For modern business travelers, getting there is all the fun.
"Fifteen years ago, business class just meant a wider seat and a free cocktail," says Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo. "Now, the seat density is half as much as what it was years ago — we've gone from 20 to ten seats in business. You get a personal entertainment system, gourmet dining and Internet connectivity. What used to be first class is now just being called business; when you're on a 180-degree flat bed, that is first class, no matter what you call it."
Indeed, many carriers are eliminating their first class products or investing in significant overhauls of their business products, turning business class into the first choice for harried business travelers everywhere.
Take British Airways. The venerable carrier is on the verge of announcing plans to invest £100 million ($190 million) in Club World, its business class offering. BA, which currently ranks second on our list of the Best Business Class Airlines, will redesign the Club World cabin, introduce a new, wider flat-bed and provide on-demand entertainment, consisting of 100 movie and TV channels and 70 audio programs for passengers.
And in August 2005, Air New Zealand, currently fourth on our list, went a step further. The airline discontinued its first class service altogether, introducing an upgraded business class service, Business Premium, and an upgraded economy option, Premium Economy, along with its standard economy class. A three-tiered cabin system? Sounds an awful lot like the old First, Business and Economy divisions to us, but with one crucial difference. While fares round-trip from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, on the old first class started at a princely $11,263, the same route costs just $6,268 on the new Business Premium (it costs $1,828 on Premium Economy, and $1,056 on regular economy).
Even better: "In terms of the passenger experience and amenities (lie-flat beds, menu, entertainment etc.), Business Premier is actually a step up from our previous First Class. We think of our Business Premier as a first class product at a business class price," Karen Laugesen, a spokeswoman for Air New Zealand in the Americas, writes in an e-mail.
Turns out, that's just good business.
"For some business class passengers, their company won't let them fly first class. Business class is fine though," says Boyd. "And when business class became the main battleground for trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific revenue, that's when the focus gravitated."
As of September 2006, one-way business class fares averaged about $3,950 over 150 international routes, according to Harrell Associates, an aviation industry consulting firm based in New York City. That price is up an average of 7 percent over September 2005, an indication both that energy prices are driving up plane fares, and that business class customers are more than willing to make up the difference.
And with business class growing ever more luxurious, we don't blame them. On Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class service, passengers can receive massages or manicures from red-suited flight attendants. Qatar Airways boasts a massaging footrest, and on Etihad Airways, if the European, Asian and Middle Eastern menu doesn't do it for you, customers can choose from over 20 special meals, including gluten-free, high-fiber, low-calorie, Muslim, Hindu or Jain.
For the first time, Forbes.com has compiled a list of the Best Business Class Airlines. We worked with Skytrax, a U.K.-based airline and airport quality ranking firm, which sent 16 auditors into the field for 6 months to assess the 71 carriers that offer business class service on international, long-haul routes. Skytrax grades each airline across a giant matrix with over 400 criteria, including efficiency of the check-in process, the quality of the onboard entertainment and the temperature of the meal service entrée when it is served.