I have done it twice in recent years, once to New Zealand
and once to London, both times at someone else's expense. The main advantage was a seat comfortable enough to sleep in, fully horizontal in
the case of the long flight to New Zealand, reclined in the case of the shorter
London flight. I could imagine paying a hundred dollars or so for that, plus a
little more for dinner, drinks, an electric socket at my seat to keep my laptop
charged, and extra attention—perhaps as much as two hundred dollars each way,
four hundred for the round trip. I no longer remember what the cost was for the
flight to New Zealand, but I am pretty sure the difference between business
class and tourist was considerably more than that. The London flight was more
recent—I am currently on it—and the difference was about four thousand dollars.
Which raises the puzzle of the title. I am a reasonably well
off inhabitant of one of the world's richest countries. Where do the airlines
of the world find enough customers willing to pay ten times what I would be
willing to pay to fill their business class (and first class) seats?
One possible answer is that I am not as well off as I think
I am, relatively speaking, that there are a lot of people a lot richer than I
am, willing to pay a much higher price for comfort. Another is that many people
are more profligate—alternatively, less stingy—than I am. A third is suggested
by my own experience—that a lot of those people are not paying for their own
tickets. But that only replaces the question of why they are willing to pay the
price with the question of why someone else is.
Perhaps that someone else is flying the passenger somewhere
to do something important the next day, and having him rested and competent is
worth the price. I doubt that can be the explanation for very many passengers.
I expect that, in most cases, the cost of an extra day or two of
recovery time would be considerably less than the extra cost of a business
Perhaps the explanation is the value of status. Passengers paying a business class fare are buying the feeling that
they are Very Important People. Organizations that pay a speaker's fare are
demonstrating that they consider him a Very Important Person, and the fact that
their speakers are Very Important People makes them Very Important
Organizations. That fits my later observation—I am now revising this post on my
return flight—that several of the organizations I gave talks for over the past
two weeks put me and my wife up in much fancier, and much more expensive,
hotels than we would have chosen for ourselves.
Perhaps I'm just a tightwad. Or perhaps, as my wife
suggests, the advantage of business class seats is greater for passengers who
are more than five feet three and a half inches tall.