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 hard products is on a different level. For example, take a look at Emirates’ new 777 first class, which features fully enclosed suites with individual temperature and lighting controls. You’ll almost forget you’re on an airplane.

Emirates’ new first class is my favorite

The amenities

In my opinion a good night of sleep isn’t just about the amount of personal space, but also about what the airline does to make it comfortable. Many first class products come with added amenities, like pajamas (and for that matter, some airlines even offer these in business class).

Pajamas in Emirates first class

However, in my opinion the single most important amenity is good bedding. Several first class products offer name brand bedding products, which can rival the sleep you’d get at home. To me that’s a huge point of differentiation, since a good mattress pad goes a long way.

Lufthansa has great bedding in first class

Okay, as far as amenities go, the Emirates A380 onboard shower, reserved exclusively for first class passengers, isn’t too bad either. 😉

The Emirates A380 shower

The service

There’s simply a different approach to service in first class vs. business class, and that comes down to staffing levels. In first class there’s usually one flight attendant for every few passengers, while in business class there’s maybe one flight attendant for every 10 passengers (or even more).

As a general rule of thumb, in business class I expect to be served like I’m part of an assembly line, given how many people need to be served at once.

There are lots of people to serve in business class

In first class my expectations of service are different, though. Service is generally much more attentive, where you feel like you’re being served in a restaurant and dining at your pace, rather than being served at a Medieval Times dinner & live show, where everything is brought out when it’s convenient for the crew.

Furthermore, I don’t feel as guilty asking for things in first class. In business class I sometimes feel bad ordering a cappuccino (assuming it’s offered) during a busy dinner service or breakfast, since I know the crew is busy, and they have a lot of people to take care of. I don’t have that same feeling in first class.

It’s much easier to provide attentive service in first class

The food

In business class I generally hope for food to be edible and (mediocre) restaurant quality, while in first class a meal can actually be a dining experience (of course there are limits to what can be served from aircraft galleys).

A first class meal may include many courses served how and when you want (with customization options), and will often include caviar.

Enjoying caviar in Cathay Pacific first class

The drinks

Admittedly this doesn’t appeal to everyone, but there’s no denying that some top airlines have an incredible alcohol selection in first class, whether it be Dom or Krug or Hennessy Paradis.

There’s a huge amount of variance here — China Southern first class has worse champagne than Qatar Airways business class (or at least used to) — but on the whole you’ll find some first class products with phenomenal drink selections.

Enjoying Dom Perignon in Emirates first class

For those who like coffee, I’d note that lots more airlines serve specialty coffee drinks in first class but not in business class.

Emirates has french press coffee in first class

Bottom line

There can be some confusion about the differences between first class and business class, given that it largely comes down to marketing. There are definitely regional norms that dictate what cabins are generally called.

For all practical purposes, I’d consider first and business class to be the same, unless you’re traveling on an international long haul flight in a cabin that’s marketed as first class. That’s where you’ll find the best experiences available in commercial aviation, and where the experience is truly differentiated.

It’s important to remember that not all products are created equal, though. Even among business class products, experiences can differ substantially, so keep in mind that this is intended to be more of a big-picture look at the differences between cabins.

Any questions about the difference between first and business class that I haven’t answered?

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