flying in business class is about status more than utility. Getting bumped up to business class is something to aspire to for frequent flyers, and it’s often a great use of frequent flier points.

Longer, slower flights

Over time, planes have become slightly slower, trying to sip fuel and lower prices. Flights have become longer, with 12-hour nonstop flights being normal and some flights approaching 17 and 19 hours as newer aircraft enabled longer nonstop flights. This means that sleeping is becoming the defining mark of business class today. The BEST business class experiences usually involve some form of putting a bedroom in the sky. especially with the extended range of some of the newer planes like the 787.

Who is Business class really for?

Well, business IS still for business travelers in many cases, particularly when flying overseas, when they have to arrive rested for meetings and, well, to take care of business. However, more and more, business class travel has become an aspirational product for both business people, wealthy individuals who can’t yet afford a private jet, and in many cases, economy travelers who want to upgrade their experience for something more comfortable. Of course, when it comes to aspirational travel goals, this also includes people who might fly economy for business travel, but when it comes to leisure time, they use their considerable number of frequent flyer miles to treat themselves to a little bit of luxury.

But is business class always an amazing experience? Does it matter what airline you choose? Should you care about what kind of airplane you’re flying on? In a future article, I’ll be writing an article about why sometimes economy class might be the better choice.