Typical business class airfares may seem shockingly expensive to travellers used to hitting the skies on cheap economy fares.

But when companies want highly skilled and compensated employees travelling across oceans or continents to arrive well rested and ready to work, they don’t mind paying those stifling $5,000 to $10,000 round trip fares.

The problem is that the quality of the business class seat you get for that fat fare varies widely among airlines, but the price does not. Most airlines charge the same business class fare no matter what type of seat you get.

Currently, there are three types of business class seats. True lie-flat, slanted or angled lie-flat and recliners.

The very best type of seat is the true lie-flat seat. This latest generation seat folds down into a 180-degree surface that is parallel with the floor of the plane — just like your bed is parallel to the floor of you bedroom. Most business travellers who’ve enjoyed a true lie-flat sleeper seat find it difficult to accept anything less on subsequent flights.

Second best is what’s known as “slanted” or “angled” lie-flat. This is a seat that reclines into a 180-degree flat surface, but is tilted at a slight angle to the aircraft floor, so your feet fly at a lower altitude than your head, a position many business travellers find slippery and uncomfortable.

Third is the least desirable old-school “recliner” or “cradle” type business class seat that allows you to recline and prop up your legs on a footrest, but that’s about all. It’s easy to doze in a recliner, but nearly impossible to get really good sleep because you can’t turn onto your side or stomach.

Most major international airlines now realize that to compete for the coveted business traveller, they must offer the new generation, true lie-flat seat. But while many have grand plans to eventually offer true lie-flat seats across their fleets, the reality is that most aren’t there yet.

If you or your company are willing to pony up the big bucks for a business class seat, here is some advice for getting the best one your travel budget can buy.

Business class seating is a mixed bag across airline fleets. For example, Delta Air Lines, which is very vocal about its plans to eventually convert to 100% true lie-flat business class seats, now offers them on just 42 of its 144 long haul aircraft. (It even has a web page charting its progress, which now stands at 25%.) While all its Boeing 777 and some of its 767s offer true lie-flat seats, other aircraft are outfitted with a mix of either slanted lie-flat seats or recliners. 

British Airways, which pioneered the concept of true lie-flat business class seats in 2000 offers one of the most consistent products across the globe; all its long haul aircraft offer true lie-flat seats in business class.

“The [business class] seats that get the best reviews and airlines with consistently good comments are Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Air Canada, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand. Their business class configurations not only provide seats that recline to 180 degrees but they also have direct access to the aisle and provide the most amount of privacy,” said Andrew Wong, senior manager at Seatguru.com, a website that provides travelers with the foreknowledge of whether a given flight has true lie-flat seats in business class.

Brett Snyder, president of the Cranky Concierge, a service that provides air travel assistance and flight planning for travellers said, “If you want a flat bed on a US carrier, fly Delta to London or on any Boeing 777 flight, a pre-merger United Boeing 767 or 747, or a pre-merger Continental 757 or 777 — they all offer true lie-flat seats. Avoid American Airlines completely. There isn’t a true lie-flat seat in the fleet.”

Choosing the newest plane possible sometimes, but not always, will lead you to a true lie-flat seat. For example, all of Korean Air’s new Airbus A380s deployed on routes like New York-Seoul, or Los Angeles-Seoul (in October) offer its true lie-flat “Prestige Sleeper” seats; other long haul aircraft offer a mix of slanted lie-flat and true lie-flat seats. Emirates offers true lie-flat seats (a full 79 inches long) on all its new A380s. On the other hand, Lufthansa and Air France inaugurated A380 service this year with slanted lie-flat business class seats. However in an interview last spring, Lufthansa’s CEO recently admitted to me that he realizes the slanted seat is not the optimal business class seat. He said the carrier will offer a new true lie-flat seat on its new Boeing 747 Intercontinental aircraft due for delivery in 2012.

Getting a true lie-flat seat is not always critical for some business travellers, depending on the timing of their flight “If it’s a daylight flight, getting less than a true lie-flat sleeper seat is not nearly as bad,” said Snyder. Most flights from Europe to the US are daylight flights, meaning they depart in the morning and fly in sunlight all day. On these flights, travellers usually prefer to work, socialize or enjoy the in-flight meals and entertainment.

Finally, as airlines transition from older recliners to newer lie-flat seats, if getting a good night’s sleep on your flight is critical, consult with a travel agent knowledgeable about the various business class configurations. Also, check in with websites such as Seatguru.com or Flatseats.com, which do a great job of keeping up with rapidly changing fleets. Seatguru’s Wong adds, “A passenger doesn’t have control if the flight is late, if the crew is rude or if the food is cold. But so long as the ‘hard product’, the seat and its location is good, a passenger can have the best flight they can and maximize the value of the ticket. Given the choice, choosing a good seat is one of the few things in a passenger’s control when it comes to flying and they should take the time, especially for long-haul, to choose the best one they can.”


 Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel