Yesterday Is Tomorrow For International Business Class
THURSDAY, JUNE 13, 2019 -- Whenever a fellow traveler rails about the atrocious state of air travel, I agree emphatically, nod gravely and promptly go to my happy place: international business class.

For all the indignities heaped on domestic first class customers and global coach flyers, international business class has been on an upward path since airlines first stumbled upon the idea in 1978. And since Continental Airlines essentially created the combined business/first cabin in 1992, international business class has been the nexus of everything good and new and comfortable in air travel.

Although you'll get strong debate from Qantas, the creation of business class is generally credited to Pan Am. It called its modest offering between coach and first class Clipper Class. Not much else about it was particularly memorable save for the designation: It was coded "C" (for Clipper) in reservation computers and "C" is still the cabin's primary identifier worldwide.

The driver for the creation of business class in 1978? Fares, of course. International first class prices had gotten absurdly high, discounting in the economy cabin was rampant and the full-fare coach business traveler was disgruntled. He--and it was mostly he back then--felt he was getting nothing for the higher coach fare he paid.

So airlines did what they still do today when business travelers complain: They threw us a bone. Early iterations of business class didn't offer much in the way of additional seat comfort. Frills were minimal. The big benefit was recognition. In those days before frequent flyer programs, airlines paid lip service to full-fare customers with things like separate ticket counters and boarding privileges, the chimera of priority luggage handling and a slightly upgraded in-flight meal.

Virgin Atlantic (1984) and SAS (1989) beat Continental to the chronological punch, but it was the introduction of BusinessFirst in October, 1992, that changed the business class game. As the name implies, Continental dumped first in favor of a blended operation that delivered the best elements of first in a juiced-up business class cabin situated at the front of its aircraft.

As you can see by the contemporaneous advertising pitch above, BusinessFirst's most notable feature was big, cushy reclining chairs. Competitors were then offering 38 or 40 inches of pitch in business class, but Continental configured its new chairs with 55 inches of legroom. Continental also eliminated middle seats, arranging its recliners in a 2x2x2 format. First class meal service, minus some over-the-top flourishes like caviar, became the BusinessFirst standard.

Best of all, Continental held the line on business class fares. According to a handout that accompanied the launch of BusinessFirst, Newark-Paris flights were $1,458 each way and Houston-London runs cost $1,889. That was the same as what other airlines were charging for their instantly outdated business classes.

Yet the true impact of BusinessFirst wasn't the chairs or food or even fares. It was psychological. By eliminating first class, Continental existentially and emotionally elevated business class to the front of the plane. Flyers who booked what 15 years earlier had been an afterthought were now being told that they were the most important customers in the sky.

"When business class is your best class and it is positioned in the front of the plane, it becomes the status class," Beth Mack, then a TWA vice president, told me in 1997. "It's the best you have to offer to your customer and they understand the implied contract of being the preferred flyer."

To promote its new one-class-up-front concept, Continental Airlines put together a remarkably frank and historically important promotional film that you can and should screen on YouTube. Besides the wonderful nuggets of data in the film, I note two things, one practical and one personal.

The practical observation: Continental reconfigured its entire fleet to BusinessFirst in just six months. Its successor, United Airlines, has converted less than half its existing fleet to Polaris business class three years after announcing the now-stagnant product. Continental also did what United has not: Put the product in service before promoting its existence. United has done the reverse, thus tarnishing the Polaris name, confusing high-yield customers and, ultimately, disappointing them when they don't get what United promoted.

The personal kick: A 1992 cover story I'd written for Frequent Flyer magazine was pictured and quoted as the intellectual justification for BusinessFirst and a business class that pampered high-yield flyers. It also reminds me that airline executives only do the right thing by business travelers as the last resort, a gamble when all else has failed and they're desperate. As Continental's own film admits, Continental in the early 1990s was desperate to attract more high-yield flyers--and willing to gamble to woo just one more business class customer per flight onto it aircraft.

Continental's BusinessFirst unleashed a torrent of change. Airlines wedded to the idea of three-cabin operations began dumping international first class, which was off-limits for many business travelers anyway because their companies wouldn't pay for it. With the exception of a few American Airlines aircraft, no U.S. carrier now flies an international first class. British Airways and Lufthansa operate the most aircraft with international first class cabins, but both are cutting back. Even the airlines with the best first class service--Emirates, Qatar, Singapore, Cathay, Air France--have fewer routes than ever with an F cabin. And their first class cabins are shrinking in seat capacity.

Continental's BusinessFirst remained ahead of the business class pack until the turn of the century. That's when British Airways unveiled a new idea: lie-flat beds. BA had to contort aircraft real estate to pull it off, too. To wedge 6-foot-long beds into the existing cabin space dedicated to what BA called Club World, the airline put seating in a revolutionary head-to-toe configuration. One seat faced the flight deck while its paired chair faced backward, toward the aircraft's tail.

Sadly, 19 years later, BA is still flying essentially the same business class. The product is now woefully inadequate, of course, and has helped destroy BA's reputation as a premium airline. BA's belated and penny-pinching response? A 10-year-old seat that will take years to deploy across the worldwide fleet.

Ironically, almost 27 years after Continental changed the game, we're back where we started. Business class fares have skyrocketed and corporate travel managers say prices are much too high to justify as a business expense. And who could argue with them?

Business class fares between Newark and Paris on United have more than quintupled since 1992 and now cost an eye-popping $8,232 one-way. Houston-London is up to $7,400 one-way.

The fare structure is so warped that Continental executive John Nelson's 1992 claim that one business class passenger was worth ten coach customers is out the window. A business class between Newark and Paris with a 30-day advance purchase and a seven-day stay on United is $8,137 roundtrip. A United roundtrip in coach on the route can be had for less than $600. That's a 13-1 gap now.

The industry's solution to sky-high business class fares? Premium economy, the newish cabin between business and coach. It's remarkably similar to what business class was when it was first pitched as the alternative to the overpriced first class.

Which would lead you to believe that history repeats itself in the airline industry. I generally believe that, but you might have a hard time convincing our friend Will Allen. He's on holiday in Montana this week, but received a promotional E-mail from an Asian carrier pitching roundtrip premium economy for about $2,700 roundtrip.

"Wow, $2700 for premium economy? That's no sale price," Will noted.

In other words, not a happy place ...