Why Flying First Class “is a Waste of Money”

There are several different kinds of frequent flyers.

  • Aviation geeks. Just love planes, and all things aerospace.

  • Luxury value seekers. Points and elite status are tools to enjoy travel to the fullest, without paying full price.

  • Lowest price travelers, seek to get travel at the lowest possible cost and doesn’t understand spending more miles for a premium cabin ticket or why a suite would matter. Breakfast may be free with status, but breakfast is just coffee and a pastry anyway and who spends time in a hotel room?

American Airlines Flagship Check-in Los Angeles

These groups don’t understand each other, and often the second and third type in particular thinks the other is just wrong. They’re trying to maximize different things, because they have different subjective preferences.

The Economist too takes a stab at reconciling this debate and offering a single conclusion by looking at economy class and premium economy travel and declares first class a waste of money. Only they too completely muddle the argument.

We calculated the price of flights between Heathrow and JFK on the first Monday of July, August and September (an expensive day to travel on an expensive route)*. To fly across the pond in economy cost, on average, $1,544. To travel first class was $10,735. So one approach is to ask whether the amenities in the former are seven times worse than the latter.

Several times they seem to conflate business and first class. On the one hand,

premium cabins (including business class) account for just 13% of seats but half of revenue. Little expense is spared in the fight for that revenue.

However the piece concludes that paying for a premium seat isn’t worth it because “fewer passengers are willing to pay for the marginal benefits of flying first class” so “airlines are re-configuring their cabins” without a first class cabin.

“People won’t pay for first class” (really, there’s less demand for first class) but this doesn’t mean that economy is the better deal, the piece acknowledges that business class has gotten substantially better and accounts for a significant portion of revenue across the Atlantic.

In any case, labels don’t always tier to the relevant products (British Airways first is often considered a good business class, and their business is inferior to American’s and Delta’s but they also frequently discount it heavily).

British Airways Business Class

So are the amenities of business class worth the price tag? Lounge access isn’t worth the multiple over coach, even if it’s a nice lounge. Of course there are other less expensive ways to unbundle and access an airport lounge.

However lounge access is merely a piece of the value proposition: eat before boarding, go to sleep immediately on a short East Coast to London flight, have a quick bite and shower in the arrivals lounge before heading straight to the office.

The piece’s contention that airlines ‘spared no expense’ is also wrong or United would give out pajamas on flights under 13 hours and the wine would be better on most airlines.

Business class is a careful optimizing — United chose a very dense business class configuration in Polaris, and is slow rolling it because of cost (production and also what it means to pull planes out of service for retrofit)

Demand for first class may be less than it was before business class became a fully flat bed with direct aisle access on many carriers, and companies began cutting back, however the relevant question for the first class flyer isn’t “what’s the premium over coach?” (“gosh, I would never pay that!”) but rather “how does the cost compare to flying private?” Paid first class often involves trading down and going commercial (an economizing measure!).

EVA Air Business Class

Personally I love premium cabins using miles but those are left over (spoiling) products sold opaquely at a deep discount via the mileage program. And I have lots of miles, so I’m not facing a relevant tradeoff between spending more miles on one trip versus taking multiple trips.

I’d always rather get a great deal than a bad deal, there are often sub-$2000 business class roundtrip fares to Europe and even Asia. Not everyone can afford those but it’s a mistake to present the premium cabin as “seven times” more expensive than coach… especially when, if your plans are flexible, you can even buy miles if you need to.

(HT: Yana)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m sitting on a seven figure mile balance since work doesn’t allow a lot of time off as I have advanced in my career. I used to fly intl F on six trips a year several years ago, but that’s no longer the case with my work demands. I now find it more economical to buy business class fares when on sale (with premium cabin and elite bonuses) versus spending miles. It sucks that those miles will continue to devalue but I really can’t use them.

  2. I love how the Economist (and others) think it knows the value of anything to other people.

    I work 100-hour weeks running my company. The opportunity cost of my time in large. Travel is a exhausting under the best of circumstances and my productivity can be reduced for days after long and uncomfortable travel, resulting in foregone revenue. It’s completely worth it to me to pay $10K for a premium seat. It’s the difference between being a little tired from travel and completely exhausted. I’m in the minority, I get that, but it’s not as simple as amenities being worth thousands of dollars more. The question for me is if those amenities reduce the loss productivity that results in the loss of many more thousands of dollars.

    The opportunity cost is the real cost of anything.

  3. I think you could make the same comparison to hotels. Why stay at a $200 a night Hilton when you can stay across the street at the Super 8 for $60. The main difference would be that the more expensive the hotel the more nickel and dime compared to business on an airline.
    I also think the other type of frequent flyer is the corporate traveler. That is either restricted from business class or allowed business class on a corporate discount. You also have to weigh the trade off between being cheap. For example my company doesn’t allow domestic first class bookings so at times I’ll see those fares nearly the same in cost at times. So instead of free checked bags, free meal on the plane and being able to actually use my work laptop I buy the food in the airport, pay to check bags and can’t do any work on the plane. Silly.

  4. I tend to agree with Methinks. I work a lot and am not in my 20s anymore; long-haul travel in economy is uncomfortable and can have a high cost for me in terms of leaving me exhausted. Also, if I need to work on the plane, premium seats can well be justified because I can work comfortably and efficiently, as opposed to working on a laptop in cramped coach.

    While I cannot normally pay the international first class premium, I can usually pay a few hundred dollars more for domestic first class and sometimes do, especially if I need to work. However, most often, I choose the “happy medium” of extra legroom seats, which are comfortable enough and allow me to do some light, e-mail based work on my phone.

    It seems wise of airlines to sell domestic first class for a reasonable premium, since it makes it a realistic choice for people like me.

  5. Methinks gets it. Opportunity cost is real and it’s not just a travel thing. Not all hours are the same, nor do they all have the same value.

  6. …”one approach is to ask whether the amenities in the former are seven times worse than the latter.”

    I don’t know when this became popular as a descriptor, but I’d sure appreciate the elimination of this non-existent math construct. What the heck is “X times worse” when applied to a positive number? It’s correct when applied to a loss (losing 300 was three times worse than the expected 100 loss).

  7. Personally, my travel experience so far makes me conclude that I’ve never regretted even one dollar spent for seats up front. It’s worth it and I’m worth it. 🙂

  8. true long-haul first is definitely a luxury but long-haul business is a good way to reward myself a few times a year for all the hard work i put in (and much better when using the miles game). Being based in a major city definitely make award booking orders of magnitude easier since there’s no need to find that domestic connector (usually with non-existing inventory) to reach the long-haul hub.

  9. Even though we’re retired, and pay 100% of the cost of our travel, we still will pay to sit in F for domestic and C or J for long haul. My wife and I enjoy our comforts, and are willing to pay for them. At this stage of our lives, we’re charter members of the SKI (Spending our Kids Inheritance) Club.

  10. Flying long haul in F cabin is worth it – using miles in my case. I enjoy the space and less noise. Certain airports and airlines have their own F security area: LH in FRA and JAL in NRT. Quiet and much less stress.

  11. Nice post, Gary. But The Economist is so glib 95% of the time, so I dunno why I’d take them more seriously today than any other day.

    And here’s a funny thing. I fall into all three groups. Tomorrow I’m using Etihad miles to fly free on Brussels to Africa. Where I’ll bookend my stays using hotel points that were excellent redemption values, and I’ll enjoy upgrades due to status achieved thanks to you points and miles bloggers. But the middle of the trip is largely unplanned and I’ll just seek out places to stay wherever I wind up at the end of the day. That’s why rewards programs don’t like guys like me; I don’t fit nicely into any categories but I do know how to maximize value from participation. And I suspect The Economist really doesn’t understand the mentality of how to properly source and find best-price first class tickets. And I won’t even go into the weekend New York Times story about flying around the US for a week– it made for a nice Dickensian story, though.

  12. The person who wrote the Economist article does not know what they are talking about. Using their logic, why buy a BMW or Lexus when you can buy a Toyota? Why pay to stay at the Ritz Carlton when you can stay at Motel 6? etc., etc. It was just an Economist’s version of click bait.

  13. Premium cabin service is something of a luxury good — with perhaps more real value than most luxury goods (I’m looking at you, Prada handbag). I people didn’t overspend to be a little more comfortable, a little more fashionable, or a little bit more self-important, we wouldn’t have much of an economy. Overspending makes America great.

    Whether you want to overspend on luxury goods is a personal matter. Yes, it’s a bit frivolous, and a lot of the reasons don’t make much sense to me. (For example, from extensive personal experience, I don’t arrive at my destination “more refreshed” or “ready for business” when I fly upfront: indeed, on East Coast to Europe flights, I arrive less refreshed if I’m flying a good airline because I’ve overindulged on premium liquor and food). But he or she who dies with the largest bank account when they die doesn’t “win.” Spend your money if you have it, and want to.

  14. >i work 100 hours a week
    > i post on boarding area

    sure, and I’m the CEO of United

  15. OK. I’m in my 60s and retired; my wife, though still working, is close to my age. I have had one knee replacement, and it’s only a matter of time before the other one is. My wife broke her pelvis in an accident. We both fly multiple times a year — indeed, so far this year, we’ve flown SFO or OAK to/from (by distance) LAX, LAS (multiple times), PDX, SEA, DFW, CHI, MSY, EWR, and JFK; and flights already booked for later in the year to/from ABQ, LAS, MXP, with several additional flights within Europe.

    Domestically (i.e.: w/in the US), I generally don’t care about flying First Class *unless* it’s trans-continental. Four hours is doable in Economy (or, preferably, Premium Economy), but five hours or more, I’m generally flying in First (and nearly always on points).

    I honestly don’t cane too much about flying (international) first class. Paying cash is, for me, definitely NOT worth it. Waaaaayyyyyyyy too much $$$$$, and way too many points, too! Flights across the Atlantic are in Business Class (and, again, almost always on points); paying cash calls for too much $$$$, but if I have to …

  16. The value proposition is interesting. Take flying from the US to Asia on a carrier like CX. I’m tall, so typical coach is a bit cramped. First things first, my knees aren’t stuck in the seat in front of me. If the configuration is such that everyone has direct aisle access, you’re neither climbing over people, nor having to get up in the middle of your sleep to let someone use the bathroom. Don’t forget that premium cabins have much shorter (if any) waits at the bathroom. This stuff starts to matter when you’re flying 15+ hours.

    I’ll admit that the business to first class isn’t worth it when doing math that way. But as Gary puts it, if you’re comparing F to flying private? It can actually be a real deal. When I’ve actually never *flown* on a Gulfstream, I used to service them back in the day. These things are tiny, with a cabin not much bigger than that of a CRJ. A full GV to Asia can’t be all that comfortable, and is going to set you back $300k round trip. A BBJ, which is a modified 737, would be quite comfortable, but that will set you back close to a half mill for the round trip.

    CX F starts looking cheap.

  17. Gary as I approach 70 looking back on 45 years and millions of miles flown both private jet, USAF and civilian I convinced now that FC has become a “by gone era” amenity. I have done 6 trips EK et al I remember Pan Am and TWA international but today I am embarking on my last real FC international travel with EK halfway around, and BA the balance. After this we are looking at biz or premium coach. Last time on AF, I “walked back” to premium coach and sat for awhile you know small intimate cabin comfortable and great price point.

    Just saying. and “one more shower” !

  18. Reading these comments, it seems to me that many of you are apologizing for flying in Business or First Class. You have nothing to explain to anybody. A flight from NY to LHR is UNCOMFORTABLE in Economy, and if you have enough miles or money, why shouldn’t you use them? Believe it or not, if you pick the right airline and buy far enough in advance, the price difference isn’t really that great anyway…

    Last year I flew Business Class R/T on VA (which I did on Amex miles, and only had to pay the -considerable- taxes), then had to go back to LHR again the next month with a friend to attend a convention in Brighton. Even though I had more than enough VIRGIN ATLANTIC and DELTA miles to make the trip on either airline in Business, the friend I was traveling with on the second trip wouldn’t pay the difference to upgrade from Economy to Business ($1500 at the time, rather than the $750 he paid for Economy), so we both wound up in Economy (I foolishly didn’t want to look snobbish by leaving him alone in Economy).

    On the same airline, the seats were small, there was no storage room under the seats, I had to climb over two people to get to the toilet, the food was terrible, I got no sleep. If you fly Business on VA, you get lounge access, lie-flat seats with aisle access, real food, showers, free haircuts, a comfortable seat, afternoon tea (on daytime flights), a better entertainment system, priority access at customs, etc. The same can be said for Singapore Air, which I always fly to Frankfurt (in Business Class). As long as I have the miles, I’m not going International in Economy again.

    Flying these days is enough of a trial. Why should I apologize to anyone or explain how I want to spend my money or miles?

  19. @Phil —> Speaking personally, I’m not apologizing for anything. In my youth, I’d fly Economy to the UK, France, and elsewhere from the West Coast without hesitation . . . have cash, will travel. But I have reached a point where my body won’t take a long-haul flight in Economy without (a very painful) protest. Fortunately, I have enough money to earn enough points throughout the year(s) to acquire enough points to make flying across the continent — or even to other continents — not only possible, but comfortable. ;^)

  20. I was the same way in my twenties and early thirties, but now I am closer to sixty, and as you say, my body will no longer support nor tolerate long haul travel in Economy.

    My comment was really directed towards those who seem to feel that it was necessary not only to refute the article in THE ECONOMIST, which seems poorly researched and written in the first place, but to explain their choice. There is nothing wrong with using miles if you have them, as they are losing value with each year, or spending your own money for the same level of comfort that was routinely provided in Economy fifty years ago.

    Besides, what is the use of arriving at your destination too exhausted from the flight to enjoy it?

  21. The problem with economy is room. Stuffing my 6 ft 3 in frame into a seat designed for small people is painful. Add the cost of chiro visit, massage and loss of sleep from pain (1 combat wound + 2 spine injuries as a cop) and it becomes a wash on the upgrade differential.

  22. The only thing that inflates more than the real value of a dollar is wealthy people’s estimation of the amount of time they work. “100 hours a week.” Suuuuuure. You’re working 14 hours a day in a job that pays you enough to fly first and business class (presumably wearing a colostomy and eating while hooked up to an IV while you sleep and foregoing any personal relationships), yet you still have time to post comments on a website. Good lord.

  23. @Methinks —> “I work 100-hour weeks running my company.” Is that five 20-hour days, or seven 14 hour/20minute days? And how sustainable a schedule is that really?

  24. @Gary —> “Personally I love premium cabins using miles but those are left over (spoiling) products sold opaquely at a deep discount via the mileage program.”

    Agreed. I’ve purchased seats in Economy, and occasionally Premium Econ. Every time I’ve flown domestic First, it’s because my upgrade went through *or* I used points (e.g.: jetBlue MINT). Internationally, I’ve *never* flown in F, only J or PE. J = points; PE = cash.

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