Business class on a budget

Not all business classes are created equally – but you might be astounded at just how unequal their pricing can be

Want to fly from Sydney to Singapore but can't bear being squeezed into economy?

Based on a booking for the end of May, business class on Qantas will set you back $5327 one-way. Singapore Airlines comes in at $3087.

But there's a third airline offering business class on the same route and the same day for just $649.

That airline is Scoot, the recently-launched low-cost offshoot of Singapore Airlines.

And Scoot's not alone in undercutting the big brands for business class.

On the Melbourne-Singapore route, Qantas faces competition from Jetstar with a tempting $699 ticket in business class.

In both those cases, their one-way business class prices turn out to be lower than the economy fares of Qantas and Singapore Airlines.

Malaysia's AirAsia X offers a similarly cut-price Premium cabin against Malaysia Airlines' business class on flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to Kuala Lumpur – and further on to Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul, as long as you don't mind a stop-over in KL.


The high cost of doing business

Of course, stacking up any of those low-cost carriers to their full-service counterparts is like comparing apples to oranges.

All that the cheapies and the big brands have in common is that they'll get you from A to B in roughly the same amount of time.

But for some people, that's enough – and with savings of more than $9000 for a return ticket (using our Sydney-Singapore example), the other differences between those airlines can become difficult to justify.

Yet those differences are many, in both quality and quantity.

On the ground, business class fares on most low-cost airlines don't include access to airport lounges, even those who are siblings of full-service carriers such as Qantas or SIngapore Airlines.

The same goes for frequent flyer points.

The reason is simple: low-cost carriers eschew airport lounges and frequent flyer schemes, preferring to compete on prices rather than perks.

(That said, for an extra $200 each way, Jetstar's Business Max fares will give you access to Qantas lounges along with earning Qantas Frequent Flyer points and status credits.)

The meals served free in a low-cost business class cabin are drawn from the same "buy on board" menu that is available to economy passengers.

So while they'll fill your stomach, there's no way they can come close to the in-flight dining of a full service airline. Don't expect anything fancy in the way of wines, either.

However, the business class seats of international low-cost airlines aren't nearly as bad as you might expect.

Scoot and Jetstar favour recliners that are akin to business class of a decade ago, but Air Asia X's angled flat bed isn't too far from what some full service airlines are still flying.

(Note that an angled flat bed isn't the same as a fully lie-flat bed: the surface itself is flat but you sleep at an angle to the floor rather than being completely horizontal.)

A good recliner is comfortable enough for a daytime flight, although less so for any overnight return leg.

Jetstar in the ascendancy 

While people associate Scoot, Jetstar, Air Asia X and other low-cost carriers with "cheap seats" for holiday-makers, they also stand to take a bite out of business travel – especially for the self-employed, who can't justify blowing several thousand dollars on one flight.

According to Jetstar, its business class cabins carry a healthy mix of leisure, small business and corporate travellers.

"The proportion of business class bookings made through corporate travel agents is substantially higher than is the case for economy fares," a Jetstar spokesman says.

"We're seeing that the price of our business class fares suit companies with 'best fare on the day' policies. Jetstar can offer passengers a more comfortable travelling experience in our business cabin whilst also delivering substantial cost savings."

Jetstar's success has seen the airline catapult into new markets, with Jetstar Asia based in Singapore and Jetstar Hong Kong due to launch by year's end.

It's also no accident that several low-cost airlines are buying new aircraft such as Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, where greater fuel efficiency and longer periods between major maintenance will drastically reduce the running cost compared to older aircraft.

It's Jetstar, not Qantas, which is in line to receive Australia's first Boeing 787 in the second half of this year, with 13 more to follow.

Scoot, the cut-price offshoot of Singapore Airlines, has 20 Boeing 787s on the order books. UK holiday airline Thompson has eight 787s more.

And while low-cost airlines invest to keep ticket prices nailed down, other airlines are bulking up their business class offerings to add depth to the overall experience.

Qantas has recently joined Emirates and Etihad in adding a door-to-door chauffeur service, amping up its business class menu and providing mattresses and duvets to help ensure a better sleep on red-eye flights.

When it comes to business class, how much is too much? Would you rather pay less for your ticket by forgoing some of the perks – and if so, which ones?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT