Which Airline Has the World’s Best Business Class?

Natalie asked, Which airline has the world’s best business class?

Business class, to me, is all about the seat. There aren’t many airlines where the food and wine are remarkable, though better business class offerings will be fairly good. Mostly you want personal space to work effectively and to sleep so that you wind up at your destination reasonably rested rather than beaten up.

The best business class experiences make the overall journey seamless, from checkin and security to a lounge to wait for your flight to priority immigration on the other end and even an arrivals lounge for a shower when you land (so you can go straight away to meetings, and because your hotel room may not yet be available with early morning arrivals).

The biggest chunk of your time will be spent in the seat, and it’s the seat that’s the biggest factor in saying whose business class is best. Among those with top notch seats, then, we move onto other factors.

The basic kinds of seats you’ll find are:

  • Recliner. There are fewer and fewer of these, it’s what I ‘grew up on’ with United (their first flat seat was introduced in 2006). These are like big easy chairs with more recline than coach and usually foot rests but they don’t turn into beds and don’t go flat.

  • Angled flat. Once revolutionary, Singapore Airlines called their seat the Spacebed. The idea is that the seat straights out fully, but it isn’t parallel to the floor. The seat is at an angle, taking up less space. They’re not great for sleeping, and became known as a ‘wedgie seat’ because you might slip down as the seat slopes downward. Plus, most of them weren’t really flat anyway.

  • Flat bed. These aren’t just fully flat, but parallel to the ground, a flat surface you can sleep on.

The world standard has become the flat bed. British Airways was an early pioneer. Even late-adopters like Air France are moving away from their angled seats and putting in flat beds. United, American, and Delta are pretty much flat for their long haul business class.

Of course, not all flat beds are equal.

  • Do they offer all-aisle access, or does a passenger in the window seat have to climb over the one in the aisle to get out? That’s not very private, and it’s inconvenient when the person in the aisle is sleeping.

  • How much privacy? Even a four-across business class where every seat has aisle access comes in multiple varieties. One common configuration operated by Delta and by Jet Airways is the ‘herringbone’ format that’s not very privacy. I much prefer ‘reverse herringbone’ where seats are angled away from each other which creates greater privacy.

The US Carriers

American offers four-across all aisle access on the bulk of their international fleet at this point. I find that quite confining on the narrow fuselage on a Boeing 767 (similar in many ways to what you’ll get with six-across Boeing 777s from European airlines).

There are still unreconfigured planes out there, of course, and those give you angled seats. But fewer and fewer of them.

Much much better are the business class seats on American’s 777-300ER, 777-200, and 787 aircraft.


American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER Business Class


American Airlines Boeing 777-200 Business Class


American Airlines Boeing 787 Business Class

US Airways actually pioneered these ‘reverse herringbone’ seats. While US Airways never had a great business class reputation, they drove innovation in the business class hard product. Combined between American and US Airways they’ve got the best overall hard product across the Atlantic in my opinion.

Delta offers reverse herringbone seating on many Asia Pacific routes, and a couple of Atlantic crossings including Tel Aviv. Their workhorse transatlantic offerings, however, aren’t reverse.

Here’s their standard herringbone seat I recently flew on the 777 from Sydney to Los Angeles.

It’s a perfectly fine seat, not very private.

United has flat seats. The legacy Continental seats are fairly good, but they’re six seats across on the Boeing 777 rather than four across. That means they aren’t ‘all aisle access’. You climb over your neighbor if you’re in the window. They aren’t private. Meanwhile legacy United 777s are eight across, ‘dorm-style’ business class if you will.

Europe: Two Steps Behind the US

Based on reputation you wouldn’t expect this — but European airlines are for the most part behind the curve of US carriers in business class at least with respect to the seat.

British Airways not only pioneered fully flat but they operated full flat seats uniformly across their fleet for some time. But they haven’t yet adopted the top world standard seats for their next generation offering.

Lufthansa meanwhile has gone six across seating for their fully flat option. That’s like what United is doing, but it’s behind American and Delta. (Swiss is a strange hybrid, staggered rows, with some rows all aisle access but a seat more like American’s 767 offering.)

Air France has lagged the most with their business class, still operating many aircraft with angled seats that I do my best to avoid.

But they’re leapfrogging their competitors with their new seats, reverse herringbone all aisle access like American has gone to.

Austrian has an onboard chef for business class. To me that doesn’t make up for having seats that, while flat, aren’t world class.

Turkish has what some consider the world’s best business class lounge in Istanbul (and others find that claim heresy given how busy it can be and how it is in direct competition for that title with Virgin Atlantic’s London Heathrow Clubhouse). Lounges are nice but don’t leapfrog them ahead of the competition.

The Middle East Carriers: Not As Good As You Think

Emirates has a strong business class product on their Airbus A380 aircraft. Apart from the A380 you’re going to find a lot of angled seats. Many people are surprised to find that both Emirates and Qatar operate a lot of planes with inferior business class cabins. For all the flash and all the complaints of US airlines, for bread and butter business class on the whole American and Delta probably offer a better business class across the board than Emirates and Qatar do. (Emirates and Etihad have over the top first class products, of course.)

Emirates does have a swank bar on their A380, though.

And their A380 seat is… fine.

Etihad offers a lot of fully flat seats with all aisle access. I find the seat very tight, however.

The World’s Best Are All in Asia

Not all Asian carriers have the top business class products, but all of the truly best business class products are offered by Asian carriers.

Singapore Airlines

With a four-across configuration, like in first class, Singapore Airlines’ seats are incredible wide and they are also relatively private.

There’s plenty of storage space as well as the little touches like an in-seat mirror. Interestingly in the latest generation of the seat the ‘shell’ is the same size as before but the seat itself lost two inches of width. In exchange for width there’s additional storage space. One of the common complaints, believe it or not, about the old seat was that it was too wide.

Singapore offers inflight internet across their 777 and A380 fleet, something that Etihad and Emirates offer and that American and Delta are increasingly as well.

And of course Singapore does a really spectacular job with onboard meals. They offer ‘book the cook’ which allows you to pick from an extensive menu and they’ll have your selection onboard for you.

If there’s a knock on Singapore it’s that they don’t provide amenity kits, or pajamas, but they do stock the lavatory with amenities. (Very few airlines offer PJs in business, but both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia do as does Qantas.)

Cathay Pacific

Hong Kong-based oneworld member Cathay Pacific offers reverse herringbone all aisle access seating. So they’ve got the seat.

Add in good service and reasonably good food and they’re among the top business class carriers in the world.

EVA Air

Taipei-based Star Alliance member EVA Air offers a business class product that’s four abreast on the Boeing 777-300ER. That means all aisle access.

The seat is reverse herringbone and very similar to what Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, and others offer. It’s one of the best business class seats in the sky in my opinion.

They offer pre-order meals in their business (“Royal Laurel”) class and onboard internet. They serve Krug champagne. And this is business class, not first!

Whose Business Class is the Absolute Best?

I think that Singapore’s is best, because I find the seat most spacious. I love Cathay Pacific and EVA Air. I find their seats a bit tighter.

EVA Air has the best champagne in Krug, and offers a pre-order meal service. So soft product is probably comparable to Singapore’s.

Cathay Pacific’s food is fine, but a notch below Singapore’s in my opinion. Unlike Singapore and EVA Airways, they don’t yet have onboard internet.

So if I had to rank them I would pick Singapore, EVA Air, and then Cathay Pacific.

A sleeper for the future is Virgin Australia. Already they offer fantastic service and good food. They’ve moving to reverse herringbone all aisle access seats. And they don’t just offer pajamas but also bedding. The mattress pad they use on their current Boeing 777 seats is simply super comfortable.

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. Virgin Australia gives you a real, thick mattress pad that’s better than what some airlines have in first class. So I’m excited to try their new long haul business product rolling out this year.

So who do you think wins? Which airline has the world’s best business class?

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Comments

  1. I’m very excited to try out Scandinavian Airlines’ new A340 seats, which appear to be modeled on the AA J seats. Talking to FAs who have tried it, they say everyone who has gotten lucky enough to try it has loved it.

    Totally agree with your comments on Emirates. As a 6’4″ 300+ pound man, the business seats are intolerable for the money spent. The A380 seats are fine (and the A380 window seat has incredible privacy), but it’s WAY too tight getting in and out.

    I’m doing EY in the new 787 “Comfort Cabin” in early September (ticket priced at $4,000!) and am looking forward to trying that.

  2. What a comprehensive, well-written article. Love how you compared all of the major carriers by geographic area. Truly kudos for doing this. Mike

  3. I’m surprised you didn’t mention much about Qatar – while it does have some angled-flat still, AA also has plenty of it on all of their 757s as well as many 767/777 aircraft. The A350/787/A380 aircraft are all great reverse-herringbone with a fantastic bar on the A380 and a nice ‘social area’ on the A350/787. All flights US-Doha are fully lie-flat J and fairly good food/wine as well.

    Also, there is one con to reverse herringbone that wasn’t really mentioned – while it is great for solo travelers, it stinks for two people who want to sit together. In those instances, having the 2-2-2 seating of the Qatar 777 or the Lufthansa 747-8 is a much better option.

  4. Gary:

    The Delta service TPAC DTW-PEK is very much like the Cathay Pacific or Eva Air configurations. And the have the Westin Heavenly bedding/pillow, which makes up for a lot of other “deficiencies”. Will try to get a picture to you after my upcoming flight.

  5. AA does NOT have lie-flat beds on the bulk of their international fleet.
    Less than 10% of AA’s 772s have lie-flat beds and less than 50% of AA’s 767s have lie-flat beds.
    While AA is moving towards offering lie-flat beds on all international flights, they’re still years away from hitting the goal.

    You also forgot to mention other Asian carriers like ANA and JL.
    IMHO ANA also provides one of the best long-haul business class product.

  6. @Darth Chocolate indeed, they do! As I think I mention, they offer reverse herringbone on a chunk of transpac service and a couple of transatlantics including Tel Aviv

  7. @Ben I find Cathay’s reverse herringbone center seats great for passengers traveling together. And with American’s 787 I like a center and aisle seat.

  8. Keeping on with my fanboy-ing, from the previous article on F, I guess… :P…while I haven’t flown this product (though I’ve seen it and inspected it in person), many who have flown the new JAL business seat swear that it’s one of the best hard products out there.

  9. I wouldn’t say the info about DL is correct – most of their transatlantic routes (especially ATL/DTW/MSP to AMS/CDG) are operated by A330s and 747s with reverse herringbone seats, and otherwise with 767-300s/400s with staggered seats up front. DL only has 18 777s with herringbone seats, compared to 32 A330s, 13 747s, and 79 767s, all with a better product than the 777.

  10. Based on my limited experience:

    Cathay Pacific
    EVA
    US
    Swiss
    British Airways
    American (Old angled)
    Lufthansa. (Old)

    Looking forward to trying the new AA seats in March

  11. I agree with you about SQ’s business class seat as the best out there. It’s even bigger than some airlines’ first class seats!

  12. planning to try the TPE-IAH route. Is this route always the Hello Kitty 777-300ER? Will this route always have the Royal Laural (full layflat)?

  13. @Daniel – most of the transatlantic routes are operated with 767s and 777s. The staggered seats aren’t nearly as good as reverse herringbone and I think they’re worse than herringbone also. So I disagree that the 767s have a better product than the 777s, and as you observe that’s the majority of the fleet.

  14. Hi ! Gary

    Is the TPE-IAH route alway run by the Hello Kitty 777-300ER?

    And will this route always have the Royal Laural (Better Business Seat)?

  15. Gary what about Etihads new business studio product… looks incredible for business class from what I saw when I checked it out when flying the new First Apartments

  16. @Gary – just not true re: 777s – most core transatlantic routes are 330s and 747s these days with 767s used on thinner routes or those with highest frequencies, and 777s only used for the longest transatlantic routes to TLV and DXB. 777s haven’t been used for European routes regularly for a while now.

  17. Yeah Gary I’ve got to back up Daniel here. You said

    ” [Delta’s] workhorse transatlantic offerings, however, are standard herringbone like what I recently flew from Sydney to Los Angeles.”

    I don’t think a single European flight being offered tonight by Delta has such a product. Their 777s are being used for MSP-NRT, JFK-TLV, ATL-DXB, ATL-JNB, LAX-SYD, and maybe a few others I’m missing, but no European flights that I can name. And even if there’s one I’m missing, it’s certainly not their workhorse offering

  18. I really don’t understand the love affair with SQ J. The seat is wide, yes, but the thing that just kills the product is the fact the seat does not go flat. You may say that it does, but it does not, you MUST ask a FA to FLIP the seat to make it into a bed, the seat itself only goes into a recliner mode. Unless you are PLANNING on going to sleep and want a bed made, you have to get up, stand around, and wait for a FA to make a bed…I don’t know about you, but I tend to just fade into sleep…and with SQ thats impossible on a flat bed. I would say that almost ANY other airlines flat product is better. Lately I would say TK had one of the best overall J experiences I have had.

  19. Thanks for the comparison. Any thoughts on Korean or Garuda long haul business products?

  20. What I meant to communicate – and wrote too quickly (thus missing the nuance) is that their core transatlantic product isn’t reverse herringbone. That they do offer that seat but only on a subset of their fleet, not the majority of it. I’ve made that clearer in the post.

  21. @Gary – echoing others comments so far, what about JL? Their business class seat is pretty good & their food is delicious!

  22. Once again you’ve completely ignored Virgin Atlantic, other than a glancing reference to its excellent Heathrow lounge. I don’t get your dislike of that airline — you’re constantly going on about how “worthless” its miles are. I have flown in Int’l Business on most of the airlines you mention above and VS is among the best. The flat bed is great, the service and food are very good and the lounges are among the best in the world.

    I guess I should be thankful you’re always running VS down, or ignoring it, since I have few problems using a reasonable number of miles to get a great fully flat seat across the Atlantic and access to amazing lounges on arrival and departure from London. Yes, I have to pay fees, but I’m still saving 75% or more on an excellent flying experience.

    Meanwhile, AA is totally unreliable in Int’l J. I recently flew DFW-LHR on AA, carefully picking a flight that had flat beds in J. There was a last-minute equipment substitution and we were stuck on an old, filthy plane with deeply angled and not-flat seats. What a totally miserable flight. BA’s Int’l J isn’t fantastic (having to climb over someone if you’re in a window seat, not-great lounges) but at least the product provides consistently fully flat beds.

  23. I don’t know how you can conclude that the US carriers are two steps behind the Europeans.

    American still has plenty of 777s and 767s that haven’t been reconfigured yet. They 767s are getting the exact same seats as Austrian has had for years on their 767s, except AA has chosen to be cheap and offer tablets instead of real IFE. It also might be worth mentioning that 86, or 2/3s of Deltas long haul fleet are 767s, those planes also has the same seat as the “new” AA 767 seat.

    If you did a little research, you’d find that this staggered Thompson seat is exactly the same as Brussels and Swiss flies, the reason there is 4 extra two seaters on Swiss, or that 4 out of 60 seats doesn’t offer direct aisle access (same on Brussels and Austrians 777s) is because the A330/340/777 fuselage is a lot wider than the 767, but it’s the same seats AA/DL has in their 767 and not narrower.

    So at the end of the day, the majority of US carriers business class seats offered are either the exact same seat Europeans introduced before AA ordered their first 77W or United’s 2+2+2 or 2+4+2.

    Direct aisle access is not everything. There are pros and cons of all business class seats, but most of them are narrow and also staggered. American’s reverse herringbone for example, has direct aisle access, but is to someone at 6,1 still pretty narrow and is also a staggered seat.

    At the end of the day, the most comfortable and private business class seat is offered by the pioneer of flat beds, BA. I always pick a window seat if traveling solo or the two seater pod if traveling with someone. As opposed to AA or any of the other carriers with staggered seats, you don’t have a little hole to jam your feet into. It’s all flat and the armrests fold down so they are wider than the Thompson seat. Also, if you pick the right seats, they are the most private business seats in the sky.

    And this is before we start discussing lounges, onboard service, onboard offerings etc..

  24. @tommy777 Enjoy your BA dorm-style business class is all I can say, and go on making excuses for those Austrian and Brussels seats. The 767 that American (and Delta) flies isn’t the standard to compare them against, those are crappy products. And your beef with American’s 767s are tablet IFE, really? Who cares? You’ll fly garbage seats for good IFE? Bring your own.

  25. I agree with you on the AA seats. I’m 6’2″ with size 15 feet and I fit in them just fine. I haven’t experienced them but I’ve hear that Air Berlin seats aren’t too bad in business. Although I doubt the service is anything to blog about.

  26. Lol.. Nice reply, Gary.. You didn’t even mention in your post that 2/3s of Delta’s seats are not herringbone, you fail to acknowledge the fact that America, Delta, Austrian, Brussels and Swiss have exactly the same seats and even shrug and say they are “crappy products”.

    And when it comes to IFE, with your logic, I should bring my own catering and drinks as well “who cares what gets served even if it’s garbage”. :p

    Well, here are some actual reviews of the 5 products. You can clearly see that the seats are made by the same manufacturer, just colors and configs are slightly different.

    And for the record, Swiss introduced this seat first… In 2008

    When it comes to the experience, service and product, maybe you can explain how Delta and American are “two steps ahead of the Europeans”?

    http://viewfromthewing.com/2014/07/21/review-swiss-business-class-a330-zurich-beijing/

    http://viewfromthewing.com/2013/08/13/review-austrian-business-class-vienna-to-tokyo-narita/

    http://theforwardcabin.boardingarea.com/2015/02/28/review-american-airlines-767-300-new-business-class/

    http://thepointsguy.com/2014/03/flight-review-brussels-airlines-a330-200-business-class-bru-jfk/

    http://thepointsguy.com/2014/05/flight-review-delta-businesselite-newark-paris/

    Keep drinking the coolAAid, Chief, but at least get your facts straight.

  27. @tommy777 I rate Delta a notch below American precisely because they don’t have as many routes with reverse herringbone or even herringbone seating. Much of their fleet is similar to what the Europeans offer, although some of their fleet is better.

    I’m not comparing the Delta or American 767 seats to the Europeans and saying those are better. Misread me all you want! I’m saying those seats suck.

    And that’s why I’d take American’s 787, 777-300ER, or reconfigured 777-200s any day of the week over what most of the European carriers are offering. And link to Ben all you want, he’s going to agree that the reverse herringbone seats are far far better.

    I write in my piece that the seat is more important than catering and IFE in my evaluation. You disagree, eat to your heart’s content from Austrian’s onboard chef (which is awesome, I just don’t find the seats awesome).

  28. BA 787 J should not even be legal to fly, in an emergency I don’t think the window seat can even get OUT, that was a HORRIBLE product. And I know people like it, but LHR is the worst airport in the world to connect through, even worse than any of the NY airports.

  29. I guess US/AA are used interchangeably here, but the A330 out of Philly is as good as any.

  30. @losingtrader – yes, at this point they’re more or less the same, single operating certificate and all, we expect the US Airways brand to go away in just over 3 months

  31. @Gary, you say “And that’s why I’d take American’s 787, 777-300ER, or reconfigured 777-200s any day of the week over what most of the European carriers are offering.”

    But the problem is, as I pointed out in my earlier post, that you can’t actually count on AA providing the aircraft you booked. Pick flat J seats on a lovely reconfigured 2-class 777-200, as I did, and end up on a dirty old 3-class 777-200 with slanted seats in Business. This has happened to me TWICE in the past year, BTW.

    I have a ton of AA miles but I am done with flying AA in International J. My next trip using AA miles is on BA, which I don’t like that much, but at least I know the seat will be a flat bed.

  32. I hear that Air Canada’s long-haul business class is quite good. How does it stack up to US and European rivals?

  33. I totally agree with your opinion about VA and I’m excited to try their new config too. Hopefully it will still be as easy to snag using SkyPesos given that they’re *increasing* capacity in the Biz cabin.

    But like @mary says, I think you underestimate VS, whose hard product is my #2 choice after VA. Pretty much the same comfy mattress, large pillow and generous duvet as VA. The only difference is that you have to choose between seat or bed – there’s no half-way position. But you do get aisle access from every seat. I especially enjoyed the front seat in the downstairs of they 747 – right in the nose! Super private and quiet, with nowhere for people to walk past you to!

  34. I am not a frequent flyer in biz class (so forgive me if I am blaspheming), but how does JetBlue Mint compare?

  35. AF’s new BEST Biz Class seat is amazing. Comfortable, fully flat, private as heck, nice big screen. Food is above average (for airline standards) and service is pretty crap. But hey like you said, it’s all about the seat, right? Review here for anyone interested: http://bit.ly/1CftzhO

  36. What always amazes me about int’l business class — even on the best airlines — is that the product is still pretty mediocre. Yes, it’s infinitely nicer than flying coach, or USA domestic first class, but I always think they could do better. Particularly with the service aspects. The inflight service is usually pretty lackluster: much worse than what you’d expect, say, at a fancy hotel. The food is also usually a bit of a disappointment. The only aspect I generally find very satisfactory are the seats — when they are lie flat. This is a very good thing, especially on ultra long haul (12+ hours). But would I pay my own “real” money for these seats? No, but I’d certainly redeem points for them.

  37. 9 out of 10 flown on delta,the bathroom were filthy and smelled
    and this was in biz class!

  38. My wife and I are in our 70s and contemplating a trip to the UK (London or Manchester) next July from Brisbane. We would like to fly business class, even though it will be expensive for us. Can you recommend the airline with the best business class seats and service, with comfort and the ability to lie flat and sleep? Thank you.

  39. I totally disagree that EVA has a better business class than Cathay. While it is true that EVA’s seat is supremely comfortable and they serve Krug, but their catering is a total failure. The pre-order menu only offers two more items than their normal offerings. In my experience, their food is inedible. Flight crew was top notch, though. Everything is comparable with Cathay’s but their catering falls way short and for that reason, Cathay is without a doubt a better overall product, in my opinion.

  40. Got to disagree with your assessment of Etihad business…on the 787, it is amazing. The seat is wide, private, and comfortable. I did find it a little bit low to the ground, and the food was not mind blowing, but the service was incredible. Lavatories were huge (for a plane) and at times I felt like I was the only passenger on the flight. Made 15 hours in the sky feel luxurious and carefree!

  41. Good list, out of all of these, I would definatly put Singapore as #1, Eva #2 and Emirates #3 as top 3. Flew them for work meetings and had a great experience, just wish Emirates had wider seats.
    I have booked business class tickets with BizClass four times- always cheap and great airlines. You guys do a great !” Peter King, Santa Barbara CA

    Allen

  42. Just FYI, you have a grammatical error up there;
    One common configuration operated by Delta and by Jet Airways is the ‘herringbone’ format that’s not very privacy.
    Where privacy should be replaced with private..

  43. A pretty useful article Gary, thanks. Reality is though, no US carrier and perhaps one or at a push two European carriers even come close to Emirates or Qatar, let alone Singapore Airlines, Cathay or ANA. You do seem to gloss over the fact that the Gulf and Asian carriers are usually 1-2-1 configuration and as a percentage of their fleet very few have anything other than fully flat beds.

    Then there’s overall service quality. It’s not all about whether someone can fit their corpulent frame into the seat or see/not see the next passenger. It’s about having good food, drinks and amenities and not feeling like you’re being waited on by a grumpy great-aunt in sensible trousers (United). This is where US and European carriers tend to either fail or be inconsistent to the point where you won’t take the chance given a choice.

    On the flipside, while SQ is amazing it’s also amazingly expensive. I’ve been flying them for a very long time but I’m about to use Qatar or Emirates from Singapore to London because SQ just isn’t worth the 30% premium. Stopping for 90 mins in Dubai or Doha is no big deal and you get a chauffeur at both ends, something SQ doesn’t give you.

    I recently flew Oman Air’s new business class by the way. Nice seats and in-flight service though other aspects of customer service and booking illustrate that they have much to learn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *