Economy, business and first class seats: what’s the difference?

We break down the main differences between economy, business and first class seats so you can see how much bang you get for your buck

The view to the right. Ever wondered what the left is like?

Category Tips & tricks

Date 28th January 2016

It’s fair to say that most of us make do with economy class, also known as coach, standard or, more endearingly “cattle class”. If we’re honest, that’s just how things will be unless we get lucky (find out how you can bag an upgrade here). But it’s not that bad, right? After all, we all end up in the same place, and things have gotten a lot better in recent years. You know, unless you’re stuck on an old aircraft with virtually no leg room, one overhead TV for the whole row and next to a toddler who’s throwing his first of many tantrums. But it’s not that bad …

To prove it, we’re going to run through what you get for your money for your typical economy, business, and first class tickets. We’ll even take a look at those premium economy seats that are all the rage. The first and most important thing to remember is that all seat specs and luxuries (or lack thereof), depend on what airline you’re flying with, what airplane you’re on, and if you’re on a short or long-haul flight.

Economy class

Kiss your knees goodbye
Kiss your knees goodbye

Do we need to dwell on economy? Generally speaking, you’ll get a seat, in a plane, that takes you from A to B. That said, there are some differences, the most noticeable of which are seat width and pitch (legroom). Pitch can vary from 28” to 34”, and width from 17” (cozy!), to 33”. While these few inches might not seem like much now, when you’re in that seat for 6+ hours – they matter! Other factors that may vary are power outlets, Wi-Fi, amenity bag, food, in-flight entertainment, type of TV screen and level of service.

Some airlines now have their in-flight services built into touch screens. All you have to do is enter your card details, add the food or items you want to your basket, and cabin crew will deliver your purchases directly to your seat.

Extra info: Air New Zealand has a unique economy feature called Skycouch. A row of three seats can be easily converted into a flat bed, large enough to fit two adults lying down. If it’s just two of you flying, you can purchase the third seat to make up the full row for half price. Genius!

Premium economy class

A little more legroom and a TV. Worth the extra?
A little more legroom and a TV. Worth the extra cash?

To get things off to a suitably confusing start, premium economy is called different things. While Air Canada calls it Premium Economy, Virgin America calls it Main Cabin Select, British Airways uses the term World Traveller Plus and SAS call it SAS Plus. But it’s all the same thing: economy with some added oomph. And added cost, of course. That said, it’s not anywhere near as much as business class airfares.

If you’re lucky, your extra cash will give you a dedicated lounge at the airport, and the seats will be in a different cabin to economy. Usually, you’ll get a wider seat with a greater pitch, larger TV screens, better food (this could be a larger selection, complimentary drinks, etc.), and a greater baggage allowance. While this is the general rule, some airlines go all out. Virgin Atlantic offer a seat width of 21” with a pitch of 38”, power ports, priority boarding and baggage reclaim, choice of meal, dedicated toilet, pre-departure drink and post dinner liqueur, a dedicated amenity kit, and more. Phew.

So, is it worth it? Well, it all depends on the route, airline, and whether or not you really think those few extra inches and extra drink or meal will make the difference to your flight.

Extra info: Virgin Atlantic was actually the first airline to incorporate the concept of premium economy back in 1992.

Business class

Now we’re talking

They say that if you fly business class once, you’ll never be happy in economy again. While it might be hard to easily see the benefits of coughing up for premium economy over economy, the luxuries of business over premium economy are immediately apparent. It is – obviously – a completely different class.

Simply put: everything is better. From pre-flight drinks (in real glasses, obvs.), to meals served on real china with proper knives and forks (instead of those toy knock-offs back in economy), you’re spoiled rotten. Full flat-bed seats are the general standard for business class, with seat width going as wide as 34” and pitch all the way to 87”.

Some airlines offer a chauffeured pick-up and drop-off service if you live within a certain distance from the airport, and most – if not all – have a dedicated lounge in the airport where you can fill up on free food and drinks – but don’t drink too much … The gigantic A380, Emirates, never one to shy away from excess, has an entire bar on board exclusively for business class passengers. We’re not talking a fold down table in the galley – this is a proper, semi-circular, fully-stocked bar, serving hot and cold snacks and all the cocktails you can manage. What more could you want? Business class is in fact becoming so good, that many airlines have abandoned their first class seats altogether.

Extra info: the record time for a Paris to New York flight is held by the now obsolete Concorde. Clocking in at just 2 hours and 52 minutes, it was so fast that on flights to the west, it was possible to arrive at your destination at a local time that was earlier than when you left.

First class

Dream on ...
Dream on …

The pinnacle of air travel, first class travel is reserved for celebrities and the super-rich (and the super-lucky). Think all the perks from business, lathered with a ridiculously thick layer of luxury. However, aside from privacy, and seat size (bear in mind that many first class flights don’t so much have seats, as individual suites), there’s not that much they can do to make first stand out markedly from business. One noticeable difference is price, with seats costing up to five times as much as business class seats. Ouch.

So what do you get when you’ve spent a small country’s GDP on your ticket? Roomy seats for one thing (up to 32” wide with a max pitch of 92”!). The standard of service is incomparable, with highly trained crew able to anticipate passengers needs and not be phased by any celebrities they might encounter. The standard of food leaps up a notch up too, with many menus and dishes created by Michelin starred chefs.

Things get a little extravagant in the Emirates A380 (again), with a choice of two shower spas, which are essentially bathrooms – complete with heated floors. But nothing compares to Etihad’s A380. There, you can choose between three different first class suites, the most indulgent being The Residence – a three-room suite, comprised of a living room, bedroom (with double bed), and private bathroom (with shower, of course). What does it cost? Around $32,000 for a one-way ticket between New York and Abu Dhabi.

Extra info: In 1987, American Airlines saved an estimated $40,000, by removing one olive in each salad served in first class.

So there it is. You can now fly economy with full peace of mind, knowing that you’re not missing out on anything special … Right?

Don’t forget you can always check sites like SeatExpert to find out details about particular seats, on particular aircraft, with particular airlines. If you’re particular about these things. Alternatively, the airline’s site will have details regarding each of their classes and planes so you can read about it, and then book economy. Like everyone else.


Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out our 15 ways to accomplish your travel goals in 2016, and start your year off with a new booking.

Originally published

28th January 2016