What’s the difference between business and first class?

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Airlines don’t go out of their way to make things clear, and the confusion surrounding how they name their cabins is a prime example of this. Why are some international flights only economy and business? Why do two-cabin domestic flights have a first class?

What’s happening here is that different parts of the world have different labels for the same thing.

Outside of the United States and some airlines in China, the first class label is reserved for the most exclusive cabin on a three-cabin aircraft. For example, Singapore Airlines fight 1 from San Francisco to Hong Kong offers three cabins of service: economy, business and first. Not all flights have a first class cabin: some routes don’t have enough demand for both business and first class, and so are sold with economy and business classes only.

In the United States, nearly all domestic flights have two cabins: economy and first. This domestic “first class” is what the rest of the world refers to as business class, or more specifically short-haul business class. To illustrate this point, let’s look at two flights that are similar in length and aircraft type, one from the U.S. and one from Europe.

  • In the U.S., airlines sell economy and first class for a flight from Seattle to Chicago.
  • In Europe, airlines sell economy and business class for a flight from London to Athens.

The product offerings in the front cabin are very similar; it’s just the label that differs.

To complicate things even more, there are a few special, route-specific offerings in the U.S., mainly between New York and the west coast. These are considered “premium” routes, and some offer three cabin service domestically.

Here are the quick takeaways:

  1. When you hear “business class” for short-haul flights abroad, it is equivalent to U.S. domestic first class.
  2. A true international first class is the most exclusive cabin on a three-cabin, long-haul flight.

The difference between short-haul and long-haul business class

Exhibit 1: Short-haul business class on British Airways (equivalent to domestic first class in the U.S.)


Exhibit 2: Long-haul business class on Singapore Airlines


(And in case you’re wondering, yes, those seats do convert to fully flat beds.)

Premium Economy

A more recent introduction by some airlines is a fourth cabin, usually called Premium Economy.  On international airlines this is designed as a separate cabin between regular economy and business. Typically it features more legroom and seat width and better meals.

For U.S.-based airlines premium economy is the front rows of the economy cabin, with rows of seats taken out to provide more legroom.


At the other end of the spectrum is Suite class. Only a few airlines offer private, enclosed suites. They were pioneered by Emirates and Singapore Airlines in the last decade, and have appeal in certain very affluent travel markets. While there aren’t many routes that can provide demand for this level of ultra-luxury, it has caught on for a few, such as Abu Dhabi to London on Etihad. You’ll know you’ve made it when you fly in The Residence:

No word yet about how to use frequent flyer miles to book The Residence, but a guy can hope.

About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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