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First Class Vs. Business Class: What’s The Difference?


A reader recently asked me what the difference is between first class and business class. While longtime OMAAT readers will likely know the difference right off the bat, it also occurred to me that the answer is a bit more nuanced than initially meets the eye. So in this post I wanted to provide a detailed answer of that question.

Why there’s confusion about first class vs. business class

It’s understandable that there’s confusion about the difference between first class and business class. Let me explain why in the form of an example.

This is a first class seat…

American Eagle Embraer E175 first class

…and this is also a first class seat.

Air France Boeing 777-300ER first class

This is a business class seat…

Lufthansa Airbus A320 business class

…and this is also a business class seat.

All Nippon Airways Boeing 777-300ER business class

Yeah, as you can tell, the terms “first class” and “business class” as such don’t tell you a whole lot about what to expect.

First class vs. business class is sometimes a matter of marketing

The way I view it, here’s what “true” first class is:

  • It’s a situation where an airline has a cabin above business class
  • More often than not, in these situations airlines often have four cabins — first class, business class, premium economy, and economy
  • First class cabins can typically be found on long haul international flights, and tickets can often cost five figures

But that’s not the only time you’ll see a flight marketed as offering first class. For example, when you travel within the United States, the forward-most cabin on most domestic aircraft is generally marketed as first class rather than business class, even though it’s a fairly mediocre product that doesn’t compete with long haul business class.

American Airlines’ Boeing 737 first class

Why is that? Well, ultimately different regions of the world seem to approach the marketing of premium cabins differently:

  • On flights within the United States that have just two classes of service, the forward-most cabin is typically marketed as first class
  • On international flights with just two classes of service, the forward-most cabin is typically marketed as business class
  • Interestingly on US airlines, the same seats that are marketed as first class on domestic flights are marketed as business class on short haul international flights

To sum this up as simply as possible:

  • Sometimes first class vs. business class is just a matter of marketing, as airlines in different parts of the world approach this differently
  • When most people talk about “real” first class, they’re referring to long haul international first class on a plane that also features a business class cabin; these are the cabins that feature incredibly elevated service, and are priced accordingly (these tickets can often cost $10,000+)

What differentiates “real” first class from business class

What makes long haul international first class better than long haul international business class? While there’s a huge amount of variance in terms of airline quality (in both first class and business class), I figured I’d cover some of the major differences that you’ll find between the two experiences.

For a more detailed look at some of these products, check out all of my flight reviews, plus my posts about the best first class airlines, the best first class lounges, the best business class seats, etc.

Below are what I consider to be the six biggest differences between “true” first class and business class, in no particular order (and again, there’s quite a bit of variance, so this is very broad).

The ground experience

For many airlines, the first class experience starts the moment you check-in. That’s especially true if you’re visiting one of the world’s best first class lounges.

The services offered on the ground to first class passengers by some airlines are truly impressive. For example, if you’re flying Air France first class out of Paris you can expect to be driven to your plane by car, and can enjoy an incredible a la carte dining experience in the lounge.

Be driven to your plane when flying Air France first class

While there are some great business class lounges out there, like the Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Lounge Doha and the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse London, I’ve never had a business class ground experience which I found to be truly personalized in the same way.

The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse is great, but not to the same level

The personal space

The most precious resource on a plane is space (well, perhaps after oxygen), and that’s something first class generally provides more of. The thing is, there are some great business class products out there nowadays which feature direct aisle access, and are arguably better than first class was 10 years ago. Qatar Airways’ Qsuites, for example, is one of my favorites.

Qatar Airways’ Qsuites is an amazing business class

However, the innovation when it comes to first class…



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