2011 December 24 Saturday
Cost And Weight Of Business Class Seats

One of the problems with flying, especially on long distance flights, is limited leg room in economy class. Yet the step up to business class requires spending some multiple of coach fares. I've always wondered why there aren't more steps between economy and business classes. Came across a Businessweek article that sheds some light on the economics of airplane seat costs. A business class seat alone now weights 200 lbs more than coach.

A single business class berth crammed full of entertainment systems and the electronics needed to morph into a bed can weigh 300 pounds, three times its coach class counterpart, and typically costs $80,000 to $100,000.

Just who are the price insensitive buyers who will pay, say, $5400 to go business class from San Francisco to Sydney in 1 hop versus $1800 for Economy? Are they employees? At what corporate rank or in what industries? That's nultiple is a factor of 3. Check out Kayak and try some long haul flights. The multiple between Economy and Premium Economy (like Business?) from NYC to Johannesburg, South Africa is on the order of 4 or 5.

So is there really little demand for adequate leg room by itself? Seems like it. Yet I don't need a 200 lbs greater seat to sit in with lots of electronic gadgetry built in. An extra laptop battery and an extra smart phone battery can keep me in movies, music, and ebooks for all my waking hours even on a 20 hour flight. Does the price gap between economy and business classes indicate a different source of buying power (ability of corp execs to get their employer to pay more) that is much less price sensitive?

Short of business class there are ways to get more leg room, at least on some flights: pay more for exit row seating. As that link to British Airways shows, it can be problematic though. You can try to pay for an exit row seat in in Economy or Premium Economy at 14 days before departure. So do you have to buy your ticket before knowing whether you can pay for the exit row upgrade? Do you have to start your out-bound part of a trip before knowing whether you can buy an exit row seat on the in-bound part?

Is paying for exit row seating a viable strategy for getting more leg room on long haul flights? The answer is unclear to me. A site called Seat Guru has layouts of various aircraft for each airline with seat quality ratings by color. Note a small number of Green (good) seats on this Continental Boeing 737-500. Given that frequent fliers can nab those seats my guess is they are very hard to get. But it can be worse. Take the Continental Boeing 767-400ER (Extended Range - where leg room would be most beneficial) for example, It has no Green good seats. The exits have lavatories galleys next to them. So no seats have extra leg room. By contrast, the Continental 777-200ER has a number of green seats.

United Airlines has Economy Plus which is more what I'm interested in. On a United 777-200 Economy Plus provides "up to" 5 inches of extra leg room. Not sure what is meant by "up to". But on a United 747-400 Economy Plus provides only up to 3 extra inches.

Note that you can hover over seats in Seat Guru to get extra information. A lot of the exit row seats do not have under-seat storage space. This seems problematic if you want to bring along a backpack with laptop and ebook reader. Will you be able to store it nearby and retrieve and store again on a longer flight?

What I'd like: a web search engine on flight availability where one can include leg room minimums in one's search.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 December 24 01:57 PM  Economics Transportation

Mountain Dew said at December 24, 2011 2:28 PM:

I don't fly a lot, but even if I did, I think there are more interesting topics to talk about. Sorry I'm just saying.

Basil Ransom said at December 24, 2011 3:18 PM:

"Just who are the price insensitive buyers who will pay, say, $5400 to go business class from San Francisco to Sydney in 1 hop versus $1800 for Economy?"

I read elsewhere that business class seats subsidize the cost of passenger seats. So if you made business seats lighter and charged less, you might have to charge more for the coach seats, where the demand is probably more responsive to price. With an industry as cutthroat as flying, there must be some logic behind it.

Black Death said at December 24, 2011 3:35 PM:

Last year I flew to London from the US. Business class, very nice, the seats folded down to make flat beds. I had a few glasses of wine in the lounge and a few more on the plane. After dinner, I folded down the seat, put a blanket over my head and went to sound sleep. The next thing I knew, they were serving breakfast. My wife asked me if I was bothered by the turbulence. "There was turbulence?" I asked. Yeah, she said, it was so bad they made the flight attendants sit down. "There was turbulence?" I asked. Now I hate turbulence, but this time, helped by the comfy bed and all the wine, I snoozed peacefully through it. Never felt a thing. Was it worth the substantial premium? Every penny.

mc said at December 26, 2011 12:40 AM:

I have heard that most people in first class got there as frequent flyers, not by paying sticker price.

Mike said at December 26, 2011 7:33 PM:

I flew connoisseur class, which is like business class, to London on a United 777. The had a seat map in the galley with the passengers listed for the flight attendants to use. It had on it whether they paid full fair or used miles to upgrade. Just about everyone was using miles to upgrade.

Sideways said at December 27, 2011 7:15 AM:

Yes, it's Virtually all upgrades with miles. First class, too. 5 times the cost, twice the miles when you fly internationally

Randall Parker said at December 27, 2011 7:34 PM:

Using miles to upgrade: Okay, so do people rack up those miles on shorter flights and spend them on upgrades on longer flights?

How many miles to upgrade a trans-pacific flight each way to business class? If you are going 10,000 miles do you need to spend 1 mile per mile?

Also, can one buy a ticket, not use it, and book the miles?

dearieme said at December 29, 2011 2:08 PM:

Air New Zealand offers good leg room in cattle class, or they did 5 years ago. Their seat belts offered enough length for fatties. The shoulder room was no better though, so if you were well-made, tough luck.

Randall Parker said at January 1, 2012 1:03 PM:


Check out Air New Zealand in this international long haul comparison chart of different airlines. They've got some 747s with slightly better economy class seating. But not all their long hauls are any better than average.

The chart shows just how bad some airlines are. Those 30" seat pitches on AA 767-300 flights are horrible. I'm going to check that chart before booking long haul flights in the future.

Business Class said at January 11, 2012 9:35 AM:

I wish I could afford to fly anywhere. I usually have to take a bus so I don't see what the big stink is about how much a seat in business class costs. By the way, $5400 is what I make in 4 months.

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