Should You Fly First Class on a US Airline or Business Class on an Asian Carrier?

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

Take 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.

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.

Or take Taipei-based Star Alliance member EVA Air which 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 some of the world’s best champagnes.. in business class, not first (a class they do not offer).

These are truly fantastic business class products. Increasingly US airlines are eliminating first class, with American slated to be the last carrier offering it and then only on their small fleet of Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. And US airlines don’t offer service or food that’s as good in first class as some of the better carriers offer in business.

But I’ll still always take first class over business class. Let me offer the most extreme example. I’ll choose American’s old first class on their unreconfigured Boeing 777-200s over Singapore business class.

First class means a more spacious seat. It’s a more private, less crowded cabin. It’s easier to get the attention of a flight attendant for whatever need you have, like drink refills, even with the inconsistent crews on US airlines.

I believe the seat is the most important feature, especially when comparing to business class. And though the meals on American and United in first won’t be spectacular you aren’t giving up all that much even compared to the best business class meals be it on Singapore or Austrian.

Here’s the old American Airlines first class seat onboard the Boeing 777-200:

There’s a blanket and mattress pad with small pillow in first class, it was on the seat’s ottoman. And there’s a big pillow and blanket above the seat in the overhead, too. Together they make for quite nice bedding.

Your amenity kit is perfectly fine in American first class.

And there are pajamas. Perfect for a night’s sleep.

The seats even swivel. The most unique feature is that you can turn the seat to face many directions with about a 180 degree turn. If you’re traveling with someone, turn complete to face them and they can do the same.

Is this a proper international first class experience? Absolutely not. But I will take it over business class any day.

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. Slightly off-topic: I had a stash of Amex points and wanted to fly to Europe in a premium cabin without paying fuel surcharges. Swiss is N/A due to lack of availability. Turkish seems impractical due to the backtracking required to go through IST. Converting to Skymiles to fly Delta One costs the same number of MR points.

    I ended up converting them to Aeroplan to fly (what will be) Polaris First on United. Part of me says this is the shrewd decision, and part of me is kicking myself for flying United. What is the best decision given these circumstances? Does business class on any European carriers trump United First?

  2. Emirates business-class is not an industry-leading product, but nobody knows that because of their amazing marketing and soft product. Delta’s business-class is better than Emirates, at least the hard product. My biggest gripe is the inconsistent domestic first-class experience for connecting to and from expensive international business-class flights. I also wish US airlines would improve their flight attendants. I’d rather have a 25-year-old British Airways stewardess than a 55-year-old Delta grandma. Then again, I do like some of the pursers on Air France. They remind me of the Paris café waiter or restaurant maître d’. I flew Air France’s business-class, the new product, on a 777. It was amazing. Absolutely amazing. The seat. The food. The drinks. The service. Unfortunately, Air France’s product isn’t updated fleet-wide. It’s like United. Who wants to wait until 2021 for Polaris to be fleet-wide?

  3. I’ve taken enough mediocre UA/AA F flights the past 7-8 years where I’d now happily take the superior OUS airline business class now…better food, service, reliability, etc. ESPECIALLY since the UA/AA F seat will now be ~50% more miles relative to the OUS airline J seat.

  4. No way. That AA seat doesn’t even have an AC plug or functioning IFE. Even with the bigger cabin, the service on SQ in J would be far superior to that of AA, and the food and beverages would be better as well.

  5. I think all of us should focus on flying paid business or first-class on the cheapest, good 1x2x1 configuration.

  6. Is this even a thing? The seat difference pales in comparison to the grime of a typical US airliner, the surliness and uncaring attitude of the onboard staff, and the overarching penny-pinching attitude (an olive on a salad? That’s too much!! A new, modern interior? No, ours is 10+ years old! Contemporary soft LED lighting? No, we’ll wake you up by blasting 1980s era neons at full brightness. Silence and darkness so you can sleep? No, we’ll loudly gab in the galley all night long with lights at full blast, will never come through the cabin to check on you, and will periodically rearrange the carts banging them around).

    I’ll take a lie-flat business class seat on almost any other carrier rather than enduring the often fake class first of U.S. airlines.

  7. I recently did a roundtrip from the U.S. to Japan; outbound I flew in AA F (those exact seats; had to burn a SWU to get a horizontal seat) and the return was on JL J. Never again I will do AA F over JL J: the latter was so far better it’s not even close. I think you’re flat out wrong; your readers should ALWAYS take a horizontal business class rated 4 or 5 stars by Skytrax ( over booking the horrendous 3-star first that US airlines offer.

  8. AA’s new business class seats on the 777-300ER are the equal of any other business class you mentioned here. I therefore do not agree that “all of the truly best business class products are offered by Asian or Middle Eastern carriers.” Give AA credit where credit is due.

  9. Your point about the seat itself is valid, but the rest is just so variable. You’ve often said that business class is all about the seat. Now you’re also taking a miserable overall product like the AA 777-200 in first and saying that the benefit is all in the seat. I’d been under the impression that international first class was about the experience, and business about comfort. I had the dubious pleasure of flying first on AA to ICN a couple of moths ago on the 777-200, and the menu was photocopied, IFE was awful, and I was advised to make my entrée choice quickly, lest all the people in J swoop in and take away my choices. And the food was really bad. Service was also perfunctory. Flying business on JL or CX would have been so much better, but in retrospect, hey, it was an experience.

  10. As all of the previous comments demonstrate, the answer to Gary’s question is “It depends.” It is pointless to recount all of the potential variables and personal preferences, but a key, and perhaps the most important, factor for most of us in any such real-world decision is price.

  11. Gary your AA pics are old, like from 2012-14. Dermalogica tablet holder kits are long gone, where have you been? That was from before the merger already been several kits since then. I thought you got out more frequently.

  12. Service would be in general worse on US F than Asian J. How the flight attendants treat you matters more to me than a wider seat or privacy.

  13. My wife and I recently took a trip down under. We flew AA outbound to Sydney, and Cathay/Singapore back. The service and overall experience was so much better on the CP/Sing that my wife said she never wants to fly AA again. I agree with her.

  14. I prefer AA F to CX or JL J for the following reasons:
    1) Seat
    2) Food (more aligned with a US eating palate)
    3) Air Vents
    4) Service – I find Carts in J very frustrating – eat when we say you eat

  15. I recently had a truly awful experience on AA F from HKG to DFW. Sure the seat its larger, but the food and service is so bad that I wouldn’t even have to think about choosing Singapore and JAL business class over AA First.

  16. Very interesting conversation and everyone has their own inputs. My family of 4 has has an upcoming SFO-Tokyo flight in United F on a 747. (80k miles each) Then we fly back Osaka to LAX on JAL J on a 787. (60k AA miles each) The 787 on this route i believe has angled seats, so anxious to see which we like better. When traveling with a family of 4, you cant be too picky when anything with 4 opens up.

  17. @nsx an airline seat is not just a seat; it is an augmented product including food, entertainment, and service. The title of this thread is not “Who has built the best seat?” AA is not due any credit because, while they may have bolted a decent piece of hardware to the floor, their product is inferior.

    @Mike I don’t know what a “US eating palate” is but I have always found the Western options on CX and JAL to be better than anything I’ve ever had on AA. It’s not like these folks have never had Western food before. Japan, in particular, has some of the best classically-trained French chefs in the world.

  18. As someone else mentioned above, Gary typically says that the J is about the seat, and F is about the experience.

    You aren’t going to get an “experience” on any US carrier’s F product. I flew AA’s F product from JFK-EZE a couple of years ago, and the seat was so ratty that the armrest was a bit torn from the seat and the wiring was exposed. That was such as poor “welcome” that it really detracted from the whole “experience”.

    Heading to Asia, I don’t even consider a US carrier across the Pacific, let alone their F products. Given the increased miles cost of F tickets, it’s just not worth it.

  19. “I’ll choose American’s old first class on their unreconfigured Boeing 777-200s over Singapore business class.”
    Yeah right, sure you will. You just wrote that to get readers and to provoke people to write comments disagreeing with you. Like me for example.
    Last week my wife and I flew AA F SFO-ORD, then AA J ORD-MAN. It was AWFUL! We have flown SQ and JAL J this year and they both blow away AA F and J. It is like comparing the Ritz Carlton to a Budget Inn. The AA planes were old and dirty. 15 year old technology. Small fixed IFE on the ceiling. One movie running at a time. I could not believe how bad it was. I even took photos so that I can show people that I was not making this up. I thought BA J was lousy, I’ll choose BA any day over the AA flying garbage.
    Never again.

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