Why Are Australians Obsessed With Business Class? Because They’re Obsessed With Being Middle Class

Why Are Australians Obsessed With Business Class? Because They’re Obsessed With Being Middle Class

Image: Virgin

We’ve looked at the data, and it’s clear that Australians are obsessed with business class when compared to their British and American counterparts… but why?

For all the business class horror stories that you might see floating around the internet, and which we can’t deny a certain fondness for ourselves β€” take a look at this tale of a man urinating all over his business class cabin or the “coffin seats” to avoid at all costs as prime examples β€” you might be surprised to hear that Aussies are still absolutely obsessed with business class… but why?

At this point it’s important to clarify what I mean by this: I don’t mean that Australians are any more interested in premium and luxury travel than other holidaying nations per se. Rather, Australians are specifically interested in business class travel over and above first-class travel when compared to their American and UK counterparts, who both seem to hold first-class in higher esteem. Moreover, this isn’t a short-term trend: this has been the pattern for a number of years.

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But before we get into the potential reasons for this phenomenon, it’s well worth looking at the data to see how I came to this conclusion and, more importantly, just how pronounced this difference is. The graph below shows pretty conclusively that β€” with the exception of the COVID-19 pandemic which naturally saw interest in all types of travel massively decline β€” Australians have been significantly more interested in searching for information about business class travel than they have been with first class.

If we compare and contrast this to the same time period in the United States, the difference becomes clear: where Australians have been consistently more interested in business class travel, Americans are quite the opposite, showing a prolonged and uninterrupted preference for first class over business class. While these graphs only show data from the past five years, a quick search will show that this point of difference has not only stood firm but become progressively more pronounced for well over a decade now.

Let’s zoom in on this data a little further. You could quite rightly call out the above graphs for flattening the data to cover the respective nation-states as whole entities, without showing any consideration for differences within those nations. You could take that thought further and ask whether these variances in interest are localised to certain parts of those countries, perhaps those with higher incomes or a greater prevalence of “old” money who may be more accustomed to the luxuries of first-class… but the data once again paints a surprisingly clear picture:

In every single Australian state, business class trumps first class for volume of interest online. Contrastingly, in every single US state, first-class trumps business class. So, we can deduce that this really is a difference of nations rather than a difference of socioeconomic breakdown within either nation. For the sake of proving that Australia really is the outlier in this regard, it’s worth noting that the UK’s pattern is almost identical to that of the US: first class is of much greater interest than business class.

So, finally, we arrive at the question posed at the outset: why are Aussies so obsessed with business class versus comparable countries? To cut a long story short, I think it has a lot to do with notions of national identity. Specifically, notions of class that Australians hold dear to their heart. To make a bold but useful generalisation, let’s assume that first, business, and economy cabins map onto the tripartite class system: upper, middle, and working class…

Running with that theory provides some illumination: Australians have consistently shown that they are obsessed with the notion of being middle class. A Vice article from 2014 contains data showing that 93% of surveyed Aussies identify as middle class; a statistic that completely undermines the notion of representing the “middle” at all. A Reddit thread from earlier this year picks up on the same idea, with users suggesting that part of the reason high-income Australians may “downplay” their wealth is because of the infamous “tall poppy syndrome” which has dogged Australia for generations.

WATCH: In fairness to Aussies, First Class isn’t always heaven on earth.

So, it seems that Australians are obsessed with business class because they’re obsessed with being middle class. If you compare this to the US or β€” even more so β€”with the UK, we could pose the theory that the longer histories of those nations along with their deeply entrenched and more hierarchical class systems lead to their residents venerating upper-class-coded first class seats; Australians, in contrast, have a shorter history and pride themselves on a much flatter class system, leading to heightened interest in middle-class-coded business class.

Of course, this is just a theory drawn from one set of data. While it seems to align with wider trends in the industry, such as the Emirates CEO scrapping first class cabins altogether in favour of expanding more popular business class cabins, it also conflicts with the recent surge in first class bookings among the Australian elite. As with so many things, we’ll leave this up to our dear readers to mull over and investigate further…

For now, this emigre travel writer would like to make it clear that he holds no prior prejudices β€” business and first are both fine by me, should anyone feel that this theory demands in-flight testing by an independent third-party…

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