Travelling in business class is typically an all-inclusive experience: there's pretty much nothing extra to add on or pay for, unless you've got more luggage than even the generous baggage allowances provide.
But that's changing, with some airlines already stripping out some of the standard inclusions and reducing the ticket price. Welcome to the era of unbundled business class.
And there's every reason to expect that more airlines will embrace the unbundling of business class (although we'd expect their marketing departments to spin it more as 'bespoke business class') in the post-COVID world.
For one, it'll be a lure to have people upgrade from the more crowded quarters of the economy cabin to a seat that offers more personal space, a psychological sense of 'cocooning' and greater physical separation from other passengers.
Depending on how much discounting is applied to unbundled business class, it could also appeal to companies whose travel budgets have been pared back due to factors such as increased use of videoconferencing or the need to recover from a virus-induced financial chasm.
This could drive many airlines to test the waters by trialling unbundled business class fares in the post-COVID market, with the aim of snaring a larger slice of the now-smaller business travel market.
At the time of writing, Emirates and Qatar Airways have each launched an unbundled business class offering: Emirates sells it as a 'Business Class Special fare, while Qatar Airways markets it as Business Class Classic.
(Lufthansa has flagged a slightly different 'up-selling' approach for its forthcoming Boeing 777-9 business class, where you start with the essentials and then pay extra for a better seat and can also purchase a 'bundle' geared to your needs.)
What don't you get with unbundled business class?
Here's some of what gets removed from an unbundled business class fare.
Chauffeur drive (Emirates): Having a hire car with a private driver pick you up from home, office or hotel, whisk you to the airport, and then repeat this process at the other end of your flight, has long been a signature element of Emirates' business class, but not if you buy a Business Class Special ticket.
However, chauffeur drive is somewhat less of a drawcard now that the likes of Uber put a wide range of cars and drivers on tap, while many companies have established their own contract arrangements with hire-car companies.
Lounge access (Emirates, Qatar Airways): This is the kicker for many business travellers, especially if the flight involves a stopover – as most Emirates and Qatar Airways trips do – where you'd really love to freshen up with a shower, grab a light bite to eat, catch up on email or just relax away from the crowd.
Fortunately, if you have suitable frequent flyer status with that airline or a partner, in most cases you'll still havwe access to a lounge regardless of the type of ticket you're carrying.
For Emirates, this means that Emirates Skywards Gold or Platinum, and Qantas Frequent Flyer Gold, Platinum or Platinum One.
For Qatar Airways, this means Qatar Airways Privilege Club Gold or Platinum, and any other Oneworld Emerald-equivalent status (such as Qantas Gold, Platinum or Platinum One, British Airways Silver or Gold, Cathay Pacific Gold or Diamond).
If you lack the appropriate frequent flyer status, there's usually an option to pay for lounge access. The rates for Emirates and Qatar Airways lounges span from around US$100 to US$250 depending on what airport the lounge is in, and if it's a business class or even first class lounge.
Advance seat selection (Emirates, Qatar Airways): on an unbundled business class ticket you'll be able to choose your seat only after check-in opens online, or at the airport.
However, as with lounge access, your frequent flyer status could still let you choose your seat well ahead of your flight.
Early seat selection becomes less important in modern business class cabins where all seats have direct aisle access, but there are still a few good reasons to care if you want to make sure you're seated
- away from the lavatories, to minimise foot traffic and disturbance when you're trying to sleep
- away from the galleys, as these also tend to be noisy (and bright, especially when the curtain opens while you're trying to sleep)
- nowhere near a bulkhead row where bassinets can be fitted, and crying babies assigned to those bassinets
- not in the last row of business class, if just behind that thin wall is the first row of economy and more baby bassinets
Fewer frequent flyer miles (Emirates, Qatar Airways): Also missing from the unbundled business class formula is a full serve of frequent flyer points or miles.
Emirates' Business Class Special fares earn the same number of Skywards Miles and Tier Miles as an Economy Flex ticket.
Qatar Airways' Business Class Classic fares also earn at a reduced rate compared to the more expensive Business Class Comfort and Business Class Elite fares. For example, on a one-way trip from Sydney to London you'd pocket 13,671 Qmiles in Business Class Classic, 19,140 Qmiles in Business Class Comfort and 21,874 Qmiles in Business Class Elite.
No upgrades to first class (Emirates): passengers on an Emirates' Business Special fare can't able to use their Skywards Miles to upgrade to first class. While we'd agree this is a 'first world problem', all the same there are many regular business class travellers who use their miles for an upgrade into the first class suites of the Airbus A380 or Boeing 777.
How much do you save on unbundled business class?
While Emirates offers unbundled business class only "on certain routes based on seasonal trends in travel demand," it's a more common sight on Qatar Airways flights, as Qatar's Business Class Classic fares are one tier in a three-tier structure.
A spot-check of Qatar Airways' fares on the busy Sydney-Doha-London route showed the following rates for a return trip:
- Business Class Classic: $8,012
- Business Class Comfort: $10,902
- Business Class Elite: $12,762
In that example, the unbundled Classic fare delivers a saving of almost $3,000 against choosing Comfort fares on the same flights, and a saving of almost $5,000 against the top-shelf Elite fare.
Here's how Qatar Airways presents the fares on its website (note that the pricing shown is just for the 'Sydney-Doha-London' leg of a return-trip booking):
Clearly, even if you wanted to pay for creature comforts such as chauffeur drive and lounge access, an unbundled business class fare can deliver a substantial saving.
One caveat for globetrotters who rely on a travel manager to make their bookings, especially in larger companies: that person may well book the lowest business class fare without realising it's an unbundled fare that removes lounge access and the like.
If you want your travel booker to avoid accidentally purchasing an unbundled business class fare, instruct them not to book into Emirates business class under the H ticketing code or Qatar Airways business class under the R ticketing code.