This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
The year is 1983 and you’re a frequent flyer on Delta Air Lines. On this particular itinerary, you’re booked in coach but a gate agent asks if you’d like to try sitting in a new section of the cabin that’s reserved for frequent flyers and business travelers. The seats are the same but the service is better, the cabin more private and seat pitch slightly higher.
Sound familiar? You’re not sitting in Delta’s Economy Comfort+. In the early 1980s, Delta introduced something called Medallion Service, which started as a segregated section of the main cabin — eventually the carrier installed slightly wider seats and cabin dividers. It wasn’t called premium economy, but business class.
Today, business class is increasingly the highest level of service offered on international flights. Business-class passengers now expect fully flat beds — once in the realm of science fiction — and private access to the aisle. International carriers like Delta, Virgin Atlantic and China Airlines have done away with first class altogether, leaving business class at the top. Virgin even offers a bar in its “Upper Class” cabin, which is marketed as international business class. Last year, United announced plans to purge its international fleet of first class seats, instead offering an upgraded Polaris business-class seat that features private enclosures and direct-aisle access.
So how did business class grow from coach-plus to top of the line? It was a very carefully calculated evolution that began with a business problem. Let’s dig in.
The 1980s: Armchair Kings
After deregulation came segregation. Forced to compete on a fare basis, mainline carriers in the US sought to cram more economy passengers in the back of planes. That left frequent business flyers in a jam. Companies were often reluctant to pay for first-class tickets, creating a new market for upgraded service somewhere between the tourist squeeze and the finery of first class.
Thus, business class was born. Many airlines, including Delta, set aside a section of their coach cabin to appease the highest-margin business passengers, which eventually evolved into a separate cabin with wider seats.
First-class passengers were the first to enjoy sleeper seats with sufficient recline to facilitate a full night’s rest, while business-class passengers by the end of the decade were accustomed to deep recliners and an environment akin to a domestic first-class cabin. Premium economy, anyone?
1990s: Cradle Me to Sleep
By the mid-1990s, a business class arms race was underway, spurred on by upgraded cabin offerings on European and Asian carriers. Those wider seats evolved into what became known as the cradle seat, complete with adjustable head and foot rests and, in some cases, even massage functionality.
Some airlines began offering first-class passengers fully flat sleeping options, while others simply merged their first- and business-class cabins. At Delta, the first-class cabin was replaced with BusinessElite service. Continental merged first and business into BusinessFirst, offering upgraded menus and amenity kits akin to those found in first class.
“That eventually got us the denser, more profitable product that you see today,” said Chris Buckner, Director of Onboard Product and Customer Experience at Delta. “At the same time, you’ve got the first class features that you’re seeing in the business-class cabin.
2000s: Pull out the Bed
In the early 2000s, British Airways became the first airline to offer completely flat beds in its business-class cabin. Passengers were spoiled, and other carriers eventually followed suit.
“Particularly with overnight flights, we wanted to be able to offer a really great sleep in the sky,” said Hamish McVey, Customer Experience Manager at British Airways. “We launched the bed, the next day we wanted to optimize the amount of sleep people are getting onboard.”
Many carriers offered flat surfaces at the time, but often did so at an angle. American Airlines and Northwest Airlines continued to operate angle-flat business class seating throughout the next decade, while Continental, Delta and United held out for a fully flat solution.
Fully flat seats require more floorspace per passenger to install than cradle seat and angle-flat options, but business passengers’ demand for fully flat seating made the investments pay off.
“A really big aspect for us is, how does the whole service work with the seat. We work with our catering team, our cabin crew,” McVey said. “We have to think about what materials to use. We want to make sure we’re being as efficient as possible when it comes to fuel burn.”
2010s: Lights Out
By the early 2010s, Delta and US Airways were offering reliable direct-aisle access across their international fleets, one-upping competitors still offering angle-flat seating and paired sleeper seats.
Airlines and seat manufacturers pressed on with creative solutions to squeeze the most comfort out of dense seating configurations. British Airways standardized its Club World cabin with an updated yin-yang seating configuration that maximized hip width.
United, working with French seat maker Zodiac, managed to maintain its 8-across density in a direct-aisle access configuration by compressing footwells beneath angular side tables. The emerging product, Polaris, should be standardized across the United international fleet by the end of the decade.
Market research eventually led Delta to rethink it’s business-class product. Contrary to earlier industry-wide assumptions, Delta found that passengers were willing to trade some hip room for wider footwells. This research made its way into the newest iteration of Delta One.
“There are seats that are wider toward the seat and narrower at the footwell space,” Buckner said. “Then you have the straight seats that we’re launching on the A350 where it’s a little bit narrower at the seat, but wider at the footwell space.”
When Delta begins service using its newest Delta One suites this fall, the airline will be first to offer business-class passengers fully enclosed private suites, a feature once found only in the most luxurious first-class cabins.
The Future: A New Third Cabin
With business-class cabins starting to resemble — and in some cases, replace — first class, airlines are yet again struggling to meet the middle market of business and frequent flyers looking for modest improvements in comfort.
Premium economy products featuring not just improved service but wider seats are now offered on a number of international carriers.
These premium economy class seats resemble their early business-class ancestors and may well become the second class of choice on many airlines in the future, as upgraded business-class products shed the name “business” and begin to resemble the first-class interiors of yesteryear.
What’s your favorite business-class product? Share your memories with us in the comments, below.
Know before you go.
News and deals straight to your inbox every day.
NEW INCREASED OFFER: 60,000 Points
TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200
CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners
*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- Chase Sapphire Preferred named "Best Credit Card for Flexible Travel Redemption" - Kiplinger's Personal Finance, June 2018
- 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees
- 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
- No blackout dates or travel restrictions - as long as there's a seat on the flight, you can book it through Chase Ultimate Rewards