How I chose to fly business class home in July

Let me start by making clear how grateful and privileged I am to have the opportunity to fly home in business class next month. Everything else that follows in this post is just an exploration of my thought process whether to fly in business class and, once I decided to, decided which airline and routing to fly. (And I’m going to go into serious aviation nerd mode, which maybe only Matt will appreciate fully. Sorry in advance!)

The rationale

I am not yet at a point in my life where buying transcontinental business class tickets is an affordable option. This is my first time buying a business class ticket out of pocket and I made the decision to do so using the following rationale and rationalizations.

Safety. While I know that air quality in an airplane is very high, I am still concerned about being in close quarters for up to a dozen hours with other people. Traveling in business class would put me in a less densely packed cabin and, with some airlines offering more cubicle-like seats, hopefully a greater degree of protection from fellow passengers.

Yes, I do realize that international flights have very light loads, but that doesn’t mean the flights I will travel on will have light loads. And, as I saw since booking, the airlines have rejiggered their schedules to consolidate passengers onto fewer flights. (When I booked, United was selling tickets for six flights from Tokyo Narita to their US hubs. Four weeks before departure, it is down to two flights and my booking has been changed two times.)

Benefit of solo travel. Unfortunately, Tawn will not join me on this flight. Since there is only one of us flying, the budgetary impact is half and it feels a bit easier to justify spending a bit more.

Random rationalizations. We haven’t flown in nearly a year and a half. I haven’t been back to see my family in even longer. I turned fifty last year and had wanted to treat myself to a business class flight. Airfares are a good bit lower than they historically have been so now is a good time to splurge. See? There are plenty of rationalizations to supplement my rationale!

“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”

Benjamin Franklin

The process

Once I decided to fly business class, I searched for options using the following criteria:

Star Alliance. If I was going to be shelling money out of my own pocket for this experience, I want to make sure I earn miles. My mileage program of choice is with Aegean Airlines, a member of Star Alliance. This means that, given the limited number of airlines flying into Bangkok at this time, my choices were All-Nippon Airways + United (they operate a joint venture across the Pacific), EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Turkish, or Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss).

Single ticket to my destination. I prefer to book directly through the airline’s website rather than through a third party. This way, if I have problems, the airline has the greatest incentive to fix them. EVA, Asiana and Singapore could only book me to their US destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. I would have to book the connecting leg to Kansas City myself. This was an unacceptable complication during this pandemic, when schedules and circumstances can change with little notice.

Flying in a cubicle-like business class. Some airlines use more open (and older) business class seating arrangements where the seats are in pairs arranged 2-2-2 with aisles in between. I actually quite like this way of flying, especially when traveling with Tawn. But in this pandemic era, I want to be in more individual, “cubicle” style seats where I don’t have to see, interact with, or step over a seat mate when getting into and out of my seat. Lufthansa, Turkish, and United operate some or all of their fleet with a 2-2-2 layout (or, in the case of Turkish on some planes, a 2-3-2 arrangement as pictured above!)

Maximizing flying time. This may seem crazy, but if I’m going to pay for the business class experience, I want to get the most time I can to enjoy it. And this isn’t just a value-for-money proposition but also a sleep proposition. If you are flying a shorter flight like Tokyo to Seattle (just about 8 hours) you won’t have as much time to rest as you would on a flight like Hong Kong to Chicago (about 11 hours). With lie-flat seats a norm in business class, I want to opportunity to get at least six solid hours of sleep, to help minimize jet lag. This means I wanted flights across the ocean at least 10 hours long.

Price. Despite my rationalizations, budget was still a consideration. There was more than a US$1,000 difference between the least expensive business class fares offered by the different airlines and the prices varied quite a bit between day, exact routing, and even when I searched. Most tickets were coming in around US$3,500 – $4,000, which was feeling a bit rich for my wallet. Finally, I found one that met my criteria for only US$2,098.

The result

After several weeks of comparing options, I settled on a ticket purchased from United Airlines, which includes multiple segments flown by All-Nippon Airways. United and ANA are joint-venture partners on their entire trans-Pacific flying plus many connecting routes. This “metal-neutral” arrangement means they are able to coordinate all aspects of flying, pricing, and selling and share the costs and revenues as if they were a single airline for those routes.

I liked this itinerary because it would feature United’s new Polaris business class seat from Tokyo to Newark and All Nippon’s slightly older business class seat from Chicago to Tokyo, which both are well reviewed and offer nice private cubicles. Additionally, the long trans-Pacific legs in both directions meant time to enjoy the meal service and entertainment, while also getting a solid six-plus hours of sleep in. I was also excited to fly through Tokyo Haneda on the return, an airport I have never visited.

Unfortunately, it turns out I forgot an important criterion when booking my flights:

Approval by Thai authorities. To enter Thailand now, you need the local Thai embassy to issue a COE (certificate of entry) and this includes flying only on currently approved inbound flights. All-Nippon was selling the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Bangkok but it was not yet on the Thai government’s list of approved flights. Sticking with this booking would mean taking the risk that Thai authorities would approve the flight at a later date. And, if they didn’t, I would have to change the schedule, with the chance of a penalty fee or fare increase. After the Thai embassy initially rejected my COE application, I contacted United to make a change in the return schedule. Thankfully, there was no cost to do this.

The recurring LAX change

United actively reviews and optimizes its schedule, sending regular emails notifying you of changes to your booking. Some of these are minor – a flight departs a few minutes earlier or later, or the flight now has a different number and is operated by a different United Express carrier.

But as the departure date grew closer, United started paring back its trans-Pacific flights. This is not a surprise as demand for international travel has remained much lower than for United States domestic travel, which has rebounded in the past few weeks as vaccination rates increase and infection rates plummet.

My first notification was that I had been rerouted through Los Angeles on my outbound trip, connecting to Kansas City by overflying to Chicago and then backtracking. This was not okay because it didn’t meet two of my criteria: the flight to Los Angeles comes in well shy of 10 hours and it is flown by aircraft with United’s older business class configuration, which features 2-2-2 seating. If I was going to fly, I was going to try out the new product.

Thankfully, a call to United reservations fixed that. With no charge, they put me on the Tokyo to Houston flight, a nice 12 hour, 10 minute flight on a Boeing 777-200 featuring the new Polaris business class. Plus, they could connect me from Houston to Kansas City nonstop.

A few weeks later, I received a second notification. The Houston flight was now cancelled and I was again routed through Los Angeles, although this time connecting to Kansas City through Denver instead of through Chicago. Los Angeles again?!

At this point, I thought that maybe I would have to accept my fate and just fly into Los Angeles. It is a nice enough airport. The United Club has an outdoor terrace with a view of the airplanes. But I wasn’t happy about not flying their new business class product. I went to the United website to see what other flights they were operating from Tokyo.

After a bit of research I realized that the flight to San Francisco was operated with the new business class product. Even though the flight is about a half-hour shorter than Los Angeles, I figured I would trade off a bit of eating or entertainment time, to enjoy the new Polaris product. Another call to United reservations fixed the booking.

So, three weeks before departure, this is what my itinerary looks like. We shall see whether United changes it again. Looking at the number of seats already selected for the flight to San Francisco, it looks like business class may be at least one-third full, so unlikely they will cancel that flight. What I find especially interesting, is that there hasn’t been any changes to the return booking. This makes me think that All Nippon is more disciplined (or less agile) in their approach to scheduling.

I’m excited about this itinerary. It will be a treat (and a privilege) to be able to try the business class products, to pamper myself a bit, and to hopefully be a bit more protected from the risk of falling ill while flying. I end up arriving two hours earlier into Kansas City, which I know will be appreciated by whoever picks me up from the airport! The chance to fly through San Francisco is a treat, too. It’s my hometown airport for the first 30+ years of my life, I haven’t been there in a few years. My only regret is that there isn’t enough time to visit anyone!

Thanks for indulging me as I gush about the experience. I realize it is nerdier than about 99.99% of the population will appreciate. But I’m looking forward to the trip and really am enjoying the planning aspect as much (maybe more) than the actual travel aspect.

17 thoughts on “How I chose to fly business class home in July

  1. Hehe! You underestimate the nerdiness of your readership! I found this fascinating. We are planning a trip to Seattle, WA (it has been postponed twice due to the pandemic) that will happen in August of 2022. I’m really hoping that we can get a reasonable priced flight… It would be deluxe to fly business class or even first class but probably won’t happen.

    • Unfortunately, domestic business class tends to be not much of an experience, unless you can get a larger plane, a nonstop flight, or similar. A series of two-hour flights with nothing more than pretzels and soda aren’t the best use of a first class ticket…

  2. I, too, found this interesting! As the “travel agent” for our family who normally travels a LOT in any given year, I run through these considerations all the time. Or, at least I did so up until January 2020 (our last flight). We only do business when flying overseas, sometimes with miles, but most often paid — so I’ve done extensive work over the years on making the margin between economy and business as small as possible. There have been times I could get a business fare for only 25% more than economy (e.g. in summer, when economy fares are high and there are fewer business travelers). I have some of the same criteria with regards to length-of-flight so that we can get enough sleep on board; United always wants me to layover in Newark on the way to Europe — but that would result in a 7-hour flight instead of an 11-hour flight from California.

    We are taking our first flight since January 2020 on Wednesday, a short flight from LA to Denver. And we’re headed to New York next month. And I booked business/first for both trips — somewhat using the rationalization that “Well, I haven’t spent any money on any flights in 17 months, so it just pays for itself!” Plus, flights were pretty darn cheap when I booked them in April, when airlines were still trying to lure people back. The thought of flying seemed impossible just a few months ago, but the rapid change in the virus’s trajectory here has made it a lot less scary. Glad to see you were able to get your A-Z shot already, and that you’ll be backing it up with J&J once you’re stateside.

    • That “connect in Newark” thing is exactly why the last time we flew back using miles, I decided for economy class. Such a short flight in business class is a waste. Enjoy your Denver flight and stay safe.

  3. It’s been several years since I’ve flown, but I know you will enjoy the added comfort of the business class seating and the extra sleep time. On 9/22/2001, I was required to fly from LA to Orlando on business, a trip I resisted as long as I could — I really wasn’t ready to be that far away from home that soon after 9/11! After turning down an opportunity to fly in the corporate jet (it wasn’t the flight that bothered me so much as being that far away from home with possibly no way to get home), I finally agreed to go on condition that I could use miles to upgrade (to first class), and that I could rent a car, even if it sat for a week in a parking lot, so I had a way to get home if necessary. The only passengers on the way out were UAL employees headed on R&R after their disaster, and on the way back the back of the plane was about 1/3 filled. The difference in comfort, even in those days, was remarkable — well worth the miles spent on the upgrade! And from what I’ve seen the difference is even greater with the new cubicle seating arrangements. Enjoy your flights — and I hope the return itinerary doesn’t change!

  4. Not meaning to brag, I have to let you know, that I have flown business class for more years than I can remember. The seats nowadays are not as plush as they were ten years or so back When we slept flat on the extended seats, it was so comfortable. Before the Pandemic I flew home on Qatar airways, which was very nice, but the width of the seats in the business class was not any wider or plusher than those in the economy class. I felt that way about British Airways, and Turkish Airways too. Royal Jordanian and SIngapore , Cathay Pacific and Thai airlines were by far the best. Please check to see how wide the seats are Chris. When you are sleeping and want to turn over to your side or something, it was very inconvenient when the entire width was narrow, even though you were sleeping flat. I hope you get an excellent seat and are very happy with your flight.
    The food, the menu (OMG!) and the presentation is always superb in every airline I have traveled.
    How long will you be inKC?
    love and hugs.

    • Yes, I think some of the business class seats are quite narrow – even though they claim to be laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration, because the feet of one seat squeeze between the seats in front, it is nearly a 2-4-2 configuration. For the food, I’m understanding that the overall food service internationally is a bit less lavish than normal. We shall see!

  5. Wow that is a super comprehensive decision making process. Let us know how it is both from a sitting in business class perspective and flying during a pandemic perspective. I’ve never been lucky enough to sit in business although I did sit economy plus on Japan airlines which was quite luxurious. I was actually surprised when you chose United only because I have a very bad impression of them from my past experiences. But I’m sure your experience will be different as you’ve done good research!

    • “super comprehensive” = “doesn’t have enough to keep him occupied”

      United will probably not be the best in terms of the soft service offerings (that’s why I chose All Nippon for the return trip) but the new seat itself is supposed to be very good. I’m curious to try it.

  6. Wow… next time I need to book a flight I’m know who to go to for advice. You sure do know all the different first class products out there. I hope there won’t be any surprises on your booking. I’m still a bit nervous about flying. It’s the air circulation (or lack of) that worries me.

    • Oh, air circulation is the least of the concerns. They use HEPA filters on planes, top to bottom flow, and the entire air is changed out every three to four minutes. It is much better circulation than almost any room you are going to be sitting in. It is the fellow passengers on a crowded flight that I am worried about!

      • Yes there are HEPA filters and the airflow is changed. But some airlines use a mixture of recirculated air and fresh air. The recirculated air goes through the HEPA filters. The risk (and I think it’s not well understood), is how well the cabin air gets pulled into the HEPA filters. There might be spots where there is less circulation. I hope everyone will keep their masks on, even in the toilet.

        p.s. it’s nice to see you blogging regularly again.

  7. Pingback: Flying back to the US from Thailand | christao408

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