While it’s hard to deny that the in-flight experiences of economy and business class are often marred with unexpected difficulties — from a man urinating all over business class to a disgusting sock-stuffed seat, from a woman being publicly weighed in the airport to a hostess being beaten with an in-flight phone — that doesn’t necessarily mean that a costly upgrade to first class is the air-travel utopia that so many have cracked it up to be. In fact, it might just be the biggest scam in the industry…
The age-old question persists: is first class truly worth the exorbitant price tag? For those of you with shorter attention spans who may not feel like reading this article in its entirety, much of my argument is aligned with and can be nicely summarised by Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who believes that the answer is a resounding “no”. Al Baker believes that the allure of first class is losing its sheen, especially when business class now offers many of the same amenities and perks that were once exclusive to the privileged few.
WATCH: First Class certainly isn’t immune from Mother Nature’s unwanted interventions…
The debate surrounding the relevance of first-class experiences has recently been brought to the forefront of this writer’s mind thanks to divergent opinions within the airline industry itself. While Carsten Spohr — CEO of Lufthansa — argues that there is still a demand for the luxurious first-class experience, Al Baker contends that the investment in opulent first-class seating does not yield sufficient returns from a business point of view, especially considering the lavish amenities already offered in business-class cabins, saying this:
“Why wouldn’t you invest in a subclass of an airplane that already gives you all the amenities that first class gives you? I don’t see the necessity.”Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways CEO
Indeed, modern business class has undergone a transformation, offering game-changing levels of additional space, superior service, and enhanced comfort compared to the cramped confines of economy seats. Airlines, recognizing the value of catering to the business class traveller, have upped their game to meet the demands of this lucrative market segment.
All of this is to say that I’m not arguing against an elevated travel experience per se — and, even if I was, it would be a song falling on deaf ears, as airlines are booked months in advance for their business class cabins, such is the level of demand — rather I’m arguing that first class offers very little by way of a meaningful step up from business, considering its massively stepped-up price tag.
Given that cost is, for most people, the first major consideration when booking any kind of trip, that seems a sensible place to start: First-class tickets can be significantly more expensive than their economy counterparts, particularly on international flights. As reported on Nerd Wallet in April 2023, a search revealed that an economy ticket from Los Angeles to Paris was priced at $1,180 USD, while the cost of an upgrade to Air France’s spectacular La Premiere product soared to over $18,600 USD, making it more than fifteen times more expensive.
While ultimate the decision to splurge that kind of money on a seat upgrade does lie entirely with the individual in question — it’s your money, spend it however recklessly you like — and there is an argument to say that the tactical use of air miles or points can help to alleviate some of that massive markup, what we really need to consider is exactly what you’re getting for that price tag: is the product and service you receive really fifteen times as good as that offered in economy? Or even twice as good as that offered in business class?
If we scrutinize what first-class purports to offer, it becomes clear that the markup isn’t really for better food, drinks, or even a better seat; though all of these things are, arguably, marginally improved on business class, what you’re really paying for in first class is an increased level of privacy, whether that be a fully enclosed seat with sliding door or even a private toilet and shower.
Even before you board, you’re likely going to be entitled to airport lounge access, expedited security lines, and fast-track immigration processes. Once again, however, not only does business class offer many if not all of these services already, but isn’t the feeling of exclusivity that these services give you simply that: a feeling?
What first class tries to do is offer a faux-privatisation of a highly public experience — your line might be shorter, but you can’t avoid check-in, security, immigration and the like, you have to endure it just like the great unwashed in economy — and does so at a much higher price point than business class which is attempting to do precisely the same thing.
The final reason that many people give for “needing” to go first class is the length of the flight, but even the allure of taking first class on so-called “ultra long haul flights” loses its appeal when we really break this idea down. As reported by RACV, Qantas — Australia’s national airline — plans to operate non-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to New York City and London from late 2025. This opinion might ruffle a few feathers, but my hot take is this: that isn’t really very long.
What do I mean by that? Well, for the sake of simplicity let’s assume, boldy, that a first class trip from Sydney to London costs the same as the aforementioned LA-Paris trip, around $20,000 USD (in reality, it would probably cost a great deal more). That would equate to a thousand dollars per hour in the air; is there any other experience on earth for which a regular person would want, or be asked, to spend such an eye-watering hourly rate? I reckon not.
The final sting in the tail of all this is that while first class tries to flog you an illusion of privacy or a simulation of the hyper-luxurious lifestyle of the “1%”, the cold hard truth is that the real 1% will be travelling in private jets because that is the kind of privacy that true wealth can afford you. The tens of thousands of dollars that airlines are asking from you and I to travel first class is a cheap mock-up of that experience… and one that you’re paying through the eyes for while airlines laugh all the way to the bank.