Bigger seat, more legroom, even silk pajamas: Flying business class comes with major perks for travelers. It’s also crucial to the entire airline business model. But given the seats’ outsized carbon footprint, how ethical is it to keep flying business class?
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Kira Bindrim is the host of the Quartz Obsession podcast. She is an executive editor who works on global newsroom coverage and email products. She is obsessed with reality TV.
David Yanofsky is the editor of the Things team, Quartz’s cohort of journalists who use code-based and visual methods to originate and execute their stories. He is obsessed with the economics of avocados and the Freedom of Information Act.
Original harp in intro by Ruth Reveal
This episode uses the following sounds from freesound.org:
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Kira Bindrim: Picture yourself kicking back in a cushy chair. Your legs are stretched out in front of you. There’s an ocean view, and a cool breeze caresses your cheeks. ‘Excuse me,’ a handsome man interrupts before handing you a glass of champagne. In the distance, a baby cries—like, a lot—but you can’t hear it. Just soothing white noise, rustling pages, and the clink of metal forks against glass plates.
This is what it’s like to fly business class, and it does not come cheap.
Now, it might have been a while since you got on a plane. So let’s recap. Over the past 10 years, air travel for the average person has started to suck. Sure, prices are down, But so is leg room, seat width, even the number of bags you can bring on board. Meanwhile, the space in the front of the plane just keeps getting nicer. Flying business class used to mean a wider chair. Now it can mean a seat that turns into a bed, a privacy wall, silk pajamas, hand cream, lip balm, even name-branded perfume. And the service is totally better than what you get back in coach.
All of this isn’t really for travelers. It’s for airlines. Business class seats are a huge moneymaker. Take the route between New York and Los Angeles. Just 10% of its passengers are business class ticket holders. But those passengers account for 21% of the route’s aggregate revenue. There’s just one problem with this model, or at least one planetary problem: Business class is a major factor in airlines’ carbon footprint, and considering the earth is pretty much begging for our attention, is it really worth it just to eat a three course meal in the sky?
This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas, and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: business class, and how a 20th century perk became a luxury arms race.
I’m joined now by David Yanofsky, who is known in our newsroom as Yano. Now, Yano is the editor in charge of data and visualizations at Quartz and he is based in Los Angeles. How is LA today?
David Yanofsky: It’s always a great day in LA.
Kira Bindrim: The weather is 70 degrees and sunny?
David Yanofsky: It is beautiful. It is another beautiful day in Los Angeles.
Kira Bindrim: You are our data dude, as I put it in my notes, which is not something I’ve ever called you. But you’re also kind of our aviation expert. Why is that? I actually don’t know how you got so interested in this topic.
David Yanofsky: It was kind of a hobby of necessity. I was living on the opposite side of the country from my partner and would have to fly a lot. And so I very quickly started looking into how to get cheap flights, how to make my flight experience better. And spending a lot of time on airplanes, you see a lot of stories and I ended up writing a lot of them up. But now I live in Los Angeles with my wife.
Kira Bindrim: It’s incredible how many of these ‘how you got into it’ stories start with something from someone’s partner. We’re all finding stories with whomever we’re dating. But actually wanna start with like some history, I want to go back in time. When did this idea of a business class emerge?
David Yanofsky: So in the early days of aviation, there was really only one type of service—there was just the airplane. And there was also a regulation in place that said that you can only charge one fare per flight. So what really brought about the introduction of business class was the change in laws that said airlines, US airlines can now offer different fare classes, they can they can charge different amounts for people on the same airplane.
Kira Bindrim: So when did that happen?
David Yanofsky: That happened that happened in the 1950s. But we didn’t end up really seeing business class pop up until the late 70s. And so the first airline to introduce a class of service targeted at business class travelers was British Airways. And they introduced their club service. But, yeah, they offered this product that wasn’t first class—businesses were never going to pay for their salesmen to fly first class if they’re not their top executives. But by offering a business class, this is now a better experience, a nicer product that you can convince your boss to pay for.
Kira Bindrim: Okay, so in 1950-ish, there’s deregulation. Now airlines can charge different fares. They start discounting because people want to take shorter trips, or they want to just, they don’t need, they can book really far in advance. They don’t need the same flexibility that the business class passenger does.
David Yanofsky: They want to offer that differentiation because they can make more money by doing that, right? More people traveling is more money for the airline. So they say, ‘Oh, how do we get more people in onto this plane?’ ‘Well, we charge a cheaper ticket.’ ‘Well, how do we protect the high ticket prices that we get business travelers?’ ‘Well, let’s create tickets that are very inconvenient for business travel’—you have to book it 14 days in advance, you have to stay over a weekend. If you’re a business traveler, you want to get in and out. You want to you want to you want to fly out on a Wednesday and fly back on a Thursday and be at home be at home for family dinner.
Kira Bindrim: So business class kind of starts as a more expensive ticket or, whatever, same price to get non-discounted ticket because of you need the flexibility basically.
David Yanofsky: Yeah, yeah, that’s actually a pretty good way to think about it. Business class was not really an upgrade, it was more that the discounts was a downgrade. And so to keep business travelers to pay similar fares into the future, they had to offer better service.
Business class vs first class
Kira Bindrim: You’ve kind of touched on this, but I feel like it’s a question that I don’t know the answer to, maybe other people don’t either: What is the difference between business class and first class?
David Yanofsky: A name. Words.
Kira Bindrim: A state of mind?
David Yanofsky: There is no international definition of business class. There’s no international definition of first class. It’s marketing at its core, but generally, business classes is referred to as the middle class of service when a plane has three classes. So you have economy, you have business, and you have first.
Kira Bindrim: Yeah, that makes sense. They should call it like, very good investment class—something that really sells it.
David Yanofsky: But that’s how they pitch it, though. Lots of airlines—that’s, like, one of the huge selling points of business class from airlines is your employee that you’re sending on this business trip needs to be rested and ready for action when they get there. There’s this great British Airways commercial. They show him in a scene in like, say, London, right in front of Big Ben, and he crawls into bed, fades to black, sun goes down. And then the light comes up, and he’s in bed in Times Square. And he gets out of bed and he says, ‘Good morning.’ [editor’s note: the ad shows the passenger falling asleep in New York and waking up in London, as you can see below]
Advertisement: Good morning. The only truly flat beds in business class.
That’s it! Who doesn’t want that? Go to bed in London, wake up in New York, let’s do it.
Kira Bindrim: That’s a good ad. That is super compelling. We have talked about sort of the history of business class, let’s say 1950s deregulation through the 80s when business class starts to really take off. Now I kind of want to talk about,like, not the immediate past because obviously the pandemic is impacted air travel, but let’s say like 2015 to 2019. How big or how important is business class now?
David Yanofsky: Well, up until the pandemic, super important. Business class, on certain flights, it can make 80% of revenue, or even depending on how you it break down, more.
Why is business class so expensive?
Kira Bindrim: So most people flying business class are doing it on their company’s dime, as far as we know.
David Yanofsky: On certain routes, absolutely. A couple years ago, United put up this banner in some staff area, and it ended up getting tweeted and it was touting their relationship with Apple. And this banner touted there that Apple was buying 50 business class seats a day between San Francisco and Shanghai. And that alone was $35 million in revenue every year. Apple’s total relationship with United is $150 million per year. So you have to believe that every other airline wants that business. Like, obviously, airlines, billions of dollars in revenue every year. But this is, who doesn’t want $100, $150 million a year?
Kira Bindrim: Okay, so we have some portion of the plane that is in business class and some portion of that portion whose tickets were paid for by their company. And there are these huge deals going on. I want to talk a little bit more about the other people in business class who paid for their tickets themselves or didn’t. The sort of incentive aspect of business class for people who typically are flying economy.
David Yanofsky: Yeah, I mean, business class is like a really juicy carrot for everyday travelers. If you are loyal to an airline, even if you’re buying cheap tickets, your access to business class, to first class, to whatever is basically proportional to the amount of money that you spend on the airline. Airlines can use the business class cabin as a way to incentivize people who would otherwise never fly business class to be loyal to their airline, to be frequent fliers. You know, those perks that I’m talking about, of getting status on an airline, they kind of, like the minimum, it’s really hard to get even the lowest level of level of status on these airlines without spending $2,000, $3,000 a year on a single airline. And then these blogs, these airline blogs will down to the penny, down to the fraction of a penny even, will try and evaluate the monetary value of being loyal to a certain airline because of how you can cash in those points for perks like business class.
Kira Bindrim: After the break, the business class carbon footprint.
How can airlines reduce carbon emissions?
Kira Bindrim: Okay, so we have been talking about how important business class is to airlines’ bottom line. Now I kind of want to get into how important it is to the planet, and specifically from sort of an environmental or sustainability perspective. Let’s start with the environmental impact of flying in general, commercial flight. What is it? Kind of a broad question, but what is it relative to other things?
David Yanofsky: It’s bad. What is it, it’s like 4% of global emissions comes from the airline industry. And, you know, vacuum, like, wow, that’s, that’s a lot. That is a lot—one industry, 4%. On the other hand, everything we do, causes emissions. You eat a cheeseburger, you’ve caused emissions. You drive your car instead of walk, you’ve caused emissions. But you getting to work in 20 minutes instead of an hour, instead of two hours, because you walked, that is the very crux of it. Like you have to, you’re spending carbon in a way. And we’re budgeting carbon. So the question isn’t really about how much is the airline industry emitting, it’s about how much is it worth to us as a society for it to emit.
Kira Bindrim: So does business class account for like an outsized share of those emissions?
David Yanofsky: Yeah, definitely. The only fair way to calculate emissions on a per passenger basis is to look at the amount of space and weight that each passenger on an airplane is responsible for. And business class seats are bigger, are heavier; business class passengers are given meals that weigh more. They are allowed more baggage on the airplane, and they take more baggage on the airplane. And so all of these things combined mean that a business class passenger is responsible for like one and a half to two times more emissions than an economy passenger. And there’s also this kind of replacement theory, that if business class wasn’t there, there could be more people on that airplane. And that airplane would be more efficient because you now have more seats available on each flight. And that means less total emissions from the airline industry.
Kira Bindrim: As we’re starting to see airlines talk about reducing their carbon footprint or being more carbon neutral and starting to set deadlines and goals around that, is the business class model—the revenue model that they’re so dependent on—sort of at play in that? Or are there other things that airlines are doing, and they’re not particularly focused on this business class aspect?
David Yanofsky: I think airlines are doing everything they can to avoid changing the configuration of the cabin. I think an airline would much rather find an alternative fuel or an alternative energy. Or, you know, the airlines love improving efficiency in their routes, you know, being better at predicting weather, flying at different altitudes, flying slower, are all strategies to reduce fuel burn.
Kira Bindrim: So it sounds like what you’re saying is that this is the cash cow and it’s kind of the last thing on the table. There’s all these other things that airlines can do and are focused on to improve their carbon footprint. And ideally, they wouldn’t have to adjust this formula that seems to be working so well. But, you know, we haven’t talked a lot yet about the pandemic. And we are starting to see, as flying comes back, a lot of companies and CEOs acknowledge that business travel is not going to come back, at least not anytime soon, in the same way. And I guess I’m wondering, do you think that that is going to force a change in the business model in the way that just sort of leaving it up to the airlines probably wouldn’t?
David Yanofsky: I think airlines are very reactive to the economic climate. We saw that during the pandemic. Airlines had to park airplanes, right? They didn’t just keep on flying and no one was on them, no. They parked airplanes, they cut schedules. They changed what they offered and how they offered it very quickly. But yeah, I mean, at the at the end of the day, if there’s any industry that is sensitive to demands of its customers, and economics of its industry, its airlines. They are very hyper focused on maximizing the revenue from every airplane that flies. And if they have business passengers that are looking for more sustainable ways to travel, they’re going to have to adapt.
Kira Bindrim: It seems like, since this fragmentation of the ticket types, everything is set up to incentivize airlines to continue developing and getting more revenue out of the front of the plane, and in the back of the plane, the seats are getting smaller, you know, everything’s getting worse. Do you think, if we do see this sort of pandemic-induced change in the demand for business travel, we might see a world in which there’s all this energy and incentive going into making economy a better experience? Or, like, how do you see that maybe playing out?
Sustainable ways of flying
David Yanofsky: I think that’s definitely possible. I mean, the most sustainable way to travel is to travel on an airline that doesn’t offer business class. Someone deciding to not fly business class and fly economy, and that seat in business class gets left empty, there’s no change in the carbon emissions on that airplane. To fly on an airline like Southwest instead of an airline that offers business class, you’re creating demand for a product that is more carbon efficient. And the aggregate demand for more sustainable travel modes is going to be the thing that drives lowering emissions in the airline industry, and that includes people traveling by other modes. That includes you know, someone, who takes a train instead of flying is making a carbon negative choice.
Kira Bindrim: So the best thing for like a sustainably minded business traveler to do would not necessarily be to take an economy seat and then glare at the business class people as they walk by them, but rather fly an airline that doesn’t have business class at all, or investigate, you know, what’s reasonable, a different and more sustainable mode of transportation in the first place. Is that right?
David Yanofsky: Yeah, or, like many companies have realized, don’t travel, do a video call.
Kira Bindrim: Let’s say I am a human who has committed to flying less, but I still have to go places, Yano—I still got vacations to go on, I still want to leave my continent, let’s say, but I’m committed to not using business class because I do care about the planet. I’m on, you know, an airline that doesn’t have it or something. Is there any way to kind of replicate the experience of business class in economy?
David Yanofsky: There is a way to build your own business class. It’s not as good as flying business class. But it’s pretty close. It’s pretty close.
Kira Bindrim: Okay, give me the recipe. What’s the process here?
David Yanofsky: Okay. So let me just start off by saying that this is going to cost more than you’re used to spending to fly, right. However, with maybe like $150 extra, you get very close to that business class experience. And that includes maybe getting a credit card with an airline that gives you like expedited screening at the airport, or signing up for something like Clear or PreCheck and Global Entry in the United States. Then you can also pay a little bit extra to the airline to get like a slightly nicer seat, something with a little extra leg room. That little extra leg room seat usually allows you to board sooner, might allow you to have a checked bag included—all of these perks that, you know, come standard with the business class. But before you get on the plane, you go and you pick up food in the terminal. You find in very nice food, maybe you pack yourself, whatever you want. But most importantly, you’re traveling with a thermos.
Kira Bindrim: That is not where I thought this was going.
David Yanofsky: Yes. No, this is the most important thing: If you want to simulate business class while flying economy, you must travel with a thermos. And you must travel in an airport that has a soft serve ice cream machine. Because one of the true joys of business class is, you have your meal, and then they bring you an ice cream sundae. And you enjoy this nice ice cream sundae on an airplane and you are carefree. And so you get that soft serve in the thermos, and you crack open that thermos, you know, an hour before you’re supposed to land and you start eating that ice cream and you say, ‘Yeah, life is good.’ You do all that, you can get a pretty close to business class experience. The one thing that you’re never gonna get in economy is a flight attendant who cares for you as much as a flight attendant in business class. And that is just a numbers game.
Kira Bindrim: Okay this is what I’m taking away from our whole conversation, are you ready?
David Yanofsky: Yeah.
Kira Bindrim: Ideally, fly on on flights without business class. Invest in PreCheck or something that gets you through the security line faster. Invest in extra leg room if that’s something that’s important to you. Invest in a thermos—this is the most important one. Actually, like I’ve learned more about you from how important the thermos is to your experience than I have about business class, but I like it.
David Yanofsky: I will say, I do travel enough to be one of these people that airlines treat nicely. And I do get upgraded regularly enough that I’m just getting the ice cream in business class.
Kira Bindrim: Okay, I’ve one last question for you. When we fly again and we make small talk with people next with on the plane, what is your favorite fun fact about business class? What is the thing I’m going to whisper to business class as I walk by them with my thermos back to my premium economy seat?
How do politicians fly first class?
David Yanofsky: My favorite fun fact about business class, which most people think is stupid, is that members of congress fly on government fares, which, one, are paid for by the government and, two, are cheaper. But the airline miles that members of congress and federal government employees traveling on business accrue, accrue to them personally. And so while government officials are not allowed to buy business class tickets, usually, you often see them flying in business class because they fly so often that they have status on the airlines and they have so many miles—they have more miles than they know what to do with— that they can upgrade themselves on every single flight. Now, some politicians appreciate the optics of that and do not do that. I think famously, it was Bernie Sanders sitting like one row in front of Elizabeth Warren or vice versa during the 2020 campaign, primary season. And there was lots of hullabaloo around that happenstance. But…
Kira Bindrim: Politicians are stealing our upgrades, that’s what I’m hearing you say?
David Yanofsky: Yeah.
Kira Bindrim: That’s not fun, that’s an infuriating fact, but I’ll take it. Thank you so much Yano for joining me on this episode.
David Yanofsky: You’re welcome.
Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake, and the theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to editors David Yanofsky in Los Angeles and Alex Ossola in New York.
If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Please tell your friends about us! Be like, ‘Hey, next time you need to fly somewhere, check out this great podcast!’ Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.