Head to Head Comparison
By a quirk of scheduling, I ended up flying a different airline on every leg of my multi-continent trip. This gave me a rare opportunity to experience the business class product of five major airlines – United, Singapore, Emirates, Qantas and JAL. Two are from Star Alliance and two from One World (Emirates refuses to join an alliance). So how did they stack up? Here are my rankings and reviews.
- #5 | United (Newark to Madrid/Boeing 777-300):
Of course, what did you expect? US airlines simply aren’t in the same class as Asian airlines. United has indifferent service, mediocre and uncreative food (the dessert is always an Ice-cream sundae with a bunch of toppings!). As for the wine, they have stopped publishing a wine list in business class because they can slot in any cheap wine they have available! But that said, United does a very decent job by US standards. What’s to like – nice modern flat-bed seats (a little narrow, but comfortable), nice IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) and affordable Wi-Fi on all international aircraft. The flight attendants are professional, but they are jaded and won’t really go out of their way for you.
- #4 | Qantas (Sydney to Tokyo/Boeing 747-400 upper deck):
This is a tough comparison group, so Qantas comes in second from bottom, despite being a very nice airline. I dinged it because the seats are stiff and uncomfortable. Plus, they don’t have an Ottoman to support your legs. There is a lip at the end of the seats, reminiscent of the angled lie-flat seats. IFE is decent, but the movie selection was a little sparse and there was no Wi-Fi on the plane. I skipped dinner and I was pleased to see that they take your breakfast order on a form before you go to bed – just like hanging the breakfast card outside your hotel door. But when I woke up, I was served my dinner for breakfast! I ended up eating kebabs, soup and rice at 3 AM. On the plus side, Qantas is part of One World, which has a neat policy of allowing Emerald members to access First Class lounges, even if you are flying business (not so for Star Alliance – you have to be flying First to access the First Class lounges). So I had a very nice dinner on the ground in the Sydney Qantas lounge – lamb, calamari and a fruity dessert, washed down with a robust Aussie Syrah. Flight attendants in Qantas seem like United – equally old and not terribly effusive. And very frumpy dresses – they really need to change these uniforms! I guess draconian HR policies only work for Asian airlines and it shows!
- #3 | Emirates (Madrid to Dubai and Dubai to Mumbai/Boeing 777-200):
So why did Emirates come in at #3? They are a top-rated airline, and in many ways, it did show. Fantastic airplane interior, faux wood design on seats and windows, the best IFE of all airlines (400 plus movies), great big screens, almost-free WiFi (I paid $1 for the whole flight – clearly a promotional price!) and decent food. The wines are top-class. The average wine in international business class is about 20 bucks retail (I know – I check the prices on my Wine Searcher app!) but Emirates featured wines like Château Gruaud-Larose, a top-flight Bordeaux. The flight attendants are young, perky and very pretty. The service is friendly and proactive. So what’s not to like? Angled lie-flat seats on both flights! WTF? Emirates boasts about being the best airline in the world, and they don’t have flat beds? I must have picked a rotten route, but the fact is that I could not sleep comfortably and that’s the most important thing. I also have to say that the food in the Dubai lounge was disappointing in terms of variety – maybe because it was morning? I have memories of huge spreads in Emirates lounges, but breakfast didn’t even feature eggs or any other hot dishes.
- #2 | Japan Airlines (Tokyo to Chicago/Boeing 777-300):
JAL is simply top-notch. I found JAL’s new Sky Suite seat design to be the most innovative and modern. It looks like a rectangular maze, and the result is that each seat gets unobstructed aisle access (not true for any of the preceding airlines – in United you have to do calisthenics to jump over the aisle passenger). Even though JAL uses a 2 + 3 + 2 configuration, every seat has unobstructed aisle access because of the staggered layout. There is a massive 23 inch screen, a very nice handheld touchscreen controller and little Japanese design touches like a place to hang headphones, a foot light, a firm woven mattress and a firm, supportive pillow (most pillows on airlines are mush). Another unique feature – on-demand food you can order right from your controller! Select whatever you want, whenever you want, and place your order. No need to call the flight attendants or to wait for meal times. Fascinating and unique idea – I haven’t seen this on any other airline. Service is polite and flight attendants are pleasant, if not effusive. Great WiFi – I am writing this on the flight, if a tad expensive ($18 for the flight). Why does JAL come in at #2? The movie selection sucks – I’m out of movies to watch! And the seat configuration, while providing good access, requires you to contort yourself to get out. These are minor issues, though. All in all, fly JAL whenever you can!
- #1 | Singapore Airlines (Mumbai to Singapore and Singapore to Sydney/Airbus A-380 upper deck):
I was wondering if Singapore Airlines still had its mojo, as I don’t get to fly them too often from Chicago. I wasn’t disappointed. The seats are MASSIVELY WIDE – twice the width of some of the other airlines. On the upper deck of the A-380, there are only 4 seats (2 + 2) – that ought to tell you how wide they are! The IFE is first class, the screens are as big as JAL (23 inches) and the seats are very comfortable. The food is top-class – the drinks menu was 4 pages long! Four different single-origin coffees, six original cocktails, six original non-alcoholic drinks, four kinds of tea – you get the idea! As for the flight attendants, I am pleased to report that the Singapore Girl is alive, well, and as breathtaking as always. Where do they find these flight attendants? They could be walking the catwalk instead of the aisles! Service is impeccable and it always seems like the flight attendants magically appear when you are just thinking you might want a cup of tea or something to eat. Superb job! The only minor dings – when you make the seats into a flat bed, you have to sleep at an angle, which is a little weird. And there was a 20-person queue at the check-in counter in Mumbai – not what I expect from Singapore Airlines. But I will blame the “desi” customer agents for this!
So there you have it – my personal assessment of some of the finest Business Class offerings in the sky. Hope you enjoyed reading it and hope it helps you choose an airline.
Besides these airlines, I have recently also flown Lufthansa, Air India, American, Air Berlin, Cathay Pacific, Swiss, Qatar and ANA and can tell you about those experienced too. Cathay, ANA, Qatar and Lufthansa (only First Class) are among my other top picks. American sucks the most and Air India is better than you think, once you get past the aunties who pass off for flight attendants!