Business Class is All About the Seat

You want a little bit of food that’s edible in business class, for sure, although for a short (US East Coast to nearer Europe such as London) overnight you just want to sleep as much as possible — eat in the lounge or at a restaurant beforehand and hope they’ll finish meal service quickly (to stop the clanging) and turn off the cabin lights.

For service, I don’t need the flight attendants to be nice to me, I just need their help or at least willingness to keep me hydrated.

My expectations for business class are mostly modest. But I want a good seat. Business class is all about the seat.

Regular readers know that I love first class, the journey can be very much a part of the trip. The food is good, the seat is excellent, the amenities are great and perhaps the best part is the spaciousness and privacy of the cabin which just feels less stressful and more restful.

But I don’t always fly in true luxury. And many don’t ever (many don’t fly in business class, but that’s an issue beyond the scope of this post).

The key elements, to me, are that the seat is lie flat. And that the seat is lie flat. And that the seat is lie flat. And within that framework, it helps when the seat is lie flat. (I also want the seat to be a bit wider so I can turn over or stretch without hitting the side, and so I feel a bit less claustrophobic. I want an extra pillow and an extra blanket so that one can serve as a mattress pad. And a bit of actual storage space helps. But these are all distinguishing features that matter only once the seat is lie flat.)

Scott McCartney has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on airline business class seats — why they’re moving to true lie flat, why it takes so long, and which airlines are the farthest along.

Roughly speaking business class seats fall into three categories:

  • Recliner seats. These are generally fine for daytime flights.
  • Angled flat seats. Singapore was an early adopter of the ‘space bed’ and the genre is sometimes known as the ‘wedgie seat’ since you may slide down, it’s an improvement over recliner seats but I find them rough on my back to sleep in.
  • True flat seats. United has the most of these, but on their 777s (and downstairs on BA’s 747s) it feels very dorm-style. The Cathay Pacific and US Airways seats are probably the best.

I’m anxious for American to begin flying its 777-300ERs, their current generation angled seats are pretty rough I think. But their seat is based on the Cathay seat, which is outstanding. But it will be years before they’re fully retrofitted through the existing fleet.

I hadn’t realized that Delta’s long haul fleet was still less than 50% lie flat.

It’s not just me. The seat drives consumer purchase decisions.

Airlines say travelers armed with information from sites like and frequent-flier communities like and have become a lot pickier about seating. “People look at all aspects of a seat,” says Nik Lusardi, lead designer at Virgin Atlantic in London, which spent five years developing its newest seat. For airlines, “no longer can things be done half-baked,” he says.

Much like US Airways’ decision to add wireless internet fleet-wide, it’s not that they make up the cost of installing the seats in the form of higher revenue, it’s that people book away and actively avoid buying your tickets if you don’t offer the product. So it’s necessary to prevent losing business.

But these seats are expensive.

Carriers have chosen vastly different paths to 180-degree seats, largely because of cost. A single business-class seat can run as much as a new BMW—$40,000 to $80,000, or easily $2 million per wide-body airplane. The investment also includes a few years of design (to shoehorn as many as possible into each plane), and testing and certification work required by aviation regulators.

One reason the seats cost so much: Padding and cushioning for a chair is quite different than for a bed, and a business-class seat is both. “The cushioning is quite intricate,” says Simon Talling-Smith, British Airways’ executive vice president of the Americas. And while some fold out manually, most have push-button systems to go from upright to flat.

I have an upcoming business class booking on Air France. And I know that it’s the epitome of #firstworldproblems but I am very much not looking forward to it. The award space was available, but the seats aren’t just angled, I find them uniquely uncomfortable amongst angled seats (I don’t much care that the flight attendants tend towards the surly side and that food is mostly decent out of Paris but not departing some US stations).

For me, I cannot wait to be able to use my American international upgrades on a true flat seat. With aisle access from all seats, so that no one climbs over me and I don’t climb over anyone else when visiting the lavatory in the middle of the night. No disturbances. Keep me hydrated and let me sleep and then I’m thrilled with 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, 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, why do you keep mentioning CX, US, and AA but omitting DL from the list of carriers using a variant of that seat? The 747 fleet is done from the consumer perspective. (I think there are one or two still in mods, but there are zero with the old NW World Business Class seats left flying.) DL also intends to put a version of that seat on their A330s, with the first one due into operation in the first part of 2013. The 767-300ERs will be doing a lot of catch-up this winter during seasonal service reductions, too. They’re getting the same seats as the 767-400s in a 1-2-1, forward-facing configuration.

  2. As a 6 foot tall woman, I figured out a long time ago that I had better be able to afford business class seats or find a way to get award and upgrades. On a teacher’s salary, I chose the latter form to attain a comfortable seat. Cathay Pacific from ICN to Mumbai (business class – lie flat) was outstanding. Sorry, I can’t remember the #of airplane. Etihad Business Class lie flat was to die for.
    In February, I am headed from ICN to DSM, and you are right, it’s all about lying flat. I searched until I found one on Delta and used award miles. I’m looking forward to the trip. Hope the dorm comment is not a serious reality, but lying flat is still better than sitting up.
    Love your blogs. Thanks.

  3. I totally agree that in business class, it is all about the seat – and any airline that doesn’t offer true lie-flat is just not in the game any more.

    I think United’s lie flat seats are fine – both the sUA and sCO ones. They have positions that work for working on the computer, eating, reading, and sleeping. I can deal with stowing my stuff during take-off and landing, and if I have to step over someone sleeping, I have enough agility.
    Clearly the best place on United is on the upper deck of the 744. Private mini-cabin with about 20 seats, 2 lavs and 2 FAs – and the window seats have a nice amount of storage which doubles as extra table space.

    United is pretty much 100% lie flat on 744, 772, 763, 764 and 788, as well as the TATL 752 fleet. (There are a couple of 772’s still being fitted, but odds of getting them are quite low and you usually can get compensation if you do). I don’t know about the sCO 762 fleet.

    I do find that it is a bit of a bait and switch by the various airlines if they advertise their business lie flat seats before the seat is widely installed. I’m looking at you, AA & LH.

  4. I agree that it is very important. I wish airlines would be clearer in labeling their flights as true lie flat or not. delta does a good job of identifying the type of seat when you’re booking.

  5. Your Quote “I have an upcoming business class booking on Air France…I am very much not looking forward to it.”

    I think a few long hauls in standard coach are in order (in a middle seat). As somene who is 6’6″, I never complain about a business class trip and always look forward to it. About 90% of my international trips are in Business/First, but I never take it for granted

  6. I just flew AF from CDG to IAD in Business Class on an A380. The seats were not angled but not lie flat.

  7. I’ve flown long haul business class in DL, LH, UA, US, SQ, BA, CO, CZ, CI, and some others. One of the most interesting versions was a recent trip that had me on China Southern’s A380 from LAX->CAN. They had a nice lie-flat seat with an extra pillow, a very thin ‘mattress’ to smooth out the seat creases, duvet, good IFE system, and aisle access. CZ even gave out pajamas and slippers. I was very comfortable and slept about 7-8 hours each way. The only weak point was the food/beverage section, which was average (for me, I wanted to maximize sleep so this did not matter a big deal). The ticket was pretty reasonable, around $4K purchased only a few days in advance.

  8. Looking forward to trying the LH true lie flats on the 748, I see it’s on LAX-FRA. Not much awad space though.

  9. I’m sure it’s just a personal preference, but I find that I do better in AF’s angled lie-flat vs. DL’s angled lie-flat.

  10. I’ve always wondered with the angled-flat seats–what stopped them from going all the way lie flat in the first place? I’m no engineer, but is taking them another 10 degrees really that hard?

  11. Interesting the article didn’t mention either Lufthansa’s lateness to the party or how the number of business class seats is typically reduced after the conversions.

  12. I couldn’t agree more. All things being equal, I’ve picked flights based on the guarantee of a lay flat bed. I’ve completely avoided some routing (Denver to Asia) because of an increased chance of getting a recliner seat. The article says United has 174 planes with lay-flat beds, and 15 with angled seats. How many are still the recliner? Is there any way of finding out what planes/routes on United have the greatest likelihood of their new seats?

  13. @Andrew:

    The seats are angled in order to save space, and squeeze more seats into the cabin. With angled flat, your feet go underneath the head of the person in front of you. So, their head needs to be raised a bit, and feet lowered a bit, to have enough space for that to work. With full lie flats, you need to space the seats out more, since you don’t have that cubby under the head of the person in front of you. Or, as some airlines have done, you need to get more creative with the seat layout instead of just using the standard 2x2x2 arrangement.

  14. On angled vs true lie flat, couldn’t agree more. The UA flat seat was MUCH more comfortable to me than the LH angled flat seat, although it was interesting being in the nose of the 747 (compared to the upper deck on UA).

    In fact, I actually prefer the old-style recliners the LH angled flat seat.

  15. I think DL has been overlooked, also. On a 15.5 hour flight JNB to ATL I slept 9 hours straight–and I thank the lie flat seat for that. On the CDG to JNB flight I was in the “pod” aka business class seat, and after the novelty of being able to electronically manipulate myself into a gazillion different configurations wore off, I realized that the seats weren’t really very comfortable!

  16. In terms of true flat beds, i’ve sampled LX, VS, CX (old), AC, PMUA, PMCO in J, and LH/CX in F.

    I now actively book away from recliners/angled ones, but still am willing to take the old TG seats (e.g. A340-600) since I got decent sleep on it.

  17. At 6’3″ and not one who travels for work, I agree %100 with needing fully flat on all longhaul flights.
    No flatbed, no money from me!

  18. I think @Mitch has a really good point.

    Why do you mention that Delta’s long-haul fleet is <50% lie flat while casually leaving out that AA's current fleet is 0% lie flat? Yes, you describe AA's current gen seat as "angled" (easily missed), but then go on to praise them for adopting a seat that Delta's been flying in their 747s for the last 6 months.

    I know you haven't tried hard to hide your bias against Delta in the past, and there are admittedly many issues with their FF program, but when you write a post like this that comes off as "presenting the facts" about business class seats, it seems unfair to disregard Delta like this. I would take Delta's lie flat seats to Asia (777 or 747) over AA or UA's any day.

  19. As both a UA1K and AA EXP i just took my first AA intl business trip to NRT and found the seats very uncomfortable compared to UA business class seats. I also read the WSJ article and was disappointed to learn how long we willwait for AA lie flat business seats.

  20. Flew AF A380 Flight #65 from LAX-CDG this week in Business Class. Was completely disappointed with the comfort of the seat. I am 6’3″. I don’t fly a ton, maybe 2x transatlantic per year. I expected so much more from this airline on this plane. The angled lie flat is a tease at best.

    Off subject: The newish Swiss flat bed seat on their 340 from LAX to ZRH is not a lot better than their old angled. Reason: the new lie flat is uncomfortably narrow and hard.

    I need to dump some AmEx miles into a program. Waiting for a BA or AF promotion- after the AF experience I might choose BA, although that 380 was damn nice.

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