Flying business class is not the same as first class

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Update, Sept. 30, 2014: Derek Low uses his airline points (a lot of them) to fly superduper first class on Singapore Airlines, which offers compartments furnished with a double bed. Yes, a double bed. Plus plenty of good food. And many other things. (That's 23,000 Singapore dollars, roughly 20,200 Canadian dollars):  What It's like to Fly the $23,000 Singapore Airlines Suites Class

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When politicians get into trouble for inappropriate travel spending, the news stories often mention that they travelled in business class, or even, if they have been particularly self-indulgent, first class.

What is this business class that they speak of? And first class? For many of us, it’s foreign territory, the cost too wince-inducing to even consider. 

For an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Toronto, about 4.5 hours non-stop, you might pay $300 to $400 one way in economy for a ticket bought weeks in advance. It’s $1,800 to $2,000 for business class, about six times as much. The five-to-six-times multiple seems to be the ballpark for many airlines when you compare economy and business class fares.

For the price difference, you get space that’s roughly the equivalent of three economy seats, but in a nicer chair that reclines to flat, plus privacy screens, table and food. On an Air Canada Boeing 777, business class usually has five or six seats in a row, versus 10 in economy.

Based on space alone, the business class price for the Vancouver-Toronto flight should be around $1,000. But that’s not how it works. There’s the extra cost of pampering, with meals and more attendants per passenger. And, as the airlines have discovered, many people are willing to pay more for extra comfort and service. There seems to be enough demand to sustain the price.

For an even more luxurious experience, there’s first class, which isn’t offered by any scheduled Canadian airline, probably because there aren't enough super-rich people living here. Foreign airlines have pushed first class into stratospheric territory and leaves business class looking rather ordinary. 

On Lufthansa, a flight from Vancouver to Johannesburg, South Africa can cost $1,000  to $2,300 one-way in economy for an advance ticket, $4,400 to $6,000 in business and $8,600 to $10,000 in first class.

For people who pay for first class, there's a limousine ride to and from the airport, personal assistants to smooth the way, access to a special airport lounge that offers fancy meals, plus private washrooms. On the plane, there's high-end food and drink, served when you want it. A Lufthansa Airbus A330-300 is usually configured with four seats per row in first class; it’s six per row in business and eight in economy. On some airlines, first class is a compartment all to yourself.

Many companies have rules prohibiting employees from flying in business class, let alone first class. The B.C. government also frowns on business class travel, and seems to assume that first class wouldn't even be considered. According to a Hansard transcript, Finance Minister Mike De Jong said this to the legislative assembly management committee in January: “I’ve directed the ministers that they’re not to fly business class. . . . There are always exceptions. If we’ve got someone representing us and they need to arrive after nine or ten hours on an airplane, I guess they have to get as much rest as they can. . . . But it is one of those things where if we’re trying to demonstrate some leadership on cost-cutting, it really should be, in my view, the absolute exception.”

How do you justify to taxpayers and shareholders that it’s OK to pay six times more?

The typical rationale is that business people, or politicians, need extra space to work, and need to be well-rested and sharp when they arrive to negotiate those big deals. Being crammed into economy for a long flight is not conducive to high performance.

A friend who flies much, much more than me, and who has studied the ways of air travel points, guesses that around half the people in your typical business class have paid full fare. He has relatives who regularly fly business class and pay full fare because they have the money and want the comfort. Other people upgrade using travel points. Frequent travellers on a particular airline might get an upgrade when there are spare seats just before takeoff. My friend is among that group, hoping to hear his name called as he waits in the boarding lounge.

An unexpected, unpaid upgrade has happened to me a total of once, on the outbound leg. I felt very hemmed in on the return in economy. It would have been better the other way around.

My frequent-traveller friend says discounted business class seats are often offered when you check in online during the 24 hours before departure. In the boarding lounge, some airlines will announce that discounted business class seats are available.

You can occasionally spot a deal, where the multiple for a business class seat is closer to three or four times the economy price, instead of six.

For me, the price gap is just too big to consider. I would probably feel the same way if I had a few million more dollars. Maybe.

One work-around that’s within reach if you’re a budget traveller yearning for extra legroom is paying a fee to sit in an exit or bulkhead row in the economy section. The  fee is typically around $50 for a cross-Canada flight, around $130 for an international one. 

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