The Origins of Economy, Business and First Class Airline Passenger Seats

The most important thing to consider when it comes to booking your airline ticket would be seat selection. Different classes of passenger seats offer different benefits. Although there may be some differences between airlines, most passenger seats are divided into three classes: Economy, Business and First.

Here’s a quick quiz! On boarding passes, economy class seats are indicated with “Y,” and first class seats with “F.” Why is it then business class seats are indicated with “C,” not “B”? In this post, we are going to find out the reason, exploring the origins of airline passenger seat classes and their unique features.

1. First Class

Source: Singapore Airlines website

Let’s talk about first class seats first. The meaning of first class seats is very straightforward. Passengers in first class seats are provided with the best service each airline offers, and the service class is indicated with the first letter, “F.” First class passengers can access exclusive VIP lounges inside airports where they can rest, dine and sleep, and even board the airplane first through an exclusive gate. Of course, they can check in through exclusive counters as well. First class passengers also receive multiple-course meals comprised of Korean, Western, Chinese and Japanese cuisines served on classy porcelain crockery.

Source: Etihad Airways website
Source: Air France website

Etihad Airways, the second flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, and Air France, the flag carrier of France, offer spacious armchairs and lie-flat beds as shown in the photos above. First class passengers of Etihad Airways can use onboard showers with luxury amenity kits, and enjoy a fabulous dining experience where a professional chef provides customized meals according to individual preferences. It sounds like you can have a special time even on an airplane, right?

2. Business Class

Business class seats may not be as comfortable as first class seats that are sold at super expensive prices, but they are designed for passengers who want more pleasant flying experiences as well as people who fly frequently. These seats are called business class since they are mostly used by businesspersons who have to make frequent business trips. A business class seat is normally two to three times more expensive than an economy class seat. However, it comes with upgraded inflight meals and general service quality. Above all, business class seats minimize the discomfort of narrow economy class seats.

In fact, there used to be only two classes of passenger seats—first and economy—until the late 1970s. It was a small airline called British Caledonian which first introduced business class seats.

Through the 1973 oil crisis, the price difference between economy class seats and first class seats became larger. Due to the fierce fare competition between North American airlines and British airlines, British Caledonian was at the risk of facing decreased profits, so such a solution was introduced. In other words, British Caledonian devised passenger seats that were more upscale than economy seats, but more affordable than first class seats. The first business class seats were introduced in 1978 as “executive cabin.”

Then here comes a question—why isn’t business class seats indicated with “B”?

Just like first class passenger seats, business class seats are indicated with an alphabet letter. It is easy to identify the service class for other passenger seats from these alphabet letters. That is not the case with business class seats. That is because business class seats are not indicated with “B,” but “C.” This can be explained through the history of how business class seats became prevalent in the industry.

Source: Wikipedia

The “Executive Cabin,” which was the prototype of the contemporary business class such as exclusive check-in counters, spacious seats and a variety of complementary drinks quickly became widespread through the airline called Pan Am. During its promotional campaign, the airline gave the class their own nickname called “Clipper.” Clipper means “a fast sailing ship,” and that is how the letter “C” came to represent business class seats even today. It is said that Pan Am’s Clipper Class had such a phenomenal impact that its name has stayed until now.

3. Economy Class

Economy class seats are generally most widely used passenger seats. Did you know that there is a predecessor to economy class called tourist class?

Air traffic between countries became active in the early 1950s, and it created a demand for affordable passenger seats for long distance flight routes. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved the terms that were used in the maritime industry, which are still used today.

On the ship, there were two classes, which were the luxurious cabin class and very affordable steerage. Tourist class was newly created as a better service was required for long-distance traffic than the steerage class.

Unlike the story of the shipping industry, the term “economy class” was first used in the aviation industry by Pan Am for its passenger seats with the lowest fares. Economy passenger seats are indicated with “Y” using the last letter of the word economy.

Today’s post explored the origins of different airline passenger seat classes. We found out about the continuing influnce of Pan Am, which declared bankrupcy in 1991, but had a huge impact on the aviation industry during its growth period. I hope this post clear some questions you may have had when traveling on an airplane. Incheon Airport Blog will come back with more of fun aviation knowledge. 😊

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