Business Class: Here's What You're Paying For

by  Laura Motta | Nov 25, 2014
Plane in sky
Plane in sky / AlexeyPetrov/iStock

Flying business class on the world’s top-rated long-haul airlines (think Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad…) isn’t exactly an inexpensive proposition. Round-trip flights on any of these airlines to their respective home airports in Asia can run you more than $8,000. An economy-class ticket on these same flights can run you between $1000, with a good sale, to $1500 -- significantly less. So why the markup?

The answer isn’t so cut-and-dry. You can’t just add up the cost of the extra amenities offered in business class and come up with a concrete value comparison. For example, what’s the exact dollar value difference of flying in a basic economy class seat versus a business class, lie-flat bed? Is it $300? Perhaps $400? Exactly how much is your comfort worth?

I recently had the somewhat outrageous opportunity to fly halfway around the world -- and almost immediately back -- in order to assess the value of comfort in flight. Qatar Airways, one of Star Trax’s 5-star-rated airlines, hosted me on a trip that lasted just 33 hours: 13 in the air in each direction between New York and Doha, Qatar, plus seven in the Doha airport.

If this sounds ridiculous… well, it was. But the airline’s point was clear: Even the most seemingly uncomfortable travel circumstances can be made entirely, lavishly comfortable with a (simple?) upgrade. As for what it's all worth? Here’s an attempt at a breakdown.

On the flight...

This is not a mountain of suspiciously solid mashed potatoes in a lump on the bottom of a tinfoil tray -- which is, of course, the exact sort of meal you’d see in economy, especially on U.S.-based carriers. We’re talking meals designed by Nobu Matsuhisa and Tom Aikens, and Laduree desserts, all of it served on actual china. The hummus is fresh. The chicken is grass-fed. But more, there’s something else that sets business class dining apart: You can eat whenever you want, and in whatever order you want. It sounds like a small thing, but to have this flexibility, and to time your meals around your hunger and how you’re feeling (or your sleep schedule), can massively improve your mood on a flight.

Actual dollar value: A meal in an upscale restaurant can cost $50-$100 per person.

Un-assignable value: Being able to control exactly when, and how much you eat.

Some carriers -- even the dreaded domestically based ones -- include beer and wine on long-haul itineraries for economy-class fliers. But your choices more or less end with red or white. Qatar offers a host of premium spirits in business class on an unlimited basis. Assessing the value here is fairly simple, and it’s directly tied to how much you drink.

Actual dollar value: Six glasses of Taitigner rose champagne, three for each leg of the trip or about a bottle -- not that I drank that much, except, OK, I did -- would cost about $250 retail.

Un-assignable value: Avoiding a hangover entirely by drinking high-quality champagne on a flight

Not many airlines offer pajamas to business class fliers. (Another one of our favorite airlines, Eva Air, does.) It’s probably worth mentioning that since returning from this trip, I’ve worn the pajamas. In my own home. So these aren’t embarrassing, fire-hazard-material pajamas. They’re nice.

Actual dollar value: Let’s assume $50 per pair totaling $100 – remember, you’ll get one set for each leg of the trip.

Un-assignable value: Not having to sleep in your jeans, or your suit. Which means that you might actually sleep -- quite comfortably.

Amenity Kits & Extras
There are Godiva chocolates, fleece eye masks, socks, earplugs, slippers, as much bottled water as you wish, toothbrushes and toothpaste, newspapers and magazines, razors, and noise-canceling headphones (though the last item remains on the plane). You’ll get a separate pouch with Ferragamo moisturizer, lip balm, and perfume -- which means no more digging around a bottomless bag for your lip balm, mid-flight, in low light.

Actual dollar value: Tough to gauge, but let's say that the Ferragamo amenity bag is a $30 value with the other goodies adding up to $30 more. (This is given that you: drink two bottles of water, $8; brush your teeth twice with two different toothbrushes, $6; eat four Godiva chocolates, $9; read two newspapers, $5; and use the earplugs, $2.) Throw in another $30 for two pairs of slippers and socks, plus $10 for the eye mask, and you’re up to $100 in small but stylish extras.

Un-assignable value: Again, did we mention that you get chocolate? And that the eye mask is fleece?

Lie-Flat Bed With Linens
The concept of “legroom” on these flights is moot; you’ll be dealing with bodyroom instead, and there’s plenty of it. You can lie flat, recline halfway, put your feet up, and sleep on actual sheets -- with a full-size pillow and a comforter. Need to move around the cabin? Stand up and walk. There are no awkward excuse-mes, no bumping into your neighbor's knees. The clincher? The design of the business class seats on Qatar Airways includes a footrest that doesn't slide into the seat in front of it. So you won't have that disturbing coffin-y sensation that you'll experience on other business class flights.

Actual dollar value: Impossible to calculate. This type of seat is the difference between a cramped neck and a sleepless night in very close quarters, and more rest that you might get at home in your own bed.

Un-assignable value: Having so much room to move that you actually forget that you have a seat mate.

Before the return...

Use of the Qatar Airways Business Class Lounge in Doha
Whether you’re looking to socialize with (another) glass of champagne by the bar, have dinner at the buffet (curry lamb skewers, hummus, grilled shrimp), or order food a la carte, you can do it in Qatar’s new flagship business lounge. You can also settle into one of the semi-private “nests” where you can read or chat with your travel companions without fear of interruption. There are also whisper-quiet prayer rooms, showers, rooms with kids’ games and toys, and even special family areas. And did we mention that all of this comes complete with soaring ceilings, curvy modern furniture, fountains, and a spiral staircase? If the business lounge doesn’t offer enough rest and relaxation for you, the airport is also home to a boutique hotel that offers rooms by the hour for sleepy long-haul fliers. Perhaps more importantly, it also has a full-service spa and a heated pool, both of which can be used for a fee without actually checking in.

Actual dollar value: Add another $100 per person for dinner and drinks.

Un-assignable value: A shower after a 13-hour flight, a few quiet minutes with a book in a comfortable chair, an hour of peace -- away from other passengers -- with a fussy baby. When you’re flying long distance, it’s the little things that count. Champagne, as it turns out, also counts.

The reckoning...

Based on the most rudimentary calculations, you’re getting about $600-$800 in concrete extras by flying business class. But there’s another major component of flying business class that has no cash value -- service. Flight attendants in business class on Qatar Airways know your first and last name. They whisk away your jacket, out of sight, before you even sit down, then whisk it back to you, wrinkle-free, minutes after the flight lands. They are happy to explain dinner for nearly as long as dinner actually lasts. They are not outwardly amused, and actually make moves to help you, when it’s clear that you can’t reach the overhead compartment. (Yes, it’s happened to me.) And that’s where the cost comes from. If you weren’t planning a trip to Qatar -- and I definitely wasn’t planning such a short one, ever -- this key difference might be enough to make you consider it.

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