Why it's so special to fly in lie-flat business class on short European routes
Booking a business-class flight within Europe is often misleading, especially for those connecting from long-haul journeys.
Imagine flying across the Atlantic or the Middle East in a lie-flat pod with ample privacy, only to land and connect within Europe sitting in a business-class seat that is pretty much the same as the ones in economy.
For example, consider Air France’s brand-new Airbus A220. You’ll find 148 seats spread across 31 rows in a single cabin. Yet the carrier sells business-class fares on its intra-European routes, and that basically gets you a seat in the first few rows without someone sitting beside you.
While there are some benefits to splurging for business class, such as lounge access, larger checked-bag allowances, priority airport access and a better onboard meal or snack than is served in coach, the actual seats themselves are usually no different than coach.
The only “hard product” upgrade afforded to the highest-paying passengers is the guarantee of a blocked middle (or aisle, in the case of the port side of the A220) seat. Seat pitch, recline and width are the same across the entire plane.
While that’s how it typically works in Europe, there’s good news for travelers who want to get a taste of the long-haul premium experience without sitting on a plane for hours on end.
Between the pandemic and other recent developments in the intra-Europe aviation market, it’s getting easier to score lie-flat business-class seats on some surprising routes.
That’s especially exciting for me because it means that airlines are scheduling some of their biggest airplanes on shorter routes, a treat that’ll certainly thrill other aviation enthusiasts as well.
Here are some of my own favorite recent experiences as well as a few others to look out for if your travels take you to Europe in the next few months.
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Wide-bodies with lie-flat seats
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen airlines rethink their aircraft utilization strategy.
Instead of exclusively sending twin-aisle jets like the Boeing 787s or Airbus A350s to far-flung places, they’ve increasingly been deployed on shorter routes. In the U.S. market, that’s meant Boeing 777s (and the like) heading to Las Vegas and Orlando, among other cities.
There’s something special about “turning left” when boarding a wide-body plane that always gets me excited. Getting a taste of the long-haul flight experience on a quick domestic hop is the icing on the cake, especially considering how unusual that has been historically.
While the U.S. airlines (American and United in particular) have been aggressive about their domestic wide-body deployment, the same can’t be said for the major European carriers.
Even though there’s been a sharp decrease (though there's an upswing again now) in demand for long-haul travel as many COVID-19-related restrictions remain in place, the airlines haven’t necessarily been upgauging their European routes with larger jets.
However, in an exciting turn of events for aviation industry watchers like me, that’s been changing ever so slowly.
Whether it’s for crew familiarization as wide-bodies return to the skies from long-term storage, or for additional cargo capacity, the major European airlines are scheduling more twin-aisle planes on intra-European flights.
In fact, there’s been a more than 20% increase in intra-European wide-body flying by the major European carriers in February 2022 relative to the same months two years prior, Cirium schedules show.
As mentioned, these wide-body jets typically feature international business-class products, often arranged with direct aisle access for each passenger. In addition, those seated in the pointy end can enjoy lie-flat beds, larger inflight entertainment screens and plenty of storage for their belongings.
Even if you’re not planning to splurge for a lie-flat business-class pod on these routes, the coach experience is also upgraded. Most European carriers don’t offer inflight entertainment or power outlets on their single-aisle planes, whereas they do on the larger jets they normally operate on their long-haul routes.
There's also the novelty factor of flying a huge, shiny jet that can traverse continents and oceans ... for just an hourlong flight, which for some would be enough to seek out these routes.
European routes operated with wide-body jets
If you’re looking for intra-European routes operated by a wide-body jet, I’ve listed some of them below, along with the aircraft type. If you plan to fly one of these, though, always be sure to double-check your specific flight to make sure that the plane you hope to fly is the one actually operating the route that day.
|Finnair||Helsinki (HEL)||London Heathrow (LHR)||Airbus A350-900, Airbus A330-300|
|British Airways||London Heathrow (LHR)||Amsterdam (AMS)||Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner|
|British Airways||London Heathrow (LHR)||Stockholm (ARN)||Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner|
|British Airways||London Heathrow (LHR)||Paris (CDG)||Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner|
|British Airways||London Heathrow (LHR)||Madrid (MAD)||Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner|
|Aer Lingus||Dublin (DUB)||London Heathrow (LHR)||Airbus A330-300|
|Iberia||Madrid (MAD)||Brussels (BRU)||Airbus A330-200|
|Iberia||Madrid (MAD)||London Heathrow (LHR)||Airbus A330-300, Airbus A350-900|
|Iberia||Madrid (MAD)||Zurich (ZRH)||Airbus A330-200|
|Lufthansa||Frankfurt (FRA)||Munich (MUC)||Airbus A350-900|
|Swiss||Zurich (ZRH)||London Heathrow (LHR)||Airbus A330-300|
I recently had the chance to fly on an Iberia Airbus A350 from Madrid (MAD) to London Heathrow (LHR) and a British Airways Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner from London Heathrow to Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG). Both experiences were quite memorable for the novelty, along with the upgraded onboard comfort.
While these are the regularly scheduled wide-body routes according to Cirium schedule data, you might even find some Easter eggs during your airfare searches.
For instance, to boost cargo capacity and keep its pilots up to date on training, British Airways has been recently flying the world’s largest passenger jet — the Airbus A380 — on a hop from London Heathrow to Frankfurt (FRA).
I haven’t flown that one yet, but if it’s still around during my next trip in Europe, I’ll cross it off my bucket list.
Fifth-freedom routes add a luxury lift
For people like me, it gets even better than flying a twin-aisle plane on a short route.
In a handful of select markets, you can even fly a non-European carrier’s largest planes without heading to or from the airline’s home country.
Known as fifth-freedom routes, these services are operated by foreign airlines as tag flights to and from their final destination. Carriers need to apply for permission to sell tickets on these intra-European segments, but once they receive approval, it’s often the best possible way to get between two cities.
In my case, I recently tried Singapore Airlines’ newest fifth-freedom route between Milan (MXP) and Barcelona (BCN). The carrier deploys its three-cabin Airbus A350 on the 448-mile route, and experiencing the 90-minute flight in both business and premium economy was one of my aviation highlights so far this year.
It felt like getting a taste of Singapore without actually stepping foot in (or getting anywhere near) the country.
In addition to the excellent service in business class — with locally inspired touches such as the signature Singapore sling cocktail — I also enjoyed the airline’s world-class seats.
Ultimately, fifth-freedom rights are a twofer: You get to fly the long-haul product and experience (albeit briefly) elevated onboard service that would otherwise require at least seven hours on a plane.
While Singapore Airlines' recent fifth-freedom approval is perhaps the most newsworthy of the bunch, several such intra-Europe routes are available for booking.
This includes the following routes for February 2022, as seen in Cirium schedules.
|Emirates||Larnaca, Cyprus (LCA)||Malta (MLA)||Boeing 777-300ER|
|Ethiopian||Stockholm (ARN)||Oslo (OSL)||Airbus A350-900|
|Singapore Airlines||Barcelona (BCN)||Milan (MXP)||Airbus A350-900|
|Singapore Airlines||Rome (FCO)||Copenhagen (CPH)||Airbus A350-900|
|Scoot||Athens (ATH)||Berlin (BER)||Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner|
Flying in a bed for the same price as coach
Here's the kicker: Sitting in these lie-flat beds for intra-Europe flights doesn't (typically) cost any more than flying in the standard European business class on single-aisle jets — and they cost a fraction of the price as flying long-haul.
Take for example the British Airways Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner shuttling between London and Paris. One-way fares for the route are available for next week starting at $365 — the exact same price as a later British Airways departure from London that's operated by an Airbus A320 with a much less comfortable recliner seat in business class.
The same is true for award availability. With the British Airways Avios loyalty program, flights are priced based on distance, not on which aircraft is operating the route. All of the airline's flights between the two cities are available for 15,000 Avios in the forward cabin, regardless of which plane is operating.
On Lufthansa's Airbus A350 route from Frankfurt to Munich next week, one-way fares are going for $535, which is $55 cheaper than any other option. Once again, business-class awards are available with a variety of Star Alliance programs for the same price as flying in on a narrow-body, so if these flights fit your schedule, you might as well book into the bigger jet (and the better seat).
Flying across Europe doesn’t necessarily mean buzzing around the continent on old, single-aisle jets.
If there’s one upside with aviation during the pandemic, it’s that airlines have been getting creative with their aircraft deployment strategy, which sometimes includes sending wide-body planes on shorter routes.
After experiencing this firsthand on three recent intra-Europe flights, I can safely say that it’s the best way to get around the continent commercially.
It also gives you a taste of the long-haul experience without dealing with onerous COVID-19 restrictions or jet lag. Sometimes, you’ll score the jackpot and enjoy the plush pillows, soft duvets and amenity kits that are typically only provisioned for long-haul flights.
And if you really strike gold in your airfare search, you might even find a foreign airline operating unique fifth-freedom flights within Europe. After even just one of these, you’ll likely be hooked and ready to try more, especially if you’re an aviation enthusiast who might not otherwise have the opportunity to fly carriers like Singapore Airlines or Emirates anytime soon.
The only downside is that, if you have a good experience, you might long to fly to the carrier’s home country at some point, which might not be the easiest thing to do anytime soon. That's essentially what happened to me after flying with Singapore Airlines within Europe last week.
Between sipping my first Singapore sling since early 2020 and the friendliness of the top-notch crew on that flight, I’m counting down the days until I can fly again with Singapore Airlines — next time, on a (much) longer route than the 448 miles between Milan and Barcelona.