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Why Business Class in Europe Is Not What You'd Expect

Aug. 27, 2015
9 min read
Why Business Class in Europe Is Not What You'd Expect
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I've had some memorable experiences flying in premium cabins, but not all first or business-class seats are created equal. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains why flying up front within Europe might not be worth the extra cost.

One of the best aspects of award travel is that you can travel not only at a discount (or for free), but also in greater comfort. There's something special about flying in first or business class and arriving at your destination refreshed, well-fed and ready to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, the experience of business class within Europe can be distinctly less comfortable than what you might expect. In this post, I'll examine this phenomenon and give you a sense of what to expect the next time you're booked on an intra-Europe flight.


For those of you who haven't experienced it before, on the vast majority of European legacy carriers (Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, etc.), short-haul business class within Europe is essentially a coach seat at the front of the plane with the middle seat blocked off. On smaller narrow-body aircraft with 2 x 2 seating configurations, it may simply be the same seat with some additional legroom, sometimes with the neighboring seat blocked off.

Business-class seats aboard a Lufthansa A321 intra-Europe from Madrid to Munich.

Generally speaking, this strategy was implemented by airlines to add flexibility to their aircraft utilization. For example, a carrier might block the middle seat in the first four rows. As the departure date approaches, if only a handful of business-class seats are booked, some of those seats can be sold to paying coach customers. Because the airline hasn't installed permanent business-class seats, it can simply remove the middle seat block from rows 3 and 4 and sell additional coach tickets.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 3.41.05 PM

One notable exception to this rule is Turkish Airlines. My wife and I flew Turkish from Prague to Istanbul in December of 2013, and found its business class seats on a 737 to be similar to the domestic first class offered by US carriers.

The seat is just one aspect of the intra-Europe business-class experience. Carriers wouldn't be able to charge a significant premium for these routes without offering additional benefits like free checked bags (or an additional baggage allowance), lounge access and enhanced food and drink options on board. The links below will lead you to detailed information about what you'll find on the major European airlines:

Booking Premiums

Even though these cabins are essentially glorified economy seats, they still command a relatively high premium (both for paid and award tickets). Here's a sample of British Airways prices from London-Heathrow to Zurich on a random date this fall:

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As you can see, a one-way business class seat on these flights will cost you more than three times the price of economy. If you want to redeem Avios on these flights, the premium isn't quite as high (though it varies depending on whether you're looking at peak or off-peak dates under the devalued Executive Club program). A one-way economy flight will set you back 4,000 - 4,500 Avios, while business class on the same flight would cost 7,750 - 9,000 Avios.

British Airways is a bit unique in that it follows a distance-based award chart. Most other carriers charge a fixed number of miles for flights within Europe. Here's a breakdown of the one-way mileage requirements for some popular mileage programs:




Applicable Carriers

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

15,000 miles

25,000 miles

Air France/KLM

American AAdvantage

10,000 miles

20,000 miles

All oneworld and non-alliance partners

Delta SkyMiles

15,000 miles

25,000 miles

All SkyTeam and non-alliance partners

United Mileage Plus

15,000 miles

30,000 miles

All Star Alliance and non-alliance partners

Tagging onto Long-haul Flights

One of the nice things about these flights is that most programs (British Airways is a notable exception) allow you to include these short-haul flights in a larger itinerary without using any additional miles. For example, if you wanted to fly from New York to Europe and wanted to use Delta SkyMiles, your mileage cost would be the same for a nonstop JFK-Paris flight as it would be for a JFK-Paris-Berlin itinerary (assuming you can find availability at the lowest level).

In addition, I've typically found that availability on these flights is quite good. Remember that ExpertFlyer can be your best friend to find this award inventory, as you can set alerts to notify you when a seat (or multiple seats) open up. Here are the European carriers that display award inventory for intra-Europe business class (including the corresponding fare class) on ExpertFlyer:

  • Aer Lingus (U)
  • Aeroflot (O)
  • Air Europa (Z)
  • Air France (O)
  • Alitalia (Z)
  • Brussels (I)
  • CSA Czech (Z)
  • Iberia (U)
  • KLM (O)
  • SWISS (I)*
  • Turkish (I)

* Note that SWISS inventory on ExpertFlyer applies to Miles & More members; partner airlines generally have access to some (but not all) of that space.

Enjoy SkyPriority benefits with a status match from Alitalia.
You may find similar benefits to intra-Europe business class through alliance elite status.

Comparison to Elite Status Benefits

One important consideration in booking these awards is the elite benefits you may already be entitled to on these carriers. Each of the airlines linked to above belongs to one of the three major alliances, so if you have status with a partner carrier, you'll already enjoy a number of perks that might make it pointless to splurge on a higher class of service.

Sticking with the British Airways example above, assume that you hold American Airlines Platinum status, which translates into oneworld Sapphire status when traveling on any oneworld airline in any class of service. Here are the specific perks you'll enjoy:

  • Business class check-in
  • Priority boarding
  • Access to preferred or pre-reserved seating (where offered)
  • Priority standby and waitlisting (where offered)
  • Access to more than 600 airport lounges (with one guest) when traveling internationally, regardless of the class of service flown that day
  • Additional baggage allowance
  • Priority baggage handling

If you're an Executive Platinum member of the AAdvantage program, you'd enjoy oneworld Emerald status, which includes all of the above plus fast track security at select airports.

Meal on Barcelona-Paris. The salmon patty was inedible, but the camembert and peach/rhubarb pie were clear winners
If your elite status includes benefits on flights within Europe, it's up to you to decide if a small meal is worth the premium you'd pay.

If you spent the additional Avios (or money) for intra-Europe business class on British Airways from London-Heathrow to Zurich, the only additional benefit you'd receive is upgraded in-flight catering. This flight is less than two hours, so you're looking at spending a few thousand more Avios for a better meal and a guarantee of a blocked seat next to you.

If you don't hold elite status with a partner airline, paying the premium for intra-Europe business class might make sense for a couple of reasons (especially when redeeming points or miles). The additional baggage allowance is a big one, especially if you're hitting the road for multiple weeks and don't want to worry about a checked bag being overweight. Gaining access to priority check-in and security lines can also be a big time saver. Finally, lounge access can be particularly valuable depending on your flight schedule.

Low-cost carriers like EasyJet will make it hard for legacy European carriers to improve their short-haul business class products.

Future of Intra-Europe Business Class

The major legacy carriers in Europe are struggling. Air France/KLM is still hurting after its 2014 pilot strike, while Lufthansa has also been in trouble (and this year's Germanwings crash only intensified its pain). When you add in the competition from low-cost carriers like easyJet and Ryanair, I don't see any European carrier investing more money in adding a true business class to its short-haul fleet.

Bottom Line

TPG doesn't look thrilled to be flying Lufthansa business.
TPG doesn't look thrilled to be flying Lufthansa business.

Flying business class within Europe tends to offer only a marginally more comfortable seating experience, but since both paid and award tickets in this class tend to include a variety of additional benefits, it can make sense to pay a premium to lock in these flights depending on your needs. Just make sure that you aren't paying for perks you'd already get for free courtesy of your elite status!

What are your experiences flying intra-Europe business class?