Business Class vs. First Class: How Different Are They?

Whether you book a ticket in economy, premium economy, business, or first class, the matter of the fact is that as long as you take the same flight, the time you will land at your destination won’t differ. That said, the level of comfort and service you will encounter along the way will differ greatly.

In the past, I compared economy class with business class, so today, let’s take a look at how business class and first class differ. First, though, let’s clear up two things: how common first class is these days and how not all business/first class products are the same.

Business Class vs. First Class
One can have unforgettable experiences in both business and first class.

Not All Airlines Offer First Class

Over the last several years, the number of airlines offering first class has dwindled. Among others, airlines like Turkish Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, South African Airways, Asiana Airlines, and China Airlines discontinued their first class product.

One of the main reasons behind that is the improvement in business class product. With most airlines offering full-flat seats in business class these days, it is much harder to differentiate a first class product than it was in the past. Related to that is also the gap in the level of service between economy class and business class that the improvement of business class over the year left open.

At many airlines, that gap has been filled by premium economy. While some airlines operate four-class aircraft (first, business, premium economy, economy), it is much more common to see a three-class configuration (business, premium economy, economy).

Premium Economy
Today, premium economy fills the growing gap between economy and business class.

Not All Business and First Class Products Are the Same

The second thing to keep in mind is that the terms business class and first class are very broad.

They can mean very different things when talking about domestic flights and when talking about international flights. In general, as one would expect, the service tends to be more luxurious on international flights. Similarly, on longer flights, you can expect a more extensive service than on shorter flights.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the quality of product varies greatly between airlines. This is true for both hard (seats, etc.) and soft product (onboard service, meals, etc.). In fact, the quality of seats can vary greatly even within a single airline – especially so in business class.

Emirates Business Class Seats
Emirates offers competitive staggered business class seats on its A380. Its 777-300ERs, on the other hand, are equipped with business class cabins that have a middle seat – something almost unheard of these days.

Lastly, it is important to note that while in some countries like the US or Japan it is common for first class to be offered on domestic flights, service-wise, it is closer to business class. For example, on its domestic flights around Japan, JAL offers Class J which technically is business class but service-wise is closer to premium economy, and first class which is service-wise closer to international business class.

Domestic First Class
Domestic first class doesn’t typically look luxurious.

With that, let’s jump into comparing the two classes of service. Keep in mind that from here on, I will be talking about long-haul international business and first class which is what you are likely here for anyway.

How Much More Expensive Is First Than Business Class?

The answer here is, of course, that it depends. It can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars more all the way to two or three times as much for first class than for business class. To give you some reference points, below are a few random searches I made in Google Flights:

  • Vienna – Tokyo roundtrip (2022/4/7 – 2022/4/14): approx. 2,200 EUR to 3,300 EUR in business class and 5,000 EUR to 8,000 EUR in first class depending on the airline
  • London – New York roundtrip (2022/5/12 – 2022/5/26): approx. 2,000 EUR to 4,000 EUR in business class and 4,500 EUR to 11,000 EUR in first class depending on the airline
  • Los Angeles – Seoul roundtrip (2022/6/3 – 2022/6/10): approx. 2,900 EUR to 4,600 EUR in business class and 11,000 EUR to 15,000 EUR in first class depending on the airline

Similarly, the premium you will pay for first class tickets over business class tickets when buying them with miles depends on the mileage program you are using and the airline you will be flying on. The “multiple” you will pay for first class instead of business class on the same flight is oftentimes considerably smaller when using miles than when paying cash, though.

Business vs. First Class: What Are the Differences?

With some of the background information out of the way, let’s get to actually comparing business and first class. How do they differ once (or even before) you get to the airport?

Ground Service and Lounge

The difference between business and first class starts on the ground. While generally both business (other than on some unbundled fares) and first class passengers can use priority check-in areas and are invited into airport lounges, the quality of first class lounges tends to be better.

That’s especially the case at major hubs like Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong, and so on.

In addition to there potentially being a better selection of food and drinks than in business class lounges, the service tends to be better as well. Many first class lounges offer a la carte dining. Some offer massages and other similar amenities. Some – like Cathay Pacific’s The Wing in Hong Kong – offer bathrooms with a bathtub rather than just shower rooms.

American Airlines Flagship First Dining
American Airlines’ international first class passengers departing from JFK can eat at its Flagship First Dining restaurant.
Business Class Lounge
A typical business class lounge feels much less exclusive than a typical first class lounge.

While not as common as simply nicer lounges, some airlines offer their first class passengers additional services on the ground. This can include limousine transfer to the airport or from the terminal into the aircraft. At some airports, there are separate terminals for first (and sometimes business) class passengers.

Perhaps the best known of those is Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal in Frankfurt.

Business and First Class Terminal
Some airlines like Qatar Airways offer dedicated business and first class check-in areas or even terminals.

Seat

As mentioned earlier, the type and quality of seats that can be found in business class vary greatly. That said, since the introduction of the full-flat business class seat by British Airways in the early 2000s, business class seats started resembling their first class counterparts more and more.

Nowadays, fully-flat seats are the standard in long-haul business class, many products offer direct aisle access, and some even feature suites with doors. Perhaps the two best ones are offered by Qatar Airways (QSuites) and ANA (The Room).

ANA The Room Business Class
ANA’s “The Room” business class suite.

Physics and economics, however, mean that one simple difference between business and first class seats cannot be eliminated. Onboard space is limited and so, the amount of space that airlines use per business class seat tends to be considerably lower than the amount of space used per first class seat.

What that means is that business class seats always come with some kind of a trade-off. In the case of older full-flat seats with open foot space, it’s a lack of storage space around each seat and direct aisle access for window seats. In the case of staggered and reverse herringbone seats, it’s the need to put your feet into an often tiny footwell.

Full-Flat Business Class Seat
Traditional full-flat business class seat with plenty of foot space but limited storage space and privacy.
Staggered Business Class Seat
Staggered business class seat with plenty of privacy and storage space but limited foot space.

First class seats tend to be considerably more spacious than business class seats – both in terms of the seats themselves as well as the space available around them. The seats are generally wider and when turned into a bed, they generally have open space around feet. Singapore Airlines even offers first class suites with a separate seat and bed on  some of its A380s.

Just like with some business class seats, some first class seats feature doors. Two airlines are worth mentioning here as taking the concept to a different level:

  • Emirates which offers fully enclosed suites (on other airlines, the doors can be quite low) on some of its first class-equipped 777-300ERs
  • Air France which offers floor-to-ceiling curtains on its first-class equipped 777-300ERs (and soon A350s)
Emirates New First Class Suite
Emirates’ new fully-enclosed first class suite.

One last thing to note here is that first class cabins tend to be considerably smaller than business class cabins. While widebody aircraft typically feature anywhere from four to around twelve first class seats, they tend to feature a couple or more dozen of business class seats. As such, even in the case of first class seats without curtains or doors, they tend to offer a good amount of privacy.

The notable extreme here is Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER first class. With the cabin being just two rows of seats in a 1-1-1 configuration, and each seat only being accessible from one side, seat 2A is essentially in a “dead-end aisle” (excluding cabin crew that might be going between first and business class.

Cathay Pacific First Class Seat
Cathay Pacific 777-300ER first class seat 2A offers plenty of privacy even without a door.

Meals and Drinks

When comparing meals and drinks in business class and first class, there are two aspects to look at – the service and the menu.

Starting with the service, because the cabins are much smaller in first class, the service tends to be much more personalized than in business class. While some airlines – notably Qatar Airways – offer dine-on-demand, restaurant-style dining in business class, it is an exception rather than a rule. Instead, most airlines stick to regular meal service at specific times in business class. That said, many still offer a menu of light items that can be requested throughout the flight.

First class typically offers a restaurant-like dining experience with each course served directly on the tray table rather than things coming together on a tray. While that has become more common in business class than in the past, some airlines have scaled back their service due to COVID-19.

Business Class Meal
Business class main dish served on a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Tokyo.

As far as meal menus are concerned, the biggest difference is perhaps the fact that many although not all airlines serve caviar in first class. More items to select from might be offered in first class than in business class too. That, however, depends on the airline.

For those that drink alcohol, first class also generally offers better champagne and a wider selection of liquor. It’s also common for a wider selection of soft drinks (especially mocktails, teas, etc.) to be offered in first class. That said, the situation varies from airline to airline here too.

Caviar in First Class
Caviar.
First Class Dessert
Beautifully presented first class dessert served on a flight from New York to Hong Kong.
First Class Champagne
While I don’t drink, a good champagne is something many first class passengers look forward to.

Other Onboard Service

In addition to the seat/suite and meal service being considerably different, there are a few other things that airlines use to differentiate first class from business class.

While there are some business class products offering mattress pads and other bedding better than the average blanket and pillow, this does tend to be more common in first class. The quality of the said bedding also tends to be higher. Similarly, while there are some airlines that offer pajamas in business class, it tends to be more common in first class.

Both business and first class passengers typically have access to noise-canceling headsets and generally, they are the same model when flying on the same airline. In some instances, however, those provided in first class might be a different model, of higher quality.

First Class Pajamas
Pajamas and headphones provided in Cathay Pacific first class.
First Class Bedding
First class bedding is often considerably better than in business class.

Lastly, even though both business and first class passengers receive an amenity kit on long-haul flights, typically the first class amenity kit is more extensive. That said, this is highly dependent on the airline in question. It’s the same case with amenities available in lavatories too.

Sometimes, the lavatories themselves can differ in how nice/well-equipped they are too. Emirates, for example, even offers an onboard shower to its first class passengers traveling on the A380.

Business Class Amenity Kit
Qatar Airways offers well-stocked amenity kits in nice leather pouches even in business class.

Summary

While both business and first class are a considerable step up from economy class and premium economy, there are considerable differences between the two classes of travel on the premium end of the spectrum too.

In general, first class passengers can enjoy travel in smaller cabins resulting in more personalized service. They can also enjoy a higher-quality, restaurant-like meal service which oftentimes includes caviar. Lastly, they can sit and sleep in larger seats with unrestricted foot space and generally better bedding.

That said, quality can vary greatly between airlines and there are some airlines that offer business class service closer to first class than to the average business class. Qatar Airways’ QSuites is one of those products. That said, even a QSuite cannot offer as much space as a typical first class seat can.

All in all, business class is about functionality and, as its name suggests, about being able to get business done (whether that means working onboard or landing at your destination after a comfortable sleep). First class, on the other hand, adds a touch of luxury to that.

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