Travelling in business class is typically an all-inclusive experience: there’s pretty much nothing extra to add on or pay for.
But that’s changing, with several airlines now stripping out some of those standard inclusions while also reducing the ticket price.
Welcome to the era of unbundled business class, where anything from lounge access and checked bags to fast-track security lanes and frequent flyer points can be taken out of the mix.
Which airlines offer ‘unbundled’ business class?
Three airlines have rolled out ‘unbundled business class’ fares in recent years, and there’s every reason to expect more airlines will follow.
- Emirates sells its unbundled business class as Business Class Special fares
- Finnair sells its unbundled business class under the Business Light banner
- Qatar Airways sells its unbundled business class as Business Class Lite
While some airlines offer an entry-level ‘business class lite’ fare, such as Singapore Airlines, this isn’t really an unbundling of core business class perks – it can simply remove one or two options such as upgrading to first class on points.
What don’t you get with unbundled business class?
Unbundled business class keeps the core of the business class experience – that spacious, comfortable business class seat and those premium meals and service – but pulls out several perks which may catch you by surprise.
Lounge access (Emirates, Finnair, Qatar Airways): This is the kicker for many business travellers, especially if the flight involves a stopover where you’d really love to freshen up with a shower, grab a bite to eat, catch up on email or just relax away from the crowd.
The unbundled business class fares of Emirates, Finnair and Qatar Airways all remove lounge access, which can catch many travellers by surprise.
However, if you hold suitable frequent flyer status with that airline or a partner you’ll still have lounge access, even on an unbundled business class ticket.
(In some cases you can pay for lounge access: the going rates for Emirates and Qatar Airways lounges span from around US$100 to US$250 depending on which airport the lounge is in and if it's a business class or first class lounge.)
Advance seat selection (Emirates, Qatar Airways, Finnair): Business class travellers can usually pick their favourite seat as soon as they book.
But on an unbundled business class ticket you usually won’t be able to select your seat until online check-in opens (typically 24-48 hours before the flight departs).
The good news for frequent flyers is that, as with lounge access, status trumps ticket conditions and your status may still let you choose a seat well ahead of your flight.
Just how important is advance seat selection? While it’s become less important in modern business class cabins where all seats have direct aisle access, there are still a few good reasons to be choosy about where 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
- nowhere near a bulkhead row where bassinets can be fitted, and irritable crying babies assigned to those bassinets
- away from the last row of the business class cabin, if just behind that thin wall is the first row of economy and more baby bassinets
Checked luggage (Finnair): While all of Finnair’s business class fares include two carry-on items to a total of 10kg, only Business Classic and Business Flex fares add two checked bags (of up to 32kg each).
Finnair’s Business Light fare doesn’t include any checked luggage allowance: and while you can pay to have your bags checked, they won’t even be tagged as a priority.
Again, there’s an exception made for Finnair Plus Platinum and Gold frequent flyers and their Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire equivalents, who can rely on their status perk of “one additional bag for free in addition to your ticketed baggage allowance” even when that baggage allowance is actually ‘zero’.
Fewer frequent flyer miles (Emirates, Qatar Airways, Finnair): Unbundled business class tickets can also come without a full serve of points or miles.
While the exact amount varies between airlines, you can expect to earn only as many points as somebody on a premium economy or even economy ticket.
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 book an Emirates Business Class Special fare and you’ll forgo that VIP treatment.
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.
Priority check-in, security and boarding (Finnair): These are three things which business class passengers take for granted, but you’re not eligible for any of them on a Business Light ticket – unless you also have the appropriate level of frequent flyer status in the Finnair Plus loyalty scheme or its Oneworld equivalents.
No upgrades to first class (Emirates): Passengers on an Emirates Business Special fare can’t use their Skywards Miles to upgrade to first class.
While we’d agree this is a ‘first world problem’, there are many business class travellers who rely on their points or miles for an upgrade into the first class suites of the Emirates Airbus A380 or Boeing 777.
How much do you save on unbundled business class?
Given everything that airlines remove from an unbundled business class fare, how much cheaper are the tickets – and are they worth parting with those perks?
While Emirates offers its Business Class Special fares only on certain routes and at certain times of the year, unbundled business class is a standard offering for Finnair and Qatar Airways, which in turn provides a useful benchmark for assessing their value against normal business class fares.
A spot-check of Qatar Airways fares on the busy Sydney-Doha-London route in September 2023 showed the following rates for a return trip:
- Business Class Lite: $8,930
- Business Class Classic: $10,860
- Business Class Comfort: $13,020
- Business Class Elite: $15,100
As you can see, the unbundled Business Lite fare delivers a saving of almost $2,000 against the Classic fare on the same flight, and a solid $6,100 against the top-shelf Elite fare.
Finnair’s Helsinki-Singapore route, also in September 2023, shows the following prices for a return ticket:
- Business Light: €4,992
- Business Classic: €5,292
- Business Flex: €6,628
In that instance there’s a surprisingly small gap of just €300 between Finnair’s unbundled Business Light fare and the standard Business Classic ticket, which is barely a ‘saving’ at all when you’re looking at around €5,000 for the overall trip.
(Note that Finnair Business Light fares are not sold in all markets: for example, they can’t be purchased from Australia.)
What ticketing codes does unbundled business class use?
One caveat for globetrotters who rely on a travel manager to make their bookings, especially in larger companies: your booking agent may understandably opt for the lowest business class fare without realising it’s an unbundled fare which removes valuable aspects such as lounge access and checked luggage.
To avoid the accidental purchase of an unbundled business class fare, instruct them not to choose the following ticketing codes or booking class:
- Emirates’ unbundled business class uses the H ticketing code
- Finnair’ unbundled business class uses the D ticketing code
- Qatar Airways’ unbundled business class uses the P ticketing code