What Is Business Class? Why Does It Vary So Much Between Carriers?

We all know about business class, but what exactly do you get? Space to work and rest, of course, and plenty of extras such as better food and drinks, and access to airport lounges. Offerings differ significantly between airlines, routes, and aircraft types, though.

Not all business class is equal. Photo: Qatar Airways

We take a look at today’s business class, and we highlight some of the best offerings in the sky. We also consider price and using miles for business class tickets. Business class is pricey, but not shockingly so, like first class, and the benefits can be worth it.

What is business class?

Business class is offered by most of the main, or legacy, airlines today. It is popular with both business and leisure customers for its extra space, flat beds, and much-improved service and dining.

It offers a good combination of value and comfortable travel. As economy class gets ever more packed, many airlines have introduced premium economy. This can be very affordable but lacks the space and comfort of business class, as well as the premium food and lounge access. First class, where offered, offers luxury, more attentive service, and greater privacy, but comes at a steep increase in price.

BA Club World
Business class offers space to work and rest in a quieter cabin Photo: British Airways

Which airlines offer business class?

Almost all legacy carriers offer business class on international routes. Full-service airlines have operated multiple cabins since at least the 1970s, and this has changed with the times. Many airlines these days offer four cabins, with premium economy the newest cabin. And first class has, in recent years, started to decline with many airlines.

Low-cost carriers have traditionally not offered business class. Low-cost airlines have turned around the legacy carrier model, where many airlines claim they make most of their revenue from their premium cabins. Some though, have started to offer business class on medium-range routes.

There have been several successes, such as Air Asia, Scoot, and JetStar. There have also been failures, particularly on longer routes. But with aircraft increasing in efficiency, we might see more airlines making a success of it.

AirAsia business class
AirAsia offers flat beds on several long-haul routes from Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AirAsia

A note on the naming of business class

Business class is probably the most confusing cabin for naming. Some airlines stick with a form of ‘Business’ for it, but many change this. Other cabins tend to be clearer. Economy class often stays as ‘economy’ or ‘main cabin,’ and almost all airlines with first class name it is as such. It’s an important part of branding for airlines, but don’t let it confuse you!

A few examples:

  • UK airline British Airways use Club World and Club Europe, and Virgin Atlantic uses Upper Class. And Alitalia chooses a great name – Magnifica.
  • In the US, Delta goes with Delta One, and United uses Polaris. Air Canada has recently launched Signature Class.
  • Thai Airways uses Royal Silk. Singapore Airlines had a great historical reference with Raffles Class but dropped this in 2006.

A short history of business class

People are often surprised to discover that business class has not been around that long. And it has been as luxurious as we see today for even less time!

In the early days of flying, there was typically one cabin. In most cases, this was luxurious rather than cramped, with large seats, tables, and (once the DC3 started flying) features such as beds. As passenger numbers increased in the 1950s, cabins began to be split into two, economy and first class. It was not until the 1970s that a third cabin of business class appeared.

British Airways premium cabin
British Airways’ Super Club was an early form of business class, carved out of the economy cabin. Photo: British Airways

This came about with the extra space offered by the Boeing 747, as well as regular flyers looking for more comfort than economy. There were many early versions of a business class offering during the 1970s, including British Airways Super Club, Japan Airlines Tachibana (Orange Blossom), and Pan American Clipper Class.

But Qantas is credited with introducing the first real business class. It added a separate cabin with two abreast seating, and a fare set 15% higher than economy class.

Qantas early business class
Business cabin with Qantas on the Boeing 707. Photo: Qantas

Business class has continuously improved since these early days. Seats have become larger and more comfortable. But it was not until 2000 that British Airways launched the first flat bed product for business class. This was a whole new concept and led to the products we see today.

Regional and international business class – big differences

There are significant differences in business class products, not just between airlines but with the same airline too. This is not surprising when you consider a couple of main factors:

  • Range of routes. Most legacy carriers have a range of routes, form shorter domestic up to globe-spanning long haul ones. For consistency, many airlines offer business class on all these routes but will have different products for different flight lengths.
  • Cost of changing aircraft configurations. Airlines regularly introduce new seats and other cabin features. This happens across all cabins but is more evident in premium cabins. It takes a long time to change cabins across older aircraft (often they may not be changed at all), so it is common to see different products being offered across an airline’s fleet.

What is business class like on domestic or regional flights?

The most significant difference in business class is seen between domestic/regional routes and internationally. International business class is where you will find the flat beds and (maybe) onboard bars and lounges. On shorter flights, you will usually find a much simpler onboard product, but with the same benefits on the ground (such as lounge access).

In Europe, most airlines offer only adapted economy class seating. This allows airlines to flexibly allocate rows to business class. often with the middle seats blocked. There is improved food and drink service, though. There are a few cases where airlines use long haul aircraft on regional routes, but these can change regularly.

What Is Business Class? Why Does It Vary So Much Between Carriers?
British Airways Club Europe offers the same seating as economy class, just with a blocked middle seat. Photo: British Airways

In the US, there is usually an economy and a first class domestic cabin. Domestic first class usually offers larger seats and more space than economy. On some longer routes, international standard business and first cabins are becoming more common. American Airlines started this trend, but others are now following.

American airlines domestic first
In the US, domestic first class offers a separate cabin. Photo: American Airlines

Asian airlines often lead the way with domestic and regional business. Most airlines have dedicated cabins with better seating, some with seats almost as good as long haul business class.

Singapore Airlines, for example, never gets below a 60-inch seat pitch (and a 2-2-2 configuration) on its widebody only fleet. ANA even manages 50 inches on its 737 (in a small cabin with just eight seats).

And Cathay Pacific has a distinct regional business class product, with wider seats and a 45-inch pitch. Cathay Pacific also operates many regional flights using long haul configurations (so with a much better business class seat) but is also well known for swapping this at the last minute.

Cathay regional business
Cathay Pacific regional business class, is much better than the norm in Europe. Photo: Cathy Pacific

What does international business class offer

Offerings differ, of course, between airlines. But international business class usually includes:

At the airport:

  • Priority check-in and boarding.
  • Access to airline lounges.
  • Fast track, or separate security lanes.
  • Increased luggage allowance.

Flat bed seats:

  • Most international business class seats will be flat bed, or almost flat (160-170 degrees).
  • Wider seats than economy or premium economy.
  • Some airlines offer semi-private enclosed business class suites.
  • Larger tables and more storage options inflight.
  • Larger entertainment screens.

Better service:

  • More attentive and frequent service.
  • Inflight amenity kits and products.
  • Premium food and wines.
  • Larger and better-equipped bathrooms.
  • Some airlines feature onboard lounge or bar areas.

If you think airlines appear to offer very similar seating, its because many use the same manufacturers. The same seats are often modified for use by different airlines. The Super Diamond seat by Collins Aerospace, for example, is used by Qatar Airways, British Airways, Air China, and others. And the popular Cirrus seat can be found on many airlines, including Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, KLM, and Air France.

United Polaris seat
Business class seats convert to flat beds and are usually spacious with plenty of storage space. Photo: United Airlines

What is the difference between business and first class?

Business class is a great way to travel, but its not the best. For that, many airlines offer first class (see our complete guide to first class for more).

For many travelers, though, business class is good enough, especially as seating continues to improve. And that is the problem with first class, and why more and more airlines are reducing it. Some airlines have withdrawn first class entirely in recent years, while several more have dropped it from some aircraft (and routes). Emirates is the main exception to this. It continues to increase first class, offering fully closed suites and claiming privacy as its main selling factor.

Emirates First Class
First Class offers more space and privacy, often in the form of closed suites. Photo: Emirates

First class still has a place, however. It’s appeal now is more about privacy, flexibility in schedule, attentive service, and premium food and drink.

It also offers a premium experience that airlines can use for marketing to VIPs, attract, and retain frequent flyers and offer as part of corporate deals. In the longer term, though, it is likely to become much less common.

Singapore Airlines Suites
Privacy is one of the selling points of first class. Photo: Singapore Airlines

What is international business class like on airlines?

Long haul international flights are where you will find the top business class products. We take a look here at a selection of the top offerings with airlines around the world.

Business class on British Airways

British Airways has a mixed history with its business class. It was ground-breaking back in the early 2000s when it introduced the first flat bed. Other airlines have advanced since then, and its Club World product is now somewhat dated. The offering is improving significantly though with its new Club Suite.

Club World is arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, with yin-yang reversed seating and no direct aisle access for many seats.

What Is Business Class? Why Does It Vary So Much Between Carriers?
British Airways original Club World seating. Photo: fcrippa via Flickr

The new Club Suite is a significant improvement, and give first class some fierce competition. These are semi-closed suites, with more space, better storage, and all offering aisle access. It is currently available on the new A350 aircraft and some Boeing 777-200 aircraft. Full rollout to the Heathrow fleet should take place by 2025.

Man sitting in BA club suite
Club Suite is a significant improvement, with more space and a privacy door. Photo: British Airways

Business class on Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic has an excellent business class offering, called Upper Class. It does not have first class, so this is its top product. There are two versions of Upper Class seating. The older version has flat bed seats, but with inward-facing window seats. These are good seats but do lack privacy, and there is something strange about sitting with your back to the window.

Virgin Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic’s original Upper Class, similar on the A330 and 787. Photo: Gary Bembridge via Flickr

The new Upper Class on the A350 aircraft is a considerable improvement. These are forward-facing seats arranged 1-2-1, with semi-closing sliding doors to increase privacy. You can read our review of flying Upper Class on the A350 here.

Virgin Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class on the A350. Photo: Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic also offers excellent on the ground facilities with its Clubhouse lounges. And in-flight, it features a bar for Upper Class only (nicely remodeled into a bar and lounge on the A350).

Business class on American Airlines

Like most US airlines, American Airlines’ business class product has improved significantly in recent years. You will get a good seat, service, and lounges on the ground, but not the more luxurious seats or onboard bars that some airlines offer.

Flagship Business is offered on all long-haul international flights, as well as some transcontinental domestic flights.

The seating is similar on all aircraft, with a 1-2-1 configuration, all with aisle access. On some aircraft, seats alternate forwards and backward. American Airlines operates an older business class on the Boeing 757 and 767, but these aircraft have been retired in 2020.

American Airlines Flagship Business. Photo: American Airlines

Business class on Delta Air Lines

Business class on Delta is known as Delta One and is offered on all long haul international flights. Delta offers both seats and suites.

The Delta One Suites are excellent products, and Delta was the first airline in the US to offer an all-suite business class. They feature closing doors and large tables next to the seats. The standard Delta One seat is similar, but without a door for privacy.

Delta One Suite
Delta One Suite on the A350. Photo: Delta Air Lines

The suites are available on new A350 and A330-900 aircraft and being retro-fitted to the 767 (and did with the 777 before it retired it early, in May 2020).

Business class on United Airlines

United Airlines has improved its business class significantly. Not long ago, it was flying with just an eight across business cabin, but the rollout of its Polaris business class since 2017 has improved this. United still has the old eight across cabin on some aircraft, check before you fly.

What Is Business Class? Why Does It Vary So Much Between Carriers?
United’s eight across business class was not popular. Photo: Alan Light via Flickr.

The new Polaris cabin is configured 1-2-1 with open suite-style seating. It feels a bit more cramped than the Delta One product, but seats are comparable in size.

United’s new Polaris seats
United’s new Polaris seats. Photo: United Airlines

Polaris is being installed across the fleet. It is available on all its 787-10 and 777-300ER aircraft, and many of its 777-200 and 767-300 aircraft. The 787-8 and 787-9 have a different style standard business seat, arranged 2-2-2, but these are also being changed. You can read our review of the Polaris product (on the 767) here.

United does the best of the US airlines for awards. It won Skytrax World Airline Awards best business seat in 2019, as well as the best business class lounge both in the US and globally (for its San Francisco lounge).

Business class on Qatar Airways

For luxury and extras in business class, you need to look at the Middle Eastern and Asian airlines.

Qatar Airways’ new business class, the QSuite, is one of the best products of any airline. These are large suite-style seats (though not quite a big as Singapore Airlines offering), with fully closing doors. The middle seats can be joined together in groups of two of four to create private cabins, a unique option for both families and business travelers.

QSuite has led to Qatar Airways winning the award for best business class with Skytrax World Airline Awards in 2018 and 2019.

Qatar Airways Qsuite Quad
The new QSuite rivals the first class offering of many airlines. Photo: Qatar Airways

QSuite is available on many of its aircraft (including the A350-1000 and some A350-900 and 777-300 aircraft, but not the A380. With aircraft changes, though, all US routes will feature the QSuite from August 2020.

Other aircraft without QSuite still offer an excellent business class. The A380, 787, and some A350-900 have angled open suites arranged 1-2-1. While other aircraft have an older 2-2-2 standard seat layout, but still with pitch up to 80 inches.

Business class on Emirates

Emirates is known for its premium cabins. It markets the extravagance of these well and offers them on all of its A380 and Boeing 777 fleets. Unfortunately, in business class there is a mixed offering – excellent on the A380 but not as good on the 777. Emirates also offers a complimentary chauffeur service to and from the airport.

The A380 has a new Business Class, with open suites arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration. These are spacious, and the windows, in particular, offer plenty of storage space. There is also a great bar area.

Emirates Business
Business Class on the A380, great seats but a huge cabin. Photo: Emirates

However, on the 777, Business Class is a standard seat (rather than a more spacious suite) arranged 2-3-2. These are good seats, but these days, who wants a middle seat in business class?

Stylish but old-style business class is still offered on the Emirates 777. Photo: Emirates

Business class is set to be improved when the 777X is introduced. Emirates will install a new business class product on this, based on the A380 product rather than the dated 777 one.

Emirates makes it to fourth in the World Airlines Awards for business class in 2019, due mainly to its excellent A380 product.

Business class on Cathay Pacific

For long haul flights, the 777, A330 and A350 have a similar Business Class. This is angled lie-flat beds in a 1-2-1 configuration, all at 21 inches in width. Cathay was one of the first airlines to fit such seating, ahead of other airlines at the time, but this is now more common.

Cathay Pacific Business Class
Cathay Pacific Business Class on the A350. Photo: Cathay Pacific

With excellent service and a common product across the long haul fleet, this is a great business class, but not as far forward now that other airlines are offering suite-style seats.

Cathay Pacific also excels with its lounges. It has an impressive range of large lounges in Hong Kong and smaller ones in many overseas locations, including London.

Business class on Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines offers a variety of seats across its aircraft. The best is Business Class on the A380, followed closely by the A350. All of these are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration and are open suites (no closed doors, but privacy is provided by side panels). Differences are not as significant as they are with the different first class seats on Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines Business Class
Singapore Airlines Business Class. Photo: Singapore Airlines

These are all notable as being some of the widest business class seats of any airline, up to 30 inches on the A380 and 28 inches on the A350. This really makes a difference in comfort on a long flight. For comparison, Cathay Pacific offers 21 inches, and Qatar Airways’ QSuite seat is only 21.5 inches wide.

Singapore Airlines comes in third in the World Airlines Awards for business class in 2019, and second for business class seating.

Singapore Airlines Business Class
Singapore Airlines Business Class on the A380. Photo: Singapore Airlines

Business class on Air Asia

Air Asia provides one of the best examples of a low-cost airline introducing business class. It operates a subsidiary airline, Air Asia X, that offers long haul routes from Kuala Lumpur using Airbus A330-300 aircraft. These have a small Premium Flatbed cabin with just 12 seats arranged in two rows.

What Is Business Class? Why Does It Vary So Much Between Carriers?
AirAsia Premium Flatbed. Photo: AirAsia

These are open style seats that convert to fully flat beds. They are much simpler than many of the luxurious and spacious suite-style seats found on legacy airlines, and the service in Premium Flatbed is only slightly improved over economy. But they are also much cheaper, costing hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

Air Asia fares
Just over $500 for an eight-hour flight in business class is pretty good. Image: Air Asia

Frequently asked questions about business class

How much does business class cost?

Business class comes with a lot more, and as such, is priced much higher than economy. Premium economy often runs around twice the price of economy (long term it averages 85% more according to SeatGuru), but there is much more of a jump up to business.

In our experience, fares for long haul business are often around three to six times the economy fare. The website FareCompare reports business class costing, on average, four times economy class. Expensive, but not as crazy as first class, which is often ten times or more.

BA Fares
An example of pricing differences for British Airways. Image: British Airways


Qatar Airways fares
Qatar Airways fares in economy and business class. Image: Qatar Airways

Many airlines have regular sales and promotions on business class tickets. These tend to offer better savings than economy sales, and more options than first class sales (as supply in first class is so limited). Especially if you some flexibility in dates and departure points, there can be some excellent fares this way. Qatar Airways, for example, have run many promotions in the past with business class fare between certain cities in Europe and Asia of around €1,000.

For some more ideas on finding cheaper fares, and also the possibility of error fares, see our guide to finding cheap fares.

Using air miles to book business class flights

Using airline points or miles can be a great way to fly in business class. With many airline frequent flyer programs, mileage rates are fixed, whereas prices can fluctuate. The increase from economy to business is usually less for a mileage ticket than it is for a cash ticket.

Every program is different, but a couple of examples easily highlight the value possible:

  • British Airways pricing in Avios generally rises by fixed multiples. A long haul business ticket is three times the cost of economy.
  • With American Airlines, it is even better value. Award tickets for flights to Europe are 30,000 miles in economy and 57,500 in business (there are variations based on availability).

Bear in mind that you can use miles from any airline program to book awards on any member of the same alliance. So with American Airlines and British Airways, you can fly with any oneworld member, such as Cathay Pacific, Qantas, or Japan Airlines.

Qatar Airways oneworld
Remember alliances when considering air miles. Photo: Qatar Airways

Upgrading to business class

Instead of using miles to purchase a business class ticket, you can often upgrade a cash ticket. Depending on cash prices, this can often represent better value. Terms and conditions are different between airlines (but usually well detailed on airline websites). Some important points to bear in mind:

  • You can usually only upgrade by one cabin. So to upgrade to business you would need to buy premium economy if offered. With airlines without premium economy, such as Qatar Airways, you can often upgrade from economy direct to business.
  • The lowest booking classes (associated with the cheapest or promotion fares) may be excluded.
  • Most airlines will only allow upgrading on their own flights, not all alliance members. There are exceptions. American Airlines, for example, allows upgrading on British Airways and Iberia.
American Aadvantage upgrades
American Airlines offers fixed mileage upgrades for all cabins. Image: American Airlines

Which airlines have the best business class

Our descriptions earlier have given a taste of some of the best business class offerings. Singapore Airlines stands out for its extra-wide seats and Qatar Airways for its new Qsuite product.

But with all airlines, remember there are often significant variations across the fleet. As well as flagship new products, many airlines often fly with older cabins as well (British Airways and United are just two examples), and what matters is what cabin you get. You can usually check this in advance on the airline website, maybe by using the seat map and the seating information on the website SeatGuru.

If you want to make sure you book with one of the best airlines, however, take a look at some of the awards given to them.

Qatar Airways Qsuite Business
Qatar Airways is consistently voted as top for business class. Photo: Qatar Airways

One of the most respected is the annual Skytrax World Airline Awards. The overall top 12 business class products globally in 2019 went to (in descending order):

  • Qatar Airways
  • ANA All Nippon Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Emirates
  • Qantas Airways
  • Hainan Airlines
  • Thai Airways
  • Etihad Airways
  • Cathay Pacific Airways
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Lufthansa
  • Oman Air

And the TripAdvisor Traveller Choice Awards are also an excellent guide, with public voted awards. In 2019 the best business class here went to Qatar Airways. Overall the top five airlines were Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, EVA Air, Emirates, and Japan Airlines.