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I Am Going to Respectfully Disagree with Those Who Have a First Class Seat Fetish

About 10 days ago I flew business class (paid!) from Newark to Amsterdam on Continental for a work trip. Continental offers the best nonstop business class product on that route, with lie-flat seating now available on all of its 757-200s.

I fly to Amsterdam a few times a year for work, and because I’m a dork I’ve mixed up the airlines I fly just to keep it interesting (in the past year and a half I’ve flown to Amsterdam on Continental, KLM, SAS, Swiss, LOT, and Lufthansa). I know that there are many, many folks out there who savor every part of the premium cabin experience, analyzing/scrutinizing/appreciating every aspect, from lounges to service, to seat to food to in-flight entertainment. God bless them. Here’s the thing: I don’t get it at all.

I think the issue is this: Premium class is basically defined by what it is not; it is not coach.

If the airlines were being honest with themselves, they would say that premium class offers you a much, much better seat than coach. And that’s about it. I’m not going to discount that, because it is quite valuable. You can sit comfortably or (even better) actually get a night’s sleep. Great. But I think this can best be discussed in a pretend Q&A:

Q: What about all of the other stuff people write about in trip reports when they fly up front? Take lounge access, for instance. Doesn’t that count for anything?

A: No. No it doesn’t. Lounge access? You can buy that for $400 a year or get it for free if you’re Gold Elite on Star Alliance. Or you can buy a day pass for $50 on many airlines.

Q: I’ve seen trip reports with 25 photos of the meal in first class. That must be great, no?

A: Upgraded food? Seriously. It’s airline food. You can arrange it on a plate in a pretty way, but let’s be honest with ourselves: if it was served to you in a restaurant you would be upset. If they keep it basic, it can be perfectly OK. You know what else is perfectly OK? When I buy a sandwich at the airport before I fly (even when I fly up front), because that sandwich is better than whatever they’re serving in business class. Really, it is.

Q: But the service on Singapore Airlines must be worth something right?

A: Sure, I guess. Is it worth $10,000? No.

Q: Some of those new suites look pretty awesome. Even you can’t pooh-pooh those, can you?

A: Here’s my issue: Sure, for airplane seats they’re great. But compared to any other seat in the entire world, it’s horrible. The couch I’m sitting on in my living room right now typing this is more comfortable and larger than any seat in any class on a commercial aircraft. That’s why I say that premium class seating is great because it is not a coach seat. However, if comparing it to “seats” then no, it’s not a great seat. Or a great bed. Hell, a rollaway cot in a Holiday Inn is more comfortable than an airline seat/bed.

Q: No it’s not.

A: Yes it is, please stop kidding yourself. I’ve used this quote from the Simpsons in the past, but I’ll use it again here:

Milhouse’s Dad, talking about his bed in the apartment he now has after separating from his wife: I sleep in a racing car, do you?
Homer: I sleep in a big bed with my wife.

My point: maybe the racing car bed is cool, but it’s not as cool as the real thing (a bed with your wife). Perhaps an airline bed/suite/seat thingy is cool, but it’s not as cool as actually just sitting in a seat. That’s where I don’t get the fetish. The seat and the food are only better than coach; they are not better than an actual seat or actual food.

Q: You’re kind of a party pooper aren’t you? I mean, you have a weird affinity for airline liveries.
A: Yes I do. Because those color schemes are cool on their own merit. It’s not just a not-as-good version of something else.

Q: So you’re saying the whole premium cabin experience is a complete waste?
A: I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that a lie-flat bed is much, much, much better than a coach seat. If given the option, of course I’ll take the lie-flat bed. I’m not an idiot.

Q: Yes, you a–
A: No I’m not. I’m just saying that the other stuff has no value. A glass of champagne on takeoff? A pair of airline pajamas? A buffet in the lounge? Do those things really have any value? You could put a dollar amount on the totality of the premium cabin experience (outside of the ability to sleep) and it would come to less than $100.

Q: So where is there value?
A: I have twin 5 year olds. I place a ton of value in being left alone to read for 9 hours in a comfortable seat (at home I rarely get 9 minutes to read). That’s what I like about sitting up front. But I’d also like that about sitting on a bus if I had 9 hours of quiet.

Q: Thanks, Debbie Downer.
A: You’re welcome.

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  1. It’s funny, I got to fly BA Business Class last year, my first time in a premium cabin. The seat was totally worth it, but the food wasn’t much better. I did like the lounge though, I had my dinner there instead of on the plane so I could sleep.

    I agree that the pre-departure drink, and the fancy place setting are overrated. But if you read Dale Carnagies: How To Win Friends And Influence People, then you realize that the little bit of extra money just makes people feel important. That often buys you more then the money otherwise would.

  2. Avi Greengart

    Is it OK if we fetishise seat pitch and width?

  3. Yes. You can fetishize seat width. Like Sir-Mix-A-Lot did.

  4. You forgot to mention that if you fly premium, you don’t feel as much like cattle getting herded and generally are better attended to than anyone in economy. That is something that people value and is hard to put a price on.

  5. Well, you probably know that I’m one of the seemingly few frequent flyers who agree with you on this. :???: As a lifetime CO plat, I’ve gotten my share of upgrades and flown up front many times on int’l flights.

    I think most travellers realize that domestic first class isn’t worth much. When I’m travelling with my kids, who are becoming teenagers, I usually give them my seat or seats up front if I can’t upgrade the whole family (they’re still like newbie flyers who thing first class is very cool). I’d be more reluctant to give away an int’l first class seat because that is, obviously, worth SOMETHING. But it’s not much. On int’l reward travel, I won’t pay twice the miles to sit up front. Partly for the novelty/geek factor, I’m usually willing to use 50% more miles for long flights (like Asia). If I did it all the time, I’d probably only be willing to pay a 25% premium.

    I’ve always thought that half the “first class fetish” was status. How else can you explain the first class and lounge food blog postings? Nobody would be willing to pay real money for this food. I’ve always thought that many folks like to fly up front for the same reason people drive Mercedes and such. I’ve driven a fair number of Mercedes and they’re really just cars. First class airline seats are just airline seats. With a little more comfort and a lot more status.

  6. Actually I disagree. With JAL F seat by Tempurpedic, you have more ergonomic support than your at home office chair ;)

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