A simple explanation of business class

By Richard Turen
Richard TurenA working definition of business class: An elegant, well-heeled section of the aircraft that largely exists to cater to coupon savers and chipmunks whose entire purpose in life is growing their collection of acorn points.

Dear Client:

I know you're considering flying business class on your upcoming trip. It might seem that making decisions on which airline to fly, whether to pay for business or first class and what strategies you might use to get the best price can be confusing.

As your trusted travel consultant, I want to help make everything about flying business class simple and easy for you to understand.

Let's start with a bit of history.

Business class did not exist in the early 1970s. Several airlines claim to have invented it, but KLM gets credit for separating out their best passengers. It did this by inventing FFF, an acronym for "full-fare facilities."

The theory here was that passengers who were stupid enough to pay the list price for a coach seat ought to be separated from normal passengers. So they were allowed to sit in a special economy section between the really rich people in first class and the poor, unwashed wretches in the rear of the aircraft.

United and TWA copied the idea, but they ended it when lots of normal economy passengers expressed outrage that the good seats in economy were being taken away from them and doled out to economy passengers who paid the asking price.

Historians of commercial aviation will note that 1978 was the pivotal year in the development of the business-class concept. In the fall of that year, British Airways announced Club Class, for the express purpose of separating discount "tourists" from full-fare business clients. Soon afterward, Pan Am introduced Clipper Class. Qantas launched its business class, and Air France happily began providing better seats for its more sophisticated passengers.

In 1981, SAS debuted EuroClass, which further separated business flyers from the population at large by employing separate check-in counters and lounges.

Competition ensued, and soon business class on some airlines became so comfortable that first class was eliminated, largely on routes of less than 10 hours.

Which brings us to today.

I want to explain all the terminology you will need to make the best decisions regarding a nice, comfortable, long flight on a route that is so desirable that only flight attendants with decades of experience are permitted to work the aisles.

If you are flying coast to coast or over to Hawaii, you will be able to fly business class in first class. That's mostly because the airlines flying these routes find three-class service too confusing to deal with.

The airlines' dirty little secret is that seats in the front are designated "first class" just because these are the first seats at the front of the aircraft. You would be wise not to confuse this location-based terminology with actual first-class service, because it's really just a lesser form of business class or, to put it another way, a sort of premium economy.

Real business class does exist on flights from the U.S. to Europe, and that is good news if you are joining an escorted tour group, going on a European cruise or just getting around on your own using an app designed by some kids who have traveled extensively in Europe by watching YouTube videos of the Acropolis in their college dorms.

But, still, I have bad news: While most humans are good at heart and only wish to serve, that is not necessarily true of airlines, although some are more humane than others.

That's why I want you to know about Skytrax, a 14-year-old company that operates the Airline Rating System. They offer the most respected airline-quality grading classification service, categorizing airlines using a system of one to five stars.

Skytrax is working on listing some small, private aircraft operators as six- and even seven-star airlines. But for now, the best you can do is business class on a five-star airline. If you are flying beyond the borders of the U.S., you will have lots of choices.

Well, actually, you'll only have six. The only five-star airlines are All Nippon Airways, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Hainan, Qatar and Singapore Airlines.

So one thing you need to deal with right off the bat is that if you really want to guarantee that you'll have a great flight, you have to be flying to Asia or the Middle East. Europe is pretty much out.

But, you are no doubt asking, what about American, Delta and United? Surely they must be at least four-star airlines. Actually, they are not quite there yet. They have three-star business-class service --not quite as good as, say, Turkish Airways, which is four stars, but better than North Korea's Air Koryo or Bulgaria Air.

Lufthansa and Swiss have four-star ratings, and they are good business-class options for flights to Europe.

Of course, you might also want to consider the quality of the pilots. It is, I think, sort of helpful when dealing with air traffic controllers in the U.S. to claim English as your mother tongue.

Besides, I think you might really enjoy flying a U.S. carrier on your next overseas trip because you will take off with expectations so low that they could actually be exceeded. To me, that is the joy of flying. I don't really like flying business class on Emirates, where the game is waiting to catch a service slip-up -- any service slip-up -- that never happens.

Once you decide on an airline and a route, it is time to find the best price.

Shocking as it might seem to many of you, there are folks with seats in business class who actually pay full fare for them. You can spot them because the flight manifest tells the flight attendants who they are, so they're the ones who actually get the service you thought you were going to get.

If you got into business class using Jiffy Lube coupons, you will have some kind of identifier on your ticket, like a big JL, that tells the flight crew how you came to be sitting in the cabin of the aircraft that circulates fresh air.

Shopping for the best fare is easy. You can use a travel agent who belongs to a consortium that negotiates for discounted business-class seats. You can go directly to airline sites. You can ask me to research it for you (I am going to have to charge you a small fortune for my time). Or, you can go to the discount online sites.

Better yet, you can go to an aggregator, a website that tries to collect all the information you will need.

Hipmunk.com, for example, offers an "agony index" that predicts how much pain and suffering you are likely to suffer as a result of the airline choices you make. And knowing -- or at least being able to make an educated guess about -- how much agony you will suffer when choosing a business class airline is a really great way to begin a vacation.

At this point, I must apologize. My explanation has run over my allotted space. Explaining how business class really works is harder than I had thought it would be. In a subsequent column, I am going to have to expand my "simple" explanation of how business class really works.

Hope everything is clear so far.

Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen owns Churchill & Turen Ltd., a luxury vacation firm based in Naples, Fla. He is also managing director of the Churchill Group, a sales training and marketing consultancy. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com. 
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