Class Action – Economy, Business, First And Your Miles

Class Action – Economy, Business, First And Your Miles

When travelers talk class of travel, the conversation covers topics such as better service, bonus mileage, seat pitch and avoiding “cattle” class.

However, in the world of frequent flyers, there is only one true class of travel, and everybody knows it: travel in business class. You get more space. End of story. Forget the glassware; forget the 25-percent class-of-service bonus; forget about avoiding the unwashed masses who occupy economy class. Every business traveler always prefers business class, and they prefer it because they get more space to sleep, to work, and to stretch their legs on those transatlantic flights. Of course, if first class is within reach, anybody would be a fool not to take it, but how many companies eagerly foot the bill for first?

Having dealt with that, we can now look at other aspects of class of travel. In a general overview, there is much to be said about differences between classes of service, why a traveler would choose one class over another and which carriers offer a better product. What follows is a quick rundown for each class. After that we get down to the important business at hand: miles. How does class of service affect mileage accrual and redemption?

One word of caution though: We’ve decided that the current state of domestic first class is not worth including here, a point that most of you would surely agree with.

Economy Class
When talking about economy class, there is no end to the complaints. Our readers indicate that “the best economy class [they] have flown does not exist,” because they “hate them all equally.” What makes coach so awful? The most immediate issue is seat pitch, which is the industry expression for space. Seat pitch is the distance measured between a seat and the seats in back and in front of it. When a carrier calculates the amount of space required for a seat, they default to what is termed the “95-percentile passenger.” The industry believes this prototypical passenger represents the average dimensions of most passengers. A 95-percentile passenger is male, 5’10” to 6 feet tall and weighs 180-210 lbs. Hmmm …. That fits (looking around the office quickly) just the editor; who must be in-flight somewhere tipping the statistical scale in favor of that body type. No wonder economy class is so uncomfortable. Moving on from our very scientific analysis, the carriers have developed an industry standard of a 31-inch seat pitch to match this mythical 95-percentile passenger. For those who have stuck in economy class on a long-haul flight replete with screaming children, stale food and mounting minutes spent on the tarmac, 31 inches represents some type of medieval torture chamber.

If economy class is so miserable, why would anybody allow themselves to be herded into one of these strait-jackets that airlines call seats? The first answer is cost. If you pay for your own seat, the expense report makes the benefits of economy obvious. It has been said that: “Anyone willing to pay 10 times the price for business or first class over an economy ticket is a fool or a millionaire, though as an upgrader he/she could be a mileage millionaire.” A company conscious of the bottom line is going to book traveling employees into economy and save enormously. Some travelers have the benefit of measuring cost and comfort against each other. For short-haul and day flights, stick it out in economy and save cash. For long-haul or overnight flight, the benefit of comfort outweighs the concern over price. If economy is in the future though, many have decided to change frequent flyer loyalty, choosing United and their Economy Plus program or even JetBlue, both of which offer extended leg room. Many business travelers still feel that American Airlines blinked when it started to add seats to coach, when they had just started to move the dial for frequent flyers with their “More Room Throughout Coach” seating plan, popular with AAdvantage members. Other carriers recommended by our readers internationally for the quality of their economy class include Cathay Pacific and SAS.

Business Class [international]
Having escaped the constrictions of economy, business class provides an oasis. Travelers receive an extra 8 inches or more seat pitch, while avoiding the dramatic price increase associated with first class, even though today’s business class is easily as good or better than first class was just five years ago. As most of our readers know, a dozen years ago airlines started to introduce two-class service internationally, and thus introduced the hybrid class of travel which was somewhere between economy and first class. Even though business fares have risen rapidly in recent years, our informal poll still records 70 percent of travelers opining that business class is usually worth the added cost, simply for the extra space and comfort. “Service, the lounge [access] and food are also important,” records an InsideFlyer Advisory Board member, “and individual screens are good, too, for the privacy.” Another agrees that he likes the perks such as the “ability to sleep, technology like power adaptors for laptops, onboard Internet access for some and personalized screens for movies.”

Another standard is booking economy and upgrading by any means possible, whether with miles or money, or, in the case of AAdvantage and OnePass members, both. Luckily, a good proportion of our Advisory Board members are employed by companies that realize it is well worth the expense of flying business travelers in business class on international flights longer than four hours.

Responses regarding who has a better business class product vary enormously. One reader has obviously given this a great deal of thought: “Continental BusinessElite is a 9.0 [out of 10]; it is the best international I have flown. British Airways receives an 8.5 because the leg-rests are too short for long legs in the cradle seat. American uses leather seats that seem old cowhide and not comfortable [7.5] at all and Virgin just wows you with service [9.0].”

First Class [international]
Going back to seat pitch, the industry standard has changed over the years and no longer exists because of the change to “yacht-style” pods for first-class cabins popularized by British Airways. Of course, the fares for first are dramatically higher than economy. The arguments for flying first are the same used for the jump between economy and business: “even more space, excellent food and airport lounge access.” Readers are also quite opinionated about the preeminent first-class products. Quite a few airlines hit the mark, including Singapore Airlines (no surprise there), British Airways and Virgin’s Upper Class.

Mileage Classification
Although the choice of which cabin to travel in relies mostly on comfort, space and other non-mileage related issues, class of travel does have an impact on mileage accrual and redemption. For mileage accrual, the following questions apply: How do class-of-service bonuses compare between the programs? How do partner airlines differ from the host program in providing class of service bonuses? Are more bonuses offered depending on class of travel? With regards to mileage redemption, the questions change to: Are more reward seats allotted in a certain class? In which class are rewards most commonly claimed? Within a program, what are the relative redemption values between service classes?

Mileage Accrual
Traveling in business and first class is beneficial in mileage terms because they have guaranteed class-of-service mileage bonuses. How do class-of-service bonuses compare between programs? In general, the industry standard is 125 percent of actual miles flown for business class and 150 percent of actual miles flown for first class. A few programs go slightly higher. Considering that business class fares are usually at least double if not more than those in economy, only rewarding 25 percent when you have paid three times as much for business is somewhat miserly. Another issue that we have difficulty with is the tendency to not attribute miles for discount fares, or to reward 50-70 percent of the miles flown. This is more of a trademark for non-U.S. programs and considering the backlash at Delta a few years back, may or may not be a factor in airline plans in the future. When airlines publish highly discounted fares, the airline’s competitors almost always match them, so the traveler is still making the point of being loyal to one airline over another and should be rewarded accordingly.

How do partner airlines differ from the host program in providing class of service bonuses? Once again, the industry has the general standard of 125 percent for business and 150 percent for first class, with very few variations.

Mileage Accrual
(the percent rewarded of the actual distance flown)
Program Discount Fares Full Economy Business First
AeroMexico 100 100 125-150 150-200
Air Canada 50 100 100 150
AirTran 100 100 150
Alaska 100 100 100 150
Aloha 100 100 100 100
American 100 100 125 150
ATA 100 100 200
British Airways 25 100 125-150 200
Continental 100 100 150 150
Delta 100 150 150 150
Hawaiian 100 100 100 150
Mexicana 100 100 125-150
Northwest 100 100 150 150
United 100 100 125 150
US Airways 100 100 150 150
Varig 100 100 125 150
Virgin 50 100 150 200

If it does vary, this is normally because the program itself is different than the standard. In other words, class of service bonuses on the partner airlines almost always match the bonus levels on the host program. Of course, the popularity of alliances have made this more homogenized than in the past.

With regard to bonsues offered on a promotional, limited-time basis, does the class of travel affect how many bonuses are available? Frequent flyer programs responded to this question with a resounding and unqualified no. We beg to differ.

Mileage Redemption
Moving on to mileage redemption, are more reward seats allotted in certain classes? The answer is: not particularly. Airlines allot a certain percentage of each cabin to reward travel, a percentage which tends to range from 5-10 percent of the seats. In a more specific illustration, Northwest WorldPerks states that: “The number of reward seats available for redemption varies depending on the flight origin, destination, date of departure, date of return, class of service, the chosen reward level and the airline the members desires to travel on.”

If the same percentage of seats are offered for redemption in each class, in which class of service are rewards most commonly claimed? The top answer appears to be that, although paying for business simply to obtain more miles is a waste of money, redeeming miles to fly reward tickets in business class is a great value.

An informal poll of Advisory Board members discovered the following: 41 percent redeemed their miles in coach, 35 percent flew business class and 24 percent spent their miles in first.

Although this portrays an equal playing field, actual comments condoned business class: “[It’s] a very bad idea to pay for business class, but not a bad idea to redeem for business-class rewards.”

Once again, frequent flyer programs responded with the same answer for every program: Economy class takes the brunt of reward redemption, because economy-class tickets are cheaper to redeem. Interestingly enough, some programs report that their business class redemption is higher than economy class.

Although it is more expensive in mileage terms to redeem in business or first class, how much more expensive is it? Here are some pretty loose number crunching led us to the following conclusions. (Rewards were compared internally to a program along several representative routes and then averaged to obtain an approximate percentage of increase between economy and first. For greater detail, reference the corresponding chart featured online.)

From economy to business class, the required mileage increases between 25 percent and 60 percent, with an average of 45 percent. From economy to first class, the mileage required to redeem a reward increases by 50 percent to 150 percent, with an average of 80 percent. However, the majority of programs are right at 100 percent.

From this, deciding whether it is a good bargain to redeem the extra miles from your account to fly business or first varies, depending on your personal choices. If it’s a short-hop then economy is great. However, if you’re crossing half the world to reach a vacation or experience of a lifetime, add the extra 50 percent of miles to your redemption and let the vacation begin the moment you board the plane.

And being rewarded for enduring all the misery of business travel is what it’s all about, right?

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