The economy of flying First Class

During a recent business trip, I discovered quite by accident that flying First Class on certain flights may not be all that much more than flying in economy.

Because the trip was last minute, there were absolutely no standard economy seats available on my United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) flight from Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport (SEA) or coming home. At a bit over 6 feet tall, I didn’t want to risk the possibility that I’d be stuck in a middle seat for either flight, which pushed at the three-hour mark, and chose to spend the extra money for Economy Plus, which had my preferred aisle seats available for an additional $142 for the round trip.

When I checked in on line, however, United offered the option of upgrading to First Class for an additional $159 each way, and the airline would also refund the additional fee I had ponied up for Economy Plus.

Accordingly, my round trip in First Class cost me $176 more than my Economy Plus ticket had cost. If I had checked a bag, which costs $25 each way for economy passengers but is included for First Class ticket holders, the cost would have been even lower, at an additional $126 net out-of-pocket.

What did that additional expenditure buy me? Priority boarding, space for me and my carry-on, a meal and beverages, better service and additional frequent flier miles.

Priority boarding can mean one of two things: either you get on the airplane in the first group if that’s your preference, or wait until you’re good and ready, then go to the head of the line using the First Class boarding portal, which gate agents will almost invariably accommodate as soon as a First Class passenger shows up.

The value of the extra space is obvious. Those who board first get the best shot at increasingly rare overhead storage for those who don’t check bags. But your bag doesn’t care how cramped it is; your legs and knees might. Which brings me to the extra legroom I’d purchased.

My outbound flight was aboard an Airbus A319, of which United operates two configurations. The most common, according to, offers standard economy seats that are 18 inches wide with 31 inches of pitch. Economy Plus seats are the same width but offer four more inches of legroom. First Class seats are 20.5 inches wide with pitch of 38 inches.

The return trip, aboard a Boeing 757-200, would have been in economy seats just 17 inches wide – and trust me, that extra inch makes a big difference! – with pitch of 31 inches in standard economy and 36 inches in Economy Plus. First Class seats were 20.2 inches wide with 38 inches of pitch.

Better service will vary from flight to flight, and I have been in First Class sections where service was quite lacking. On this flight pair, however, it was quite good. As an added bonus, the flight attendant from my outbound flight was also on my return flight and remembered that I had been on her previous flight, making me feel more like a valued guest than simply a paying passenger.

On some airlines, last-minute upgrades to First Class do not include additional frequent flier miles. On this flight pair, the higher fare brought with it 50 percent more miles, which isn’t a bad thing.

While I purchased my upgrades on a “space available” basis, a quick cost comparison showed that I would have spent no more if I had purchased First Class tickets at the time of booking.

Convincing one’s company comptroller of the value of First Class travel could be problematic. However, if you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that will allow their travelers to pay the difference if they choose to upgrade to a higher class of service, bravo! Otherwise, you may be stuck using your accrued frequent flier miles to upgrade.

Regardless, the bottom line is still the bottom line: Don’t automatically assume that First Class is so expensive as to be out of reach. Do the math, then look through your personal travel lens to determine if the extra benefits are worth the extra dollars.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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