Several years ago I wrote an article about whether BA's Club Europe was worth spending your Avios. It got me thinking in more general terms, in particular whether flying short haul business class is worth it.
Since most airlines of the modern era now make business class seats barely distinguishable from economy class in short haul, and with the boom of the low cost carrier industry, the automatic reaction is to think it is all a waste of money.
I tried to think this through last night and want to try and put forward my thoughts and argue who should and shouldn't think of going business class.
Things that you get with elite status, even if fly in economy
One of the biggest detractors from flying business class is that nearly all the ‘perks' are actually included with having some level of elite status. These are usually attained with Sapphire for Oneworld, Gold for Star Alliance, and Elite Plus for Skyteam. If your usual airline is not part of an alliance then it will be whatever they dictate!
Business class check in desk and fast track security
This is perhaps the one exception where a lower level of elite status will also get you this benefit but this can be quite a powerful one for saving time. Several airports will have long queues of economy travellers in the ‘standard' check in desks but have little if no queues for the premium desks plus security check. I allocate about 15-30 minutes of time benefit, whatever that time is worth to you, for this.
This compounds further if you are travelling to the airport by public transport which comes fairly infrequently say, every 30 minutes. It can mean the difference between taking an earlier or later train or bus, which brings my 15-30 minutes estimate to somewhere in the region of 45-60 minutes, give or take.
Free seat assignment
As long as it is not a middle seat I don't really care where I sit for short haul flights. There is one exception and that is where I have a tight connection and I will always select an aisle seat as close to the front of the plane as possible.
It is hard to assign a value here because of my indifference, but if I am able to make a tight connection (as opposed to waiting much longer for a less safe connection, or missing the flight entirely) then that will easily be worth hundreds of euros to me in time or money.
Extra baggage (but requires purchase of a non handbag-only fare)
Perhaps if you are a big shopper, moving house or a merchant who brings a lot of commercial goods then this will be of use to you, but even then you can pay the €30-50 extra for that one piece whenever you need it.
The caveat here is if you buy a hand-baggage only fare, most airlines will not give elite status customers the free baggage on top. So this benefit will have close to zero value if you always travel hand baggage only.
First to board
Unless you are trying to make a very tight connection, and even if your flight is very full with hand baggage, it probably will not be a life changer if your hand baggage ends up in the head 2 rows away from you. I'm still young and healthy with a good spring hence I place little to no value on this one.
Here is where I put a decent amount of value, which to some can be controversial. The lounge is an oasis for me where I can usually crack on with work or get some food and drink. Granted the food is not necessarily great quality but it fills the hole. If I want to arrive 3 hours in advance I am happy to work there until moments before boarding.
Value proposition here… 1-2 hour focussed work time, maybe 50% if lesser-focussed which I earn a little back through a few alcoholic drinks.
Things which you only get when you fly business class
Less volatility with price
Economy class fares are typically divided into 10+ ‘fare buckets'. These will typically start out at very cheap prices, €20 or so, and cap out at maybe €300 if you are lucky. The issue here is the huge variation of pricing due to ticketing restrictions: Monday-Thursday travel vs Friday-Sunday; minimum 3 days stay; minimum 7 days stay etc. Many of these restrictions are now gone due to competition from low cost carriers but the wide variety in pricing still exists.
In business class the prices are typically very stable. This gives the benefit of more time to decide whether to buy your flight or not, and to help with things like creating budgets for the trip. One thing to note is business class fares tend to favour buying round trip tickets compared to two one-way tickets, which economy class has had to abolish due to competition.
As mentioned in the introduction there is typically very little difference in seat design for short haul business class around Europe, hence no difference in leg room. It is much more pronounced in all other continents, but it's still sub-standard in Europe.
What you do get however is a blocked middle seat and therefore extra shoulder and arm room. It does make the whole experience more pleasant but it's not like it was a big struggle in economy class anyway.
What may make a difference is privacy. I very often work on my laptop during flights and always notice adjacent passengers with a drifting gaze and occasionally watch as I type. I'm lucky that there is not a huge amount of confidential work going on but this can be a big issue. Of course even in business class there is nothing to stop the person behind you watching what you do in between the seats, but at least this distraction does not happen so much
Usually 2 pieces included in the ticket price, or more pieces but with a heavier weight allowance. This is usually a deciding factor for me, as any extra baggage makes up a big part of the marginal expense between economy +2 bags vs. business class.
There is usually some form of onboard dining provided in business class. So after gorging in the lounge there is a second meal on board. I don't always enjoy what is being served, but not liking things going to waste I eat it anyway.
At least in economy class flights passengers can buy at least something on board.
Quicker to qualify for elite tier levels.
This may be the sole reason for many people to fly business class. As I pointed out in my Amsterdam to Jersey tier point run guide, you will often find someone who is flying in business class predominately to gain elite status for the next year.
It is REALLY hard to do statistical analysis on cost of Business vs Economy without access to a huge database, and ultimately this is driven by the competition on any particular route, but my rule of thumb is that business class tickets are 3-4 times more expensive than Economy Class. With the exception of a few anomalies, such as going in a real First Class cabin, the choice to fly business class will probably end up being determined by a sum of the marginal factors outlined above.
With exceptions for tier point running, For me if I know I can get at least 2-3 hours of profitable work done in the lounge or in the sky or both then I will go for the upgrade. What about everyone else though?
Who probably should fly business class?
Let's get the most obvious out of the way first.
- People who don't pay for their own flights, and the person paying allows it. (“Highest Class of Service” in the contract maybe?)
- People who are wealthy enough to afford it at whatever cost.
Who might get some benefit?
Non-elite status customers who nearly fall short of elite levels and want to qualify by upgrading themselves one or two flights per year. Since most companies have economy-only policies for all but long flights (my last employer had 4 hours which is extremely rare. If your employer allows business class travel it is usually 6-8hrs+), you may never have an intra-EU business class ticket allowed. But if you are marginally short of the requirements for elite status and it brings in the lounge, check-in and seat assignment benefits above, then I would reckon you are justified in buying the occasional business class ticket.
Once-in-a-while travellers who do not have elite status but have some extra disposable cash and want to enjoy themselves a bit more. Gaining all the benefits of lounge, baggage, meals etc. but would otherwise not receive in economy class. It would not be fair for me to judge what you should or should not do with that cash otherwise.
Who will definitely see no benefit, or should think twice before buying.
Occasional leisure travellers who definitely should be saving the odd hundred euros here and there to build some wealth. Business class travel is definitely not cheap and if having the extra money is a better benefit, then don't fly business class.
And finally, those that think that flying business class as a form of social status. Pull your head out of your arse, thanks!
What do you think? Where do you see value in flying short haul business class, or do you see no value at all? I would love to hear from you!