First Class has been around since the mid-1950s. TWA introduced a two-class fare structure with an elevated, higher-cost product – similar to that seen in luxurious flying boat cabins on intercontinental routes – alongside the standard offering on its new jets. The American carrier (disbanded in 2001) featured an Economy Class and a First Class.
Mid-range cabins arrived on the scene more than two decades later when British Airways launched the Executive Cabin – an evolution of the popular seating arrangement already employed by KLM, Japan Airlines and Delta. Pan Am took this a stage further with 'Clipper Class' before Thai Airways used the specific words 'Business Class' for its long-haul product – potentially the first time the term was coined in commercial aviation.
Though these earlier iterations used the same seats as the remainder of the aircraft, in the late 1970s, Qantas introduced larger seats and improved service and entertainment for a higher-cost ticket on the larger Boeing 747. And then Business Class cabins truly took off, with other major airlines introducing versions thereafter.
Improvements continued until innovation from British Airways in the mid-1990s saw flat beds introduced to First Class cabins, followed again in March 2000 with interchangeable lie-flat beds in British Airways' Business Class cabins that have since become the benchmark for Business Class travel.
As airlines continue to push the boundaries of comfort and service, the divide between First Class and Business Class cabins has narrowed. And with it, more airlines are forgoing First Class cabins on newer aircraft in favour of ever-improving Business Class products with greater capacity and increased profits for the airlines.
But in 2023, what are the main differences between these premium cabin classes – and is a First Class ticket still worth the significantly higher outlay?
Many Business Class airport lounges offer high levels of comfort, restaurant-quality dining, and facilities to suit work, rest, and play. Business Class cabins are designed with the business traveller in mind. Cabins offer an elevated service over economy cabins, with increased privacy and enough space and comfort to work, relax or sleep on fully lie-flat beds, with all the extra trappings of quality cuisine and amenities a Business Class ticket provides. It is also an affordable option for leisure travellers wanting to escape the confines of economy class or take advantage of a frequent flyer points upgrade.
Meanwhile, First Class is the ultimate flying experience for comfort, style, space, privacy, product and service. Passengers in First are there because they expect the best service the airline has to offer. The price of a First Class ticket places it well beyond the reach of most passengers looking for a points upgrade or last-minute deal. The aircraft cabins are much smaller, providing exclusivity from limited availability. The ground experience generally starts from home – with a VIP chauffeur service to the airport, luggage service, dedicated check-in facilities and outstanding airport lounges. Passengers in First are likely to receive award-winning cuisine, sometimes from Michelin-starred chefs, with top-notch beverages, including the world's finest wines and Champagnes.
Business Class vs First Class: How are They Different?
The main difference between First Class and Business Class is that in First Class you receive a greater luggage allowance, a better VIP Chauffeur service, an easier path through check-in, a more luxurious airport lounge, a more intimate & exclusive suite in the First Class cabin. First Class also gets you outstanding service onboard, upgraded amenities – face cream etc, the finest food & beverages – cuisine designed by Michelin-star chefs with Champagnes and wines that are quite special and “facilities” that are sometimes quite special – even including a shower!
What separates First Class and Business Class?
Business Class vs First Class: Ground, Lounge and Airport Experience:
Airport facilities vary greatly depending on location, but Business Class travellers generally enjoy dedicated check-in facilities and security lines set away from the hordes of economy-class travellers, and they enjoy enhanced luggage allowances. Business Class lounges provide spacious areas to relax or work with a good selection of food from a buffet or à la carte menus. Some lounges offer self-serve Champagnes, beer and wines, while others provide a cocktail bar and bartender barista service.
Business Class lounges can be large spaces with seating for hundreds of guests. Facilities might include conference equipment, workstations with free high-speed Wi-Fi, and charging points throughout the lounge. Some lounges will provide Spa facilities and showers with designer amenities, while others will provide private sleeping rooms and daybeds. Family rooms, play areas and nursing facilities are often available for younger travellers.
Most Business Class lounges are open to eligible passengers with member airlines, frequent flyers with the appropriate membership or even pay-to-use availability.
Business Class lounges can vary dramatically between airlines and locations. We have listed some of the best Business Class Lounges in the world today:
Singapore Airlines – SilverKris Business Lounge, Changi International Airport, Singapore. A high-quality Business Class lounge with seating for around 570 passengers and a self-serve dining hall for up to 200 guests with excellent cuisine. Features include a quiet rest area where passengers can sleep and a bar service with complimentary Piper-Heidsieck Champagne.
Virgin Atlantic – Clubhouse, Heathrow Airport, London, UK. Virgin Atlantic combines the best of Business Class and First Class experiences to offer guests concierge service, buffet and à la carte dining options and an impressive cocktail bar. Those more energetic can take advantage of the Peloton bikes with runway views.
Air France – Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, France. The flagship Business Class Lounge at Charles de Gaulle provides customers with elegant seating options and elevated dining options from guest Chef Ducasse Paris. Meanwhile, pampering needs are taken care of courtesy of the indulgent Clarins Spa.
Qatar Airways – Al Mourjan Business Lounge, Hammad International Airport, Doha, Qatar. If pure opulence is your style, this is a gleaming jewel of design, style and service. With multiple dining options, luxurious seating areas and ample business facilities, this lounge feels more like a five-star resort.
From home-to-airport chauffeur service and luggage collection to exclusive use of private First Class terminal buildings to luxury vehicle transportation to the aircraft, First Class is unmatched for service and comfort. Speed is also a factor, with the entire process of arriving at the airport to relaxing in the lounge taken care of seamlessly by attentive staff and personal assistants.
First Class lounges ooze sophistication, exclusivity and discretion, catering to an exclusive clientèle, and are generally smaller than Business Class lounges.
Exclusive First Class lounge facilities might include private fine dining from Michelin-starred or celebrated chefs, specially curated fine wines, and the best Champagnes. Highly skilled mixologists will prepare top-shelf drinks and beverages, and other amenities could include complimentary Spa services, gym facilities, luxurious shower suites, and smoking/cigar rooms.
First Class passengers also enjoy large luggage allowances – often three checked suitcases – and are among the first to collect luggage from the carousel.
The stand-out First Class Lounges:
SWISS – First Class Lounge, Zürich International Airport, Zürich, Switzerland. This flagship lounge comes complete with two hotel-style dayrooms furnished with comfortable double beds, plush linens and ensuite facilities with luxury amenities. Other features include a vast wine humidor near the entrance, containing up to 1,000 bottles of quality wines and an excellent white tablecloth service with 5-star à la carte cuisine.
Emirates – First Class Lounge, Concourse A, Dubai International Airport, Dubai, UAE. This lounge bucks the trend of small First Class lounges with a footprint of over 9,000 square metres and is possibly one of the largest airport lounges in the world – offering a fine dining à la carte restaurant and various buffets serving fresh and varied local and western cuisine. Other features of note include a spa with complimentary treatments, nap rooms, dedicated duty-free shopping and direct access to the departure gates.
Qantas – First Class Lounge, Sydney, Australia. The First Class Lounge is a visually stunning location to spend a few hours relaxing before a flight. The architecture and style are bold. Wooden frames – reminiscent of supporting wing struts separate the seating zones with added bird's eye views across the apron from floor-to-ceiling windows, while white marble walls and floors catch the eye. A fabulous à la carte menu is provided by Australian celebrity chef Neil Perry's team at Rockpool. Still, one of the stand-out features is the serene Aurora Spa with complimentary 20-minute treatments.
Lufthansa – First Class Terminal, Frankfurt International Airport, Frankfurt, Germany. Lufthansa provides premium-class travellers with their own First Class Terminal. Once seamless check-in and private security formalities are taken care of, First Class travellers can sit back, relax and enjoy one of the best lounge experiences in the world. There are two nap rooms — much like mini hotel rooms, with luxury bedding and amenities, and shower suites complete with the famous collectable Lufthansa rubber ducks. Passengers enjoy an excellent white tablecloth à la carte menu or buffet choices, and the bar holds an impressive array of liquors, including over 130 whiskeys. When it's time to board, passengers are whisked to the aircraft by luxury Mercedes or Porsche.
British Airways – Concorde Room, Heathrow Airport, London, UK. The First Class Concorde Room is British Airways’ most exclusive lounge. The lounge offers excellent à la carte dining, impressive Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Champagne, and a well-stocked bar. A large, bright sun terrace has great views of the gates, and a feature of the lounge is a nose cone from the beautiful and iconic Concorde herself.
First Class lounges are exclusive by nature, and some airlines offer dedicated lounges only to their ultra-premium customers.
Business Class vs First Class: Onboard Experience
First Class and Business Class passengers both receive priority boarding. However, while a Business Class passenger may be called to board via announcement, a First Class passenger will receive a more personalised service. They should generally expect a personal escort to the departure gate and a dedicated bridge to the aircraft. First Class passengers may receive a choice to board first or last, and as with Lufthansa, some First Class passengers will step out from an executive vehicle directly to the aircraft steps.
First Class passengers will be welcomed at the door by name, then personally escorted to their seat or suite with fully attentive service. Before anyone else begins boarding, they will enjoy a chilled glass of Champagne, fine wine, cocktail or a beverage of choice. Access to First Class cabins is always private and exclusive to First Class ticket holders.
Business Class passengers will be directed to their seats or suite. Flight attendants may offer to explain seat functionality and the flight's itinerary or service if required. Depending on the aircraft and airline, economy class passengers may sometimes board via the Business Class entrance.
As previously mentioned, Business Class cabins can range significantly in design and configuration depending on the aircraft type and the airline. Some older cabins still have seating arranged without direct aisle access, while the latest cutting-edge cabins provide single suites that combine with neighbouring suites to create an enclosed group of suites.
Business Class cabins are aimed at passengers travelling distances for work and for leisure travellers desiring increased space and privacy and the opportunity to enjoy a comfortable sleep without the massive hike in price to pay for a First Class ticket.
Business Class vs First Class: Seats
On the whole, Business Class seats provide more legroom and are wider than the standard product. Most seats will recline, and many will transform into lie-flat beds on long-haul flights. Features will likely include high-end amenities, a large in-flight entertainment screen with noise-cancelling headphones, charging points and USB outlets for phones and laptops, and complimentary Wi-Fi. The improved space provides table/desk space and cubby holes to store personal belongings. Passengers in Business Class also pay for an elevated soft product service, including a full three-course meal with complimentary Champagnes, wines, and mid-flight snacks.
But not all Business Class cabins are equal, and some airlines have taken the concept to ground-breaking new levels:
Qatar Airways' innovative 'QSuites' on the Airbus A350 are arranged as a quad in the centre section of the cabin. This allows passengers to travel solo, as a couple — with the adjacent seat transforming into a double bed, or as a family or small group of four with removal panels on adjacent seats creating a social area and a place to dine together. Designer bedding, amenities, privacy doors, ample storage, and the latest in-flight entertainment capability make this a stand-out Business Class product.
British Airways unveiled the Club Suite in 2019. The long-haul product has been a hit ever since with a full 200-centimetre (79 inches) lie-flat bed, privacy doors, direct aisle access, digital seat functionality and luxurious linens and bedding from The White Company.
Singapore Airlines is renowned as having one of the best overall Business Class products with bespoke seating on its long-haul fleet measuring up to 195 centimetres long and 71 centimetres wide — among the roomiest Business Class beds in the sky. Centre seats of the Airbus A380 convert to a double bed for passengers travelling together, along with class-leading in-flight entertainment screens and Singapore's signature 'Book the Cook' service.
Many airlines offer elevated Business Class dining. Below are a few worth mentioning.
Air France has a roster of seventeen world-class chefs, including multi-Michelin-starred culinary superstars creating unforgettable French gastronomy for its long-haul premium cabins.
SWISS International Air Lines has the award-winning 'SWISS Taste of Switzerland' dining concept, with new menus launched every three months from renowned chefs and restaurants of the 26 cantons of Switzerland.
ANA — All Nippon Airways has a collaboration of international chefs named 'The Connoisseurs' bringing with them Michelin-starred expertise, award-winning chefs and some of the best Sommeliers in the world.
Turkish Airlines Business Class passengers on select long-haul flights will have gourmet food prepared on board by flying chefs, most of whom have worked in some of the best restaurants in the world.
With many airlines moving more towards Business Class cabins and a premium economy alternative, First Class travel is becoming even more of a rarefied treat. However, the good news is that there are still plenty of carriers putting the glitz and the glamour into luxury travel at 39,000 feet. But what exactly should customers expect from a First Class ticket?
Put simply, customers travelling in First Class should expect the best possible relaxing and pampering experience in the sky. From extraordinary levels of comfort, sublime cuisine and supreme customer service standards, flying First Class is akin to staying in a 5-star hotel in the skies.
But as with Business Class cabins, First Class products can differ depending on the airline, the aircraft and the destination. Some cabins offer suites similar to that found in the best Business Class cabins and comfortable bathrooms containing lavatories and shower facilities. In contrast, others push the boundaries of luxury travel and deliver the wow factor on every possible level.
First Class cabins will always be small with fewer passengers to interrupt privacy. However, some airlines have taken that exclusivity to another level by introducing entirely concealed spacious suites with a fully made-up bed, a separate seating area, and a private lavatory and shower. Some suites convert to private double suites with a double bed and separate eating and seating areas to create a 'hotel room' for passengers travelling together. In comparison, other airlines deliver a sensational soft product with the highest possible standards of gastronomy, any-time dining, lavish amenities and superlative customer service.
Cathay Pacific, the flag carrier for Hong Kong, connects distant continents with an impressive route map and equally impressive First Class product. From the superb Hong Kong lounges of The Wing and The Pier to the six open suites aboard the Boeing 777-300ER, elite-status travellers will receive the best of premium travel. The suites come with one of the widest seats in the sky at 79 centimetres, and the onboard soft product and customer service are ones to be savoured.
Air France's most exclusive La Première cabin on its Boeing 777-300ERs offers passengers a stylish experience with just four private suites across one row, with the luxury amenities one would expect from a leading airline. However, it is in the gastronomy stakes where Air France excels, with exquisitely presented world-class cuisine created by a collaboration of celebrated Michelin-starred chefs, complemented with the finest French wines and Champagnes.
Singapore Airlines is another airline offering exceptional gastronomy to its elite customers in Suites and First Class cabins with menus curated by an international culinary panel with twelve Michelin stars between them and the ‘Book the Cook’ service. The fabulous Private Suites exclusively available on the Airbus A380-800 aircraft create a feeling of travelling in a private jet. With a separate bed and leather swivel chair, luxury amenities and the opportunity to adapt to a double suite for passengers travelling as a pair, Singapore Airlines has one of the finest First Class products available today.
Dubai-based Emirates Airlines is never far from the pinnacle of product innovation and service, and the First Class Private Suites are no exception. A wholly enclosed private suite offers up to 3.7 square metres of space with a leather reclining seat that converts to a sizeable fully-flat bed and comes with zero-gravity technology to provide a feeling of weightlessness. Other features include a personal mini-bar, an à la carte dining service at the click of a button and cinematic in-flight entertainment. Other cabin features include an exclusive cocktail lounge and superb spa shower facilities.
Not to be outdone by its UAE neighbour, Etihad Airways has nine private First Class Apartments and the extraordinary and hugely impressive The Residence. This private three-room suite at the front of the First Class cabin includes a living room, bedroom, private bathroom with a shower and personal butler service. Could this be the ultimate way to fly?
Business Class vs First Class: Food & Beverage
Business Class cabins offer passengers the chance to experience increased space, a chance to sleep and improved dinner service. Tickets might cost in the region of twice as much for the privilege, but airlines are investing heavily to progress Business Class products while increasing their availability. More often than not, Business Class cabins on modern long-haul flights have seats that recline and convert into fully-flat beds. They frequently come equipped with high-quality in-flight entertainment and noise-cancelling headphones, and the dinner service is of a good 'restaurant' standard. But it still isn't First Class!
Emirates has taken First Class dining to new levels with its unlimited vintage Champagne and caviar offering … while Air France La Première has extra special menus created by some of the greatest chefs in the world.
Airlines that have kept a First Class service constantly strive to offer exceptional products in every facet of the travel cycle. From an exclusive three-room residence at the front of the aircraft to gourmet cuisine crafted by multi-Michelin-starred chefs. Airport lounges offering complimentary spa treatments or apron transfers inside a Porsche sports car — First Class is unrivalled for comfort, cuisine, and customer service, but you pay for it.
The days of First Class cabins are maybe waning however. In the USA, domestic “First Class” is very different to international First Class - it's more like a Business Class product - invariably without lie-flat seats and haute cuisine. Indeed, American Airlines is the only US carrier to still offer a bona-fide First Class internation product - which - with the release of its Flagship Suite business class seat last year - may see that class vanishing too. No fear though, airlines including British Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, SWISS, and Emirates still fly a First Class on its international routes as the demand - on several routes - outstrips availability.
In the end, the biggest question has to be, with this limited availability and the huge price difference between Business Class and First Class travel, how much is the First Class experience worth to you?
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(Pan Am image - credit Delta Flight Museum)