Just How Pathetic is Business Class in Europe?

“Seat pitch” is the distance between seat back to seat back. It’s not the same as legroom, exactly — you aren’t always getting the same legroom with the same seat pitch because some airlines use thicker and thinner seats — but it’s the most generally accepted proxy for legroom.

  • The world standard for economy pitch has been 31 inches. That’s what US airlines have consistently offered in coach.


    American Boeing 787 Economy

  • “Economy plus”-style extra legroom seats usually offer about 34 inches of pitch


    American Boeing 787 Main Cabin Extra

  • Domestic first class runs 38-40 inches


    American Boeing 737 First Class

  • The ultra low cost carriers offer as little as 29 inches

There’s some variation on this. And legroom isn’t the only element of comfort. For instance, width matters too — a Boeing 777 with 9 abreast seating in coach is going to be more comfortable than one that’s 10-abreast.

It’s shocking to me that both Lufthansa and British Airways offer the same legroom in economy and business class for their intra-Europe flights. And that’s 30 inches, which is tighter than what the US majors offer in coach.


British Airways Club Europe

British Airways “Club Europe” is coach with a blocked middle seat and a cold meal tray. Plus lounge access and priority boarding, of course, which you receive with mid-tier elite status anyway.


British Airways Club Europe Lunch, London Heathrow – Paris Orly

A top British Airways sales executive once told me that ‘they lose money on Club Europe but their long haul business class customers expect something better than economy for their connections’ — in other words they believed that long haul was subsidizing short haul. In fact they had the economics of it backwards. They needed to offer a decent short haul product in order to attract long haul premium cabin flyers, and were thus just allocating the revenue wrong in coming up with their money-losing calculations.

I’m not tall, but 30 inch pitch means that I have to angle my laptop bag to get it under the seat. It’s not like my knees are butted up against the seat in front of me, but that’s hardly the only issue. The top of the seat ahead so close can be claustrophobic. (Though it means no underseat storage, it’s advisable to take the bulkhead in British Airways Club Europe because there’s more legroom.)

Luftansa’s new A320neo aircraft will offer 32 inch pitch in business class (not something to get excited about) and 29 inch pitch in coach. (HT: Head for Points) That’s like the ultra low cost carriers, though in some cases worse because Ryanair apparently offers 30 inches.

Lufthansa uses slimline seats (which I and many other passengers find uncomfortable) which take up less space and mean that legroom isn’t quite as bad as the pitch figure would suggest.

Not every European airline does this. Swiss offers mostly 34 inch pitch. Turkish Airlines offers 34 – 37 inch pitch for the most part on their short haul business fleet.

Nonetheless whenever I think about the lack of predeparture beverages in domestic first class, or long for the days when US airlines made more of an investment in first class meals than they do today, I think of intra-European business class and I’m suddenly grateful. Europhiles excuse the offerings by saying that most intra-European flights are short, but most domestic US routes are too (about half of American’s domestic route network is under 500 miles).

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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Comments

  1. What’s the tightest first class pitch on a US airlibe? Flying short haul?

    If making the proper comparison, JetBlue uses the same economy seats but gives more legroom, so much that it competes with legroom of domestic first.

    Regional jets have first (CRJ700). How much leg room do they have?

    I agree with you that seat width is also a big consideration. I’ve given up using AA for short haul flights where JetBlue also flies. I find little difference between an AA first seat and a JetBlue more roomcsest with an empty middle (often the case).

  2. And it’s one reason coach customers can’t pick their seats on these flights since they expand the business class cabin as they sell more seats.

  3. Don’t know about business class, but I do know they give free alcohol and food even on discount economy. I’d take that over the extra leg room. But that’s just me. I’m European and I’m used to “small” cars etc.

  4. I fly Lufthansa business class often within Europe. I am always amused how bad it is. It’s basically a coach seat with the middle seat blocked. We complain a lot about U.S. carriers but the European carriers are even worse. It’s the Asian and middle east carriers which offer the better service.

  5. European customers are considerably less rotund, on average, than U.S. customers. Could the airlines be exploiting this difference in physiology?

    Also, see other comments about the food. I had a short, short hop from Dublin to London last year in this “biz” and was served a full breakfast. Can’t beat that.

  6. It’s a little crazy to be driven by limo from Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal to your airplane and boarded into first class, only to encounter what is essentially an Economy Minus seat. One of these things is not like the others…

  7. Answer: Oh-so-pathetic! 29 inches?! That’s the seat pitch of the much-hated Air Canada Rouge! Eek!
    What’s even worse is that when using BA or QF miles to fly on AA Barbie Jets within the USA, a so-called First Class seat is charged as genuine First, while Business (or how about Premium Economy) would be more appropriate!

  8. I was just posting on FT SPG forums about why have US brands established luxury properties in Asia vs. their poorly maintained USA presence.

    And then you remind me that business class inside of the EU is largely a joke.

    Is there any reason for this? Like why do…..Holiday Inn or Westin hotels mean so much in Asia vs. the US? Why do all carriers in Europe largely forget about a class of service that meets US-level of business class service?

    And just why is Pizza Hut in Hong Kong a luxury item?

    Is there a place in the world where White Castle has been able to market themselves as a place to compete with a michelin starred restaurant? I say this jokingly, but really….

  9. Its simply a sub par product and shows me just how crappy BA is at the core of the vast majority of what they do
    Both carriers sell something called business class however it is anything but
    I won’t pay for it or use miles/points
    Crap is crap and they aren’t fooling seasoned travelers at all
    Let the buyer beware !

  10. European airlines do lose money on these short haul flights and do make money on their long haul services. Their business model is very different from the US airlines where there is a significant domestic market to serve with a differentiated product offering. While there may be longer flights between European countries there is also a highly developed rail system and it is that system that has grabbed a major chunk of premium business travel between major cities. Airlines used to be able to compete, but no longer. You’ll likely find the majority of those sitting in the front of these planes are connecting onto long haul flights when crossing national borders. And they are customers who have been poached from the local national airline. So offering them a true premium seat doesn’t pay off since they’re already attracted and flying that carrier because its premium fare is cheaper to their final destination than their national carrier’s fare. (And where the country, or region is large enough to have a modest domestic network, there’s limited competition, and most of that is in the ultra cheap category, thus no need to enhance the business class product.)

    One of the reasons I laugh when people criticize US domestic F is to compare it to the front cabin on European airlines. Of course in the case of US carriers, they are actually carrying premium customers within the country since that’s about the only way to get around the US. Only in the northeast corridor (DC-Philadelphi-NYC-Boston) that Amtrak is able to compete with the airlines and offer a reasonable premium, speedy product.

  11. Aeroflot business class intra Europe is fantastic. The seats are similar to the latest American domestic first-class seats in terms of width and legroom. Meals are fantastic. IFE. And terrific service.

  12. I’ll be the contrarian here and say I absolutely prefer intra-europe business class to domestic first class. The empty middle seat is plenty for me, and I’m 5’8″ so even 30 inches of pitch isn’t going to bother me. I like that even on short routes, there’s a decent meal and drink service, and for the most part I’ve also found FAs to be roughly 19192128412849128941 times more pleasant than those on the legacy US airlines.

    My wife and I were having this exact conversation on a recent FLR-ZRH flight, and in my opinion that flight was better than anything I’d experienced in domestic F. For an hour in the air, I had a lunch and dessert that I actually enjoyed eating. Then fresh fruit – something I enjoyed more than I should, but peeling an orange on an airplane was nice. Maybe it was the smell, heh. Then for good measure they came by with chocolates and Christmas cookies, and insisted on giving me extra because we had a long flight to BOS following in LX J (meaning the FA looked at the manifest).

  13. You know what European airlines should do?(this idea just came to mind as I was reading this)

    They should install, say the first 6 rows on an A321, seats with extra legroom. Since the size of the business class cabin can vary according to demand, they can make the remaining unsold extra legroom seats available for elites to select at some point close to departure(without blocking the middle seat of course).
    This way you get happy high-rev pax & happy elites!

  14. Same goes for AirFrance, Alitalia and AirLingus. Intra-european ‘business class’ is a lousy economy seat, with very little legroom and with the middle seat blocked. I’m 6’3″ and I really can’t stand it.

    BTW, in the case of AirFrance, the service you get on those flights is also comparable to economy! My family and I were served lunch on AF, in business class, about one hour after we took off (this was a 2.5 hour flight). They didn’t even bother to offer some water or peanuts while we waited.

  15. As someone who doesn’t pay for Business within Europe or First within the USA, but either uses miles or upgrades, the airlines won’t care about my views but I shall give them anyway.

    Clearly the seat in the USA is much better than within Europe. However, equally clearly to me, the food and wine is much better in Europe than within the USA. Lounge access is also included with the fare in Europe, which it is not within the USA. Also, and this is more a personal preference, I prefer the type of service within Europe so that, whilst each of the airlines has massively variable service, I prefer the European approach – cool and professional, vs friendly and homey.

    So it boils down to stage length. For flights under 2 hours (the great majority of those within Europe), I prefer European Business Class. For longer flights, I prefer the bigger seat.

  16. 1) Agree. I am going from China to Spain in March in business class and had an opportunity to fly Finnair’s new A350. I passed on it because it meant 4.5 hours on a A321 with 31″ pitch from Helsinki to Madrid. I paid a bit more to get “real” business class seating on the entire journey on Qatar Airways instead.

    2) Disagree. In the US the majority of domestic departures are on regional jets (53% for the combined American Airlines). Many of these flights don’t even offer “first” class seating. None offer hot food. Most of them don’t even offer cold food. Lounge access is not included. Service is often non-existent and/or rude. For a 1 hour flight, the euro-configured A320 with lounge access and reliable full food service with a smile is a far more comfortable ride than a US regional jet!

    3) In the US, you get a does-not-recline-much seat on most 6 hour flights (e.g. New York-San Diego or Seattle, Boston-San Francisco, etc.), even overnight redeyes! On a European airline, I can’t think of a flight of 5 hours or more where you don’t get a lie flat bed.

    4) The world standard for economy class pitch, as delivered by Boeing, has been 34 inches. It is only in the last decade or two that airlines shrunk it to 31-ish. Domestic “first” class is shrinking too, from 42 (on its way out) to 38, i.e. what most “premium economy” is.

  17. What does seat pitch have to do with getting your laptop under the seat in front? Also, just get there first and put it under the middle seat.

    As a tall guy, I hate the intra Europe business class. I’d give up my blocked middle seat and the little meal for 34-36 inches of pitch.

  18. As long as LHR is slot constrained, BA’s goal is to get as many passengers to/from LHR as possible, so they do not care. It is a very different market than the US or Asia as time of day and route lead to a huge variance in the number of business class passengers.

    For example, on the Sunday before thanksgiving I flew MUC-LHR-DUB in Club Europe on BA. On the first flight, I was the only passenger ( a mid-day departure that was too late for TATL), whereas on the second flight to DUB, there were 40 passengers in CE.

    The US carriers simply don’t have that significant of a swing due to the ratio of their traffic that Is domestic vs. international, so the European carriers have a very different set of challenges.

    It doesn’t make the seats good or business class, though it is better than economy due to the blocked middle seat giving more shoulder space if you are broad shouldered.

    I will only book a flight if row 1 is available. But I understand th economics of why they do it, and BA in particular given the congestion at LHR.

  19. I’m 6’3 and have no issue with 30-31″ pitch seats. Instead of sitting like you are in the “Club World” picture above, why not try sticking your legs under the seat in front of you? Way more comfortable, and you have lots more legroom, and your knees don’t have an issue with the seat. You just need to pull your bag under your legs, and it works perfectly.

  20. @Andrew – my issue isn’t the legroom as such, I am not that tall. As I mention in the post, it’s more that I find the seat in front of me so close to my chest/head to be kind of claustrophobic.

  21. I’ve always had fantastic service and a nice meal on BA in club Europe, even on short hops like London to Paris or Amsterdam.

    The one to avoid is flying from LCY as the planes are only 2+2 layouts so you don’t even get the blocked middle seat and there’s no lounge in the airport so you essentially get nothing other than an actual meal served and two checked bags instead of one. Having said that, unless there was no availability for reward flights in economy for the departure time I wanted I wouldn’t bother with club Europe, save the miles for something else.

    There are two good intra Europe flights in business, both out of Madrid. Iberia have one flight per day using an A330/340 to LHR (around 1800hrs) and LAN fly to Frankfurt on a 787, which is a continuation of the flight from SCL. Both can be booked for around 15,000 avios, so a cheap way to check out full business on two airlines that people may not have experienced before

  22. Some miss the point; the majority of BA’s short haul Club Europe sectors are less than 3 hours. Seat pitch may be reduced, but with the slimmer seats, the difference is negligible from before. I’m 6′ 1″ and really don’t get what the beef is; I can sit and cross my legs in CE if I want.
    As for it being regarded as BA’s race to the bottom, I’d like to remind my Stateside friends that I can purchase a LHR-MAN domestic coach HBO return ticket for less than $90. On that 35 minute flight, I get a snack, hot on the breakfast run, and whatever alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages I desire from the trolly, irrespective of FF status. Same for all European sectors, for which all passengers are served both food and bar service, whether they are in the cheapest coach bucket or most expensive Club Europe open ticket.
    Ultimately, British Airways is the most profitable European carrier presently; they’re doing something right…

  23. Its not just domestic EU biz class,,, recently flew Air France biz 777 Paris to JFK. Seat was like a medieval torture box. Sort of full flat but head about 20 degrees higher than the foot, very tight. Window seat had to climb over aisle seat and THREE seats in middle,,, biz class middle seat – – – are you kidding… First and last AF trip….. also food nothing special.

  24. We flew Icelandair last Sept. busn.class Sea to Kef. Service good,but not to have even foot rest’s. I was dumbfounded. We paid premium Dollar’s & could barely sleep on the 6 hr. flight.Does Icelandair plan to upgrade their Saga Class?

  25. On BA, can you lift up the middle blocked-seat arms? That would help a little. I dread our LHR-FCO flights this June. My husband is 6’4″ and I’m 5’10”–and my legs are longer than his!

  26. You do have to consider the cost of the ticket in the equation as well. Intra Europe tickets are considerably less expensive than a comparable US domestic flight. If the US airlines were to reduce the fares, I bet what would follow is a 29 inch pitch as the standard or even less.

  27. Europeans are so much more sophisticated than Americans. They understand the seating is an expression of the art form of minimalism. The rest of you just are imbeciles who lack an appreciation of being part of a performance art piece.
    Same with the size of their average hotel room.

  28. Asian (that includes Middle East since Middle East is still part of Asia) airlines are much better than any European/American airline. Flying on MAS, SIA, TK, Qatar Airways, Emirates is a much more “full” experience than any of the other airlines on offer. I was once tricked into buying “Business” seats from London to Zurich… Long story short, I was pissed. I basically paid for having the seat next to me empty (only to serve as an armrest)… Everything else was 100% like economy although they do try to make it more premium by giving us all the other business privileges such as priority boarding, lounge access (where available), and better inflight service compared to people on coach. But I didn’t pay twice the Economy fare for all that. I would have expected the wider seats which I’m used to, travelling on Business with all the other Asian airlines. It was such a joke that a 300km flight on Malaysia Airlines Business had the “normal looking business seats” but a 3 hour flight from London to Rome only has what I would call “Premium Economy.” I then found out that all European flights are set up this way, which admittedly, is kind of sad.

  29. I noticed some comments about while in Europe, you get a nice meal, extra baggage, and lounge access. Is all of that really worth $500 (about) more per person? I know one US carrier that offers lounge access for $50.00, your an buy a really good meal at the airport for $25.00 max, and I’m sure that the excess baggage is $100.00 at the absolute most. That leaves a difference of $325.00. It hardly seams worth it for me.

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