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Skift Take

It costs passengers a bundle to fly this class, but it also costs airlines a fortune to make this class worth flying. These ratings reflect whether all that money is put to good use.

— Marisa Garcia

Singapore Airlines Business Class Seat on A340, A380, B777-300ER aircraft.

Singapore Airlines Business seat on the A340, A380, B777-300ER aircraft.

Singapore Airlines New Business Class Seat to be installed on new aircraft entering service.

After trying to find the World’s Best Business Class cabins, we can honestly declare that we are exhausted and in need of a long flight to a pretty island somewhere—in a fully-flat bed. However, we’ll settle for sharing the fruits of our labor with you.

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All business classes have dramatically improved in the last 20 years. In fact, yesterday’s First Class cabins would like to formally apologize for their extreme inadequacy. We have trouble imagining how airlines will continue to leap-frog past this product, but surely the industry will come up with something. It always does.

These high standards made Business Class a bear to rate.

You can blame British Airways for making Business Class a complicated luxury. BA introduced the whole idea of sleeping comfortably on a flat-bed in Business Class back in 2000, in response to a series of volleys between BA and Virgin Atlantic to best each other’s products that started back to the 1990s.

BA kicked it into high-gear with a Business Class you could actually sleep in, arriving refreshed on the other side. This was a concept completely unheard outside of First Class (and that was a British Airways innovation too, along with Air France). Virgin Atlantic’s own Upper Class service at the time was far above what other airlines offered around the world (what we call the souped-up La-Z-Boy model of aircraft seating), but its Upper Class angled down, which made sleeping less comfortable.

How the Skies Have Changed

Today, lie-flat is a minimum requirement in Business Class. At least, it is for us. There were so many airlines to rate that we discounted any product which had angled beds, and no armchairs need apply.

Trying to rate today’s Business Class, however, is a bit like herding geese. The aircraft interiors wars have escalated and some airlines have already introduced, but not put into service, or put into limited service, products which are far above their current standard. We had to make the difficult decision of whether to rate these airlines.

To draw a line somewhere (and we hope we put it in the right place), we rated only those airlines whose current in-service product meets the minimum requirements (i.e., fully-flat bed) and rated them on their newest product only if it is flying right now. If it’s still in the drawing room, sorry. It will count in your favor next year.

We had to differentiate between these various products to assign the experiential ratings we’ve used thus far. We’ll take an opportunity to clearly explain the Business Class factors, which also give us an opportunity to answer some follow-up questions we received on previous ratings.

More Airline Cabin Ratings

It’s Not All About the Inches

Yes. An inch here and there can help, and certainly several inches will make a big positive impact, but the true guide of the passenger experience is a holistic set of factors. It considers all the elements of the product which dimensions alone cannot communicate. Is the seat structure making the most of the space available? Is the cabin environment spacious? Can you get a bit of privacy?

Are there features on the seat which will make two nearly identical structures feel differently? Of course there are! That’s what great designers accomplish in aircraft interiors—there’s 21” and then there’s 21”. Even when airlines buy off-the-shelf, they can make special tweaks to the product to ensure that theirs is just a little bit better than competitors. We took those tweaks into consideration. We also considered nuisance, disruptive elements which might get in the way of your comfort. We also look at cabin lay-out, quality of components, design, service features, niceties … a whole bunch of stuff. That’s why it takes hours and hours and hours to come up with these few numbers.

There are already sites available which give inches as reference points, and those passengers fond of inches can certainly look them up. Word of caution: when we referred to these, we used them as a guide, not as a hard-and-fast ruler by which to measure quality and with which to beat airlines.

Beyond the variability of the numerous passenger experiential factors we mention, we also found some cases where the measurements themselves on these sites did not reflect today’s in-service product, and the classifications of the type seat might not all be up-to-date. It’s a big job for anyone trying to herd those geese. Our kudos to the data-gatherers and data-entry people who make these numbers an excellent starting point.

What Really Matters

The World’s Major Carrier Economy Class Ratings and Boutique Economy Class ratings will be useful to those who want to find certain universal features of product and service on the airlines referenced. For this latest rating, we looked at Business Class onboard both World and Boutique carriers, grouped by region.

The airlines listed qualified for the basic requirement: a fully lie-flat bed. Because Business Class is a premium product, for which airlines universally charge a pretty penny, the expectation was that Major Carriers should try to match or better the Boutique carriers in this category. By grouping them together, we allow for this comparison and determine whether they have succeeded.

While there are many ways to present this product–some with more comfort and well-being advantages than others–we judged most harshly on cabins which create the highly inconvenient dilemma of having to climb over a passenger seated next to you who is asleep. In our opinion, there’s really no way to rest well, regardless of the bed, if you risk not being able to use the loo, or have a stranger step on you because they lose balance as they make the awkward climb. Certain airlines have what we will refer to kindly as “couples seating” but include some individual seating, and we weighed that into our rating.

The Factors

Perks: If you provide chauffeur service, congratulations! You earned yourself an 11.

Bed: This is a combination of the space and length of the bed and the overall structure with certain other comfort factors considered, such as the cushions and bedding.

Seat: This is a guide of the seat itself, again considering overall comfort factors as well as dimensions.

Comfort: This is a factor of all the structural and trim elements of the ‘practically a suite, suite pod or booth’ and how they combine to generate a sense of comfort for the passengers.

Space: This considers not only your own personal space in that structure but how that sense of space might be affected either by cabin layout or by the sense of privacy afforded by the seat or both.

Sleep Factor: This considers the bed, seat, comfort factors, and space and determines how likely you are to get a good rest.

Work-Friendly: This considers how comfortable you would be working on this seat, and how many work-enabling features there are available to you.

Storage: Some airlines really go overboard with nooks and crannies and all sorts of nice places to put your things so they are to-hand throughout the flight. Points for that.

Dining: Everyone gives high-quality dining in Business Class. We gave extra points for really nice china, really delectable menu varieties, the option of ordering your meal ahead, the availability of nibbles throughout the flight, the dishes and presentation, and whether Chef Le Mieux designed the menu. Some even had Le Chef onboard, so extra points for that.

IFE: This got tricky. Some had large screens but little content, others had oodles of content and meh equipment, some were in the middle-range in hardware and content, and some had state-of-the-art everything. We considered all of these factors.

Amenities: This did not go higher than 4. It’s an important feature, but we wanted to ensure we weighted it fairly against far more important features of the passenger experience. Only airlines offering jim-jams got a score of ‘3’. We gave a 4 to JAL because of the high quality of their amenities and pajamas and other stuff given out (leg massagers) to help you feel good great.

Onboard Lounge: If you have one, was it: 1) OK, somewhere to grab a nibble and refreshment, 2) Nice to stand in and/or lean against in 3) lovely to sit in and hang out. 4) OK, this is like the airport lounge, but smaller. Note: these are not available on all aircraft.

Design Appeal: A lot of thought went into making these cabins especially attractive. Yes, attractive is very subjective, but we think these are in very good taste and buckets of dough went into making them look that good.

Ranking the World’s Business Class Sections by Region
(Scroll right to see all details)

Service, Region, Airline Alliance Perks Bed Seat Comfort Space Sleep Factor Work Friendly Storage Dining IFE Amenities Onboard Lounge Design Appeal Net Score
North America
Air Canada Star Alliance 8 8 7 8 8 8 9 7 8 10 2 0 8 91
American Oneworld 7 8 8 8 8 8 9 8 7 7 2 1 9 90
Delta SkyTeam 7 8 7 8 8 7 7 5 6 7 2 0 7 79
United Star Alliance 7 5 6 5 5 5 6 5 5 6 2 0 5 62
Latin America
LAN/TAM Oneworld 7 5 5 5 5 5 5 5 7 7 2 0 5 61
Europe
Aer Lingus Independent 8 7 7 7 7 7 7 8 8 8 1 0 8 83
Airberlin Oneworld 8 7 7 7 7 7 7 8 7 8 2 0 8 83
Air France SkyTeam 7 8 8 8 7 8 8 9 9 9 2 0 10 93
Alitalia Star Alliance 7 7 6 7 7 7 7 6 7 6 2 0 8 77
Austrian Airlines Star Alliance 7 6 6 6 7 7 7 7 7 8 2 0 8 78
British Airways Oneworld 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 6 8 6 2 0 8 79
Brussels Airlines Star Alliance 7 6 6 6 6 6 7 7 7 8 2 0 8 76
Finnair Oneworld 7 6 6 6 7 7 7 7 9 7 2 0 8 79
Iberia Oneworld 7 9 9 9 9 9 9 8 9 9 2 0 9 98
KLM SkyTeam 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 8 9 8 2 0 8 84
Lufthansa Star Alliance 7 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 7 8 1 0 8 73
SWISS Star Alliance 7 6 6 6 7 7 7 7 7 8 2 0 8 78
TAP Air Portugal Star Alliance 7 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 7 8 1 0 7 72
Turkish Airlines Star Alliance 7 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 10 8 2 0 8 77
Virgin Atlantic Independent 11 10 9 9 8 9 8 7 8 7 3 3 10 102
Africa
Kenya Airways SkyTeam 7 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 7 4 2 0 8 70
South African Airways Star Alliance 7 6 7 6 6 6 6 5 7 5 2 0 8 71
Middle East
Emirates Independent 11 7 7 8 8 7 9 9 10 7 2 3 8 96
Etihad Independent 11 8 8 8 9 8 10 9 10 10 3 4 11 109
Oman Air Independent 11 7 7 8 8 7 9 6 10 7 2 0 8 90
Qatar Airways Oneworld 11 8 8 8 8 8 9 8 10 10 3 2 9 102
Royal Jordanian Oneworld 8 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 10 7 1 0 8 83
Asia/Pacific
Air New Zealand Star Alliance 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 1 0 9 90
All Nippon Airways (ANA) Star Alliance 7 8 8 8 8 8 8 7 10 7 3 0 9 91
Asiana Airlines Star Alliance 7 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 10 8 2 3 9 95
Cathay Pacific Oneworld 7 7 7 7 7 7 8 9 9 8 2 0 9 87
China Southern SkyTeam 7 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 9 8 0 0 8 88
Hainan Airlines Independent 11 7 6 7 6 7 7 7 8 7 2 0 9 84
Japan Airlines Oneworld 10 10 10 10 10 10 10 10 10 11 4 0 9 114
Korean Air SkyTeam 9 6 6 6 6 6 7 6 9 8 2 3 8 82
Qantas Oneworld 11 7 7 7 7 7 7 6 8 7 3 0 9 86
Singapore Airlines Star Alliance 10 11 11 11 11 11 10 11 10 10 1 0 11 118
Thai Airways Star Alliance 7 6 6 7 7 6 8 7 8 8 2 0 8 80
Virgin Australia Independent 11 6 7 6 6 6 7 7 8 7 2 2 9 84

Top 5 Business Class Cabins

The #1 World’s Champion by quite a lot is Singapore Airlines. This airline has so many comfort and space factors in its favor that we had to rate some of them eleven, just to do justice to the experience.

A worthy Runner-Up is Japan Airlines, which goes out of its way to make room for passengers. Lots of room.

And in a very good ‘Show’ position is Etihad Airways which has put in tons of money to improve the passenger experience in all areas of the aircraft.

Tied for fourth place are Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which makes a total of five excellent experiences you can choose from.

Winners by Region

  • Best Business Class in Africa: South African Airways
  • Best Business Class in Asia: Singapore Airlines
  • Best Business Class in Europe: Virgin Atlantic
  • Best Business Class in Latin America: LAN/TAM (by default)
  • Best Business Class in the Middle East: Etihad Airways
  • Best Business Class in North America: Air Canada

Let’s face it, you really can’t go wrong with any of these Business Class seats and we already know that more exciting developments are underway. We expect the competition to be fierce in the coming years.

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