How to Survive Flying Business Class

Wendy Perrin offers her suggestions about how airlines could make sleeping on planes less awful.

Recently Westin Hotels & Resorts, which sparked the trend of brand-name beds in hotels worldwide, announced that its signature Heavenly bedding would take flight on Delta, if only in the airline’s BusinessElite cabin. Sounds great in theory—who wouldn’t want a plush comforter on an overnight international flight?—but does anyone really think that a certain type of duvet and pillow can turn something that must be endured into something that can be enjoyed? Let’s face it: Sleeping on planes sucks.

Bedding isn’t enough. Westin used to co-brand with United, and it didn’t help vault United’s product. United oversized co-branded blankets and pillows in premium cabins on their New York JFK – Los Angeles and San Francisco flights, and also redid portions of their lounges in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York JFK.

Hey, United used to own Westin Hotels!

Wendy offers that beyond Westin’s co-branded bedding, airlines need to not claim angled wedgie seats are lie flat, meals need to not be disturbances, cabin temperatures need to be appropriate, and she has a variety of other suggestions as well (including cold beer).

I’m going to offer a similar point to Wendy’s suggestions about making sleeping in business class less awful. Here are my suggestions for how to survive flying business class.

Yes, it’s a terrible narrative. Business class is rarified space, most people don’t ever fly business, and I really don’t want to fly business class long haul — I fly mostly business across the Atlantic (I live on the East Coast, flights are short) but for transpacific flying or flights between the US and Middle East or India I really want to fly in first class.

First class generally means not just a more spacious seat and greater privacy, it offers a less stressful experience overall so that I’m rested on arrival. And I have plenty of miles and points, when there’s availability I can fly that way – and through most frequent flyer programs that offer first class redemtpions, it’s not that many more miles than flying business.

So from my perspective, business is a step down, and I prepare for a long business class flight differently.

The most important thing is the seat. In fact, the way I think about it business class is almost entirely about the seat. Sure, EVA Airways out of Taiwan offers Dom Perignon in business. Singapore and Thai offer pre-order meals from an extensive menu on some routes. Virgin Atlantic has some very good business class lounges. Business class can be pretty good. But it’s usually not a rarified experience. The key differentiator is the seat.

And not all business seats are created equal. The best business class seats are the Sicma Aero Cirrus reverse herringbone seats offered by US Airways, American’s new 777-300ERs, Cathay Pacific long haul, EVA Airways on the 777-300ER (so this excludes Seattle – Taipei which is flown on a 747), and Delta’s 747 transpacific service.

      American Airlines 777-300ER Business Class Seat

On the 777, the configuration for these seats is 4 across. In contrast, legacy United’s 777 lie flat business class is a whopping 8 across! These seats are true lie flat, they have plenty of personal space and privacy.

A step down is the basic lie flat seat. Two steps down the angled flat. And there are still business class flights out there which are ‘recliner-style’.

So I choose the best business class seat that I can. And then I take it upon myself to try to be more comfortable.

  • Bedding does matter. A blanket and small pillow isn’t enough.. but I can manage that myself most of the time. I usually find myself trying to snag a second blanket so I can use one as a mattress pad and the other as a sheet.

  • I bring my own pajamas in business class to change into. My favorite to travel with is my pair of American Airlines first class pajamas, largely because it’s relatively plain and not too fancy, comfortable, and washes well (no shrinkage).

  • On short East Coast – Europe overnights eating in advance and skipping breakfast can maximize sleep time. Like Wendy, I hate long meal service on short flights and I hate when you’re woken for breakfast either because you weren’t asked a preference or the flight attendant ignored it. Waking passengers a full hour out to collect headphones is another serious faux pas. As are excessive inflight announcements, I find that Cathay pilots are the best about not saying a word on an overnight flight unless it is Absolutely. Necessary.

I bring my own inflight entertainment, though for a long flight I do want seat power and it shouldn’t require an adapter. A little bit of storage space is night. And access to a bit of food that isn’t just limited to potato crisps. Self-service is fine, I used to love that British Airways used to call their midflight snack service ‘raid the larder’.

Mostly though, if I have a good seat, and access to two blankets and pillows, then I just want to sleep.

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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, 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. Gary, you said “Westin used to co-brand with United, and it didn’t help”. I disagree – that bedding was phenomenal (definitely superior to what UA has in int’l/PS C now), and it made a big difference in the sleeping experience for me! Of course the seat is still #1 by far, but the little touches matter…smart of DL to pick up the ball UA dropped and run with it.

  2. Agree w/ UA-NYC: the new DL bedding is superb. Recently returned from 15.5 hr flight JNB-ATL on DL 777 in J with totally lie-flat and Heavenly bedding and I slept 9 hours straight. Best long haul flight ever.

  3. I’ve flown the Lufthansa 748i with reverse herringbone, it’s a definite step up from UA’s business seat. Easily the best way to use a United GPU in my opinion. UA’s 8 across is just too cramped, but I don’t see them changing anytime soon though.

  4. I rarely sleep on planes be it business or First (JNB, HKG, etc) the exception was my LAN flights to/from Santiago/Lima and JFK. I chalk it up to they duvet as it was warm and plush – how else to explain sleeping in an angled lie flat seat which I can never get comfortable in?
    Think the DL/Westin partnership is good -anything to upgrade the sad state of thin blankets/duvets is welcomed by me as I’d love to be able to sleep more on long haul flights

  5. Gary you forgot the magic ingredient – sleeping pills 🙂 What was that John Mayer song? I don’t care much for the guy but “red wine and ambien” sounds like pretty much all my TATL red eyes!

  6. I think boardingarea made a mistake and put the princess’ (Ben’s) post on Gary’s blog.

  7. I think you’ve been spoiled by AA and US redemption charts, Gary! For most of us in European programmes doing a redemption in F is a big step up in miles, something that I personally couldn’t justify. Working at seat power and a fully flat bed is what I need most. Here’s hoping more carriers update their fleet to fully flat in business. I’m the pyjamas front, I don’t own a pair so have never quite understood the obsession with them in the blog 😛 I definitely prefer a cooler cabin temperature though – anyone feeling cold can put more layers/blankets on, but if it’s too hot there’s not much to do. Here’s hoping more airlines realise this!

  8. a very myopic post.
    clearly the business class products from carriers like qantas and air canada have been overlooked.

  9. @simon – qantas and air canada have good business class products as far as business goes, i’d argue that cathay’s, american’s 773s, us airways’, delta’s transpacific and EVA’s are better than both.

  10. ANA “Business Staggered” on the 773 is a great seat. Top notch food and service as well.

  11. I’d add temperature to the list. You can’t use any of the bedding if it is 85 degrees F. Flew Austrian not that long ago and it was a sauna.

  12. Air Canada, Qantas, Singapore, and Air New Zealand all have great business class products, but again each have deficiencies.

    AC needs an upgraded food service and mattress pads. Qantas needs something better than the 2-2-2 seating, no one wants to climb over their neighbor to get to the aisle. ANZ needs to improve the trans-tasman service to be a more consistent product for the SYD-AKL-LAX route, and SQ definitely needs to improve their meal service from their currently limited menu.

    However, it is still all better than being in the back of the bus.

  13. One post that I agree 100%. The seat IS the most important feature conducive to sleep and horizontal 180-degree lie flat is key.

    IMO the 2nd most critical factor is timing. Personally I prefer a 10-12 hour flight – that’s enough time to enjoy the 2-hour meal service on UA (as opposed to the 3hr glacial LH service) and still get 6 hours. As you note it would be better if they didn’t wake you until an hour before landing, but the breakfast service is never efficient.

    Personally I could care less about blankets, though pillows are an issue. Temperature always runs too hot on these flights – cooking your passengers does not induce sleep. And no way I would change into PJs in a cabin full of strangers. I like to sleep on my passport, wallet, etc – yes even in biz class – why would you trust people you know nothing about?

    I find the biggest hindrance to sleep is the noise level. Those engines are just too damn noisy, and no way I can sleep in those oversized bose headphones. Earplugs help, but they rarely kill enough noise. And if you have a loud snorer next to you, well…

  14. I guess I’m the only one who doesn’t complain about sleeping in an angled seat? I find it impossible to sleep in coach, but in Business Class I always manage to get a good night’s sleep even if it’s a slanted seat. Knowing that you’re a million times more comfortable than those in the back is reason enough not to whine about the seats in Business.

  15. I wondered about bringing a compressible sleeping bag pad that inflates a bit and will smooth out the seat. Yes it lies flat but still has bumps. Any one ever try that?

  16. Stop being such a snobby bore!! There are kids begging in the streets all over the world who will probably never fly in a plane!

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