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Is flying first class a waste of money?

Is flying first class a waste of money?

The differences between the front of the plane and the back have never been starker. Here’s why you shouldn’t shell out

The differences between the front of the plane and the back have never been starker. Here’s why you shouldn’t shell out

Bill Ridgers | June 8th 2017

The maxim that “you get what you pay for” could have been coined for modern air travel. Never has the metaphorical distance between the front and back of a plane felt so gaping. Today’s economy-class passengers overwhelmingly choose their flights on the basis of price, with little regard for the level of service they receive. Even as we moan that airlines are squeezing more seats into cattle-class, few of us click onto the second page of a Skyscanner search to find something more convivial. In becoming more stingy, airlines are giving us exactly what we are asking for.

The same cannot be said of first-class flyers. Here, competition encourages airlines not to decrease prices, but to increase the level of pampering. The poshest customers offer the juiciest profits. On transatlantic flights, for example, premium cabins (including business class) account for just 13% of seats but half of revenue. Little expense is spared in the fight for that revenue.

But is the cost of sitting at the very front of the plane worth it? There are several ways to think about this. We calculated the price of flights between Heathrow and JFK on the first Monday of July, August and September (an expensive day to travel on an expensive route)*. To fly across the pond in economy cost, on average, $1,544. To travel first class was $10,735. So one approach is to ask whether the amenities in the former are seven times worse than the latter.

True, the differences are stark. Before the flight, first-class travellers dine in the finest lounges while the hoi polloi make do with sandwiches from Pret. Onboard, those at the front can convert their chairs into a flat bed, curl up under a duvet and quaff complimentary champagne. Even when upright, the seat pitch (the distance between any point of a seat, and the same point on the one in front) will be about 78 inches. Anyone who has both turned left when boarding a flight and squeezed into a 31-inch pitched seat, will not need telling that life is different at the back of the plane.

However, quantifying that difference is subjective. So we might also say that the value of a service is related to the income of the person buying it (a $10,000 fare seems more reasonable to a millionaire than someone on minimum wage). A British Airways jumbo flying the transatlantic route might have 345 seats. A little under 5% of those will be in first class. If the income spread on an American-bound 747 were similar to that of America as a whole (an admittedly simplistic assumption), then the median household income of those lucky flyers, the top 5% of earners, would be $241,000 – meaning they would have paid 4.5% of their income on a ticket. In comparison economy class flyers get a bargain, even when they’re paying to fly on a busy day. They spend just over 3% of median household income.

But there is an easier answer to the question. Put simply: a service is worth whatever a customer is prepared to pay for it. In recent years, business class has become ever posher. Today, it is easily equivalent to the first-class experience of a decade ago. Lie-flat beds are standard, the menu is created by renowned chefs and the lounges are welcoming. Hence, fewer passengers are willing to pay for the marginal benefits of flying first class. More airlines are re-configuring their cabins, ditching their poshest seats. Only two airlines, British Airways and American Airlines, now fly a first-class service between Heathrow and JFK, the route that once defined the glamour of the jet-age. Instead, carriers are squeezing in more premium-economy seats, pitched between business and coach. If customers are no longer willing to shell out for it, then by definition, first class is not worth the money.

* Direct flights on American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic

5 Readers' comments

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petiar - June 13th 2017

I guess it's just different point of view for rich people and not so rich people. Where I decide between flying economy or business/first, rich people decide between first class and private jet.

Idaho Tom - June 11th 2017

The issue isn't whether or not first class is worth it, the issue is who pays for it. If the company is paying for the flight, the traveler doesn't care about price. I know many business executives that wouldn't bat an eye at a $10,000 flight if the company is paying for it, but will pinch every penny when traveling on their own dime.

suzy Crawford - June 9th 2017

Trans Atlantic flights on major dependable airlines now cost approx 800 Euro in economy (one-way) from Europe to eastern cities in North America. Business class tickets on these same flights usually cost approx 1,200-1,5000 Euro (one way) . I pay for my tickets myself . The extra amenities and services flying Business awards me are well worth what I pay for them.

Frankly - June 9th 2017

Ben's comment that transatlantic flights are not even remotely representative of the American population - reminds me of a difference with the sometimes-presumed-similar Australian population - who by their lack of shared land borders and very distance from neighbouring countries tend to see long distance air travel (e.g. gap year to the motherland England) as a rite of passage for young people. So - while Americans may balk in horror at the thought of 10 hour flights, as an Australian I consider that relatively short - recently Dallas to Sydney was nearly 17 hours non-stop. And who is taking cheap flights - I was surprised when I took a local cheap flight to our Gold Coast that whole families with many kids were completely relaxed about getting on the flight as like 'we do this every weekend' - I have also spoken to 6yo kids who've told me they're already been to London, Hong Kong, 6 overseas countries - and they're still in primary school ! But yeah - I have read that most US folk do not have a passport - so tend to be surprised when they are told they need one to travel overseas ...

ben - June 8th 2017

What an atrocious article. The point that it costs that much because people are willing to pay it is mentioned at the end as if it were a great reveal that answers the question in the title. Not only does it not, the conclusion being a paraphrasing of "price is where supply and demand meet" is at best reminiscent of a B+ level high school paper - not The Economist. The body of the text itself is no better. Suggesting quantifying whether you get 7 times as much out of a first class seat then dismissing the idea because it is subjective is absurdly amateurish. As is moving on to a comparison of income distribution and seat distribution that makes no sense. Since when are people flying on transatlantic flights even remotely representative of the American population? Why not mention this, and why not mention that the average American flying overseas is much wealthier than the population at large? And most importantly, why not mention that a large number of First Class seats are not booked by individuals, but by companies for their VIP guests, celebrities, or senior management. $10,000 on a ticket is a lot less unreasonable for a company pulling millions in profit than an individual. This is The Economist? Written by the business-education editor of The Economist? For shame. Absolutely unbelievable.