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The best business class seats from Australia to the USA

By John Walton     Filed under: qantas, United Airlines, business class, Air Canada, USA, Air New Zealand, Canada, delta, lie-flat seats, Virgin Australia, fully-flat beds

What's the best business class seat to fly from Australia across the Pacific to the US?

At Australian Business Traveller, we're asked questions comparing the business classes a lot, since these are long flights and you want to get the best seat for your money.

So we've pooled our expertise on these airlines and come up with a definitive guide to the most comfortable seats on the major airlines crossing the Pacific:

  • Air New Zealand
  • Air Canada
  • Delta
  • Qantas
  • Virgin Australia
  • United

How we compared the seats

These are 12-14 hour flights, so getting as much sleep as you can is important. We've placed an emphasis on undisturbed sleep, so beds that go completely horizontal beat beds that don't.

Read our exposé of the "lie-flat lie" about angled flat seats for more on why fully flat beds are important on long flights like these.

Direct aisle access, where window or middle passengers don't have to hop over the person in the aisle seat, is also a plus in our book.

But so is comfort in the seating mode and overall service, together with the lounge offerings on both ends. We've briefly mentioned all those things where they're relevant to your choice.

But, like most business travellers, we've really focussed on the seat you'll be occupying for the better part of a day.

Ranked: the best business class across the Pacific

Starting with the best, we pick:

1. Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand isn't the first name that springs to mind when you're thinking of flights from Australia to the USA. And for good reason: flying AirNZ calls for a connection in Auckland.

A stopover instead of a direct flight won't appeal to many business travellers, but we promised to call out the best business class seats – and Air New Zealand's flagship Boeing 777-300 business class, Business Premier, is spectacular.

You get direct aisle access and a seat that flips over to create one of the best beds for sleeping in the sky -- especially if you prefer to sleep on your side or stomach.

The downsides, apart from that Auckland connection? The the seat doesn't recline all that far when you're using it in seat mode, and the herringbone layout where seats angle slightly into the aisles.

Bonuses include the fantastic and unusual NZ wine selection, plus Virgin Australia Velocity frequent flyer points.

Air New Zealand's older Business Premier seats, which you'll still find on the airlines' Boeing 747 and 777-200, are still among our favourites but they're not quite up there with the 777-300ER.

They still boast aisle access and the flip-over bed, but it's not quite as good a mattress and the entertainment system is a bit last-generation

In summary: if your schedule can spare the time, take this trip.

Read more: the best seats in Business Premier on Air New Zealand's 777-300

2. Air Canada

Here's another curve-ball. Air Canada doesn't fly directly to the US -- but its Sydney-Vancouver flights make good sense if you're heading to the northern US cities like Seattle. Why put yourself through the 'Seven Circles of Hell' punishment of LAX when you can transfer via, and maybe break your journey at, Vancouver?

Air Canada's very comfortable Executive First business class has direct aisle access in a herringbone layout and a seat that reclines into a fully flat bed, so they're great for getting the sleep you need to help skip across the west-to-east timezones.

However, there's no "wow" factor like other airlines have. This is a functional business class, not one with flair. Plus, Air Canada's Sydney lounge is the Air New Zealand business lounge, which is often crowded.

Read more: the best seats in Executive First on Air Canada's 777-200LR

3. Delta

Delta's herringbone layout on its trans-Pacific Boeing 777-200LRs also reclines rather than flipping over, but you get all the benefits of direct aisle access.

Bear in mind that Delta's business class lacks a bit of panache: this is, again, one of those business classes where the seat wins over the rest of the deal.

4. Qantas: Skybed Mark II (Airbus A380 and upgraded Boeing 747)

If you're on one of Qantas' Airbus A380s or its refurbished Boeing 747-400ERs, you'll find the second-generation Skybed.

It's a very comfortable seat, and since they're in the nose or upstairs on a 747 -- or on the upper deck of an A380 -- you can be sure of a quiet ride too.

The main drawback of the Skybed layout is that it faces forward in regular rows: so you've got middle seat passengers in the main cabin downstairs on a 747, and window seat passengers on the A380 have to clamber over their aisle neighbour.

Qantas' lounge complex in Sydney (especially the world-beating first class lounge) is firmly above average, but the Los Angeles one isn't up to the same standard.

But when you put together the seat and the inflight dining, this would be the best direct service from Australia to the US.

Read more: the best business class seats on Qantas' Airbus A380: both the new version and the old version. For the Boeing 747, you'll need the guide to the refurbished long-range 747-400ER -- it's the only jumbo jet with these new seats.

5. Virgin Australia

The old V Australia business class wins on style, so if you like the Virgin flair you'll love this one. The exclusive Row 5 is a real gem and very private, though subject to noise from the bar ahead and economy behind.

The seats are among the least comfortable of the bunch, though: they're generic, forward-facing flatbed seats in a 2-3-2 configuration, so you might get lumped with a middle seat, and you'll be subject to the clambering problem wherever you are in the cabin.

Read more: the best business class seats on Virgin Australia's 777

6. United Airlines

United has the narrowest seats across the Pacific at nineteen inches -- around two to three inches narrower than the rest.

They're fully flat beds, but arranged in a forwards-backwards layout where one row faces forwards, but the next faces backwards.

They're the only airline to do direct Sydney-San Francisco, though (and we have one of our signature reviews of the service), and also fly from Melbourne. The lounges are nothing to write home about, however.

Read more: the best seats in business class on United's 747

7. Qantas: Skybed Mark I (original Boeing 747)

If you fly business class on an older Qantas 747, you'll be booked on the angled lie-flat Skybed.

This is the least comfortable bed across the Pacific, and it'll be phased out as the Red Roo retires or refurbishes its 747 fleet.

Read more: to pick the best business class seat for your flight, check out our guide to the four-class Boeing 747-400ER, the four-class Boeing 747-400 (not the -ER model) or the two-class Boeing 747-400, which just has business and economy.

And also...

We should point out that several airlines fly recliner seats across the Pacific, which are similar to what you'd find in domestic business class in Australia. Those airlines are Air Pacific, Air New Zealand, Hawaiian Airlines, and Jetstar (to Honolulu only).

Since they're firmly below the standard of the other airlines, we've not included them here.

What do you reckon? Do you sing the praises of one of the seats we rate? Or are you a fan of one of the business classes we're not so keen on? Share your thoughts in a comment below!


About John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.


Have something to say? Post a comment now!

1 on 23/7/12 by AusFlyer

I can't say I agree with Air New Zealand ranking as number 1... The fact that you have to flip the seat down is a big negative in my opinion. I agree that both Air Canada and Delta have good products with direct aisle access (and the ability to recline the seat to a comfortable position rather than flipping it!). So I would rank them above Air New Zealand but for the Kiwi's the direct aisle access is a plus over the Qantas seat.

I also agree that Virgin's seat is the least comfortable (and I actually found it less comfortable that the original Qantas Skybed though the angle seat is a negative for that one).

1 on 23/7/12 by John

I really don't get why people dislike flipping the seat over. You stand up to go to the loo or get a drink, and when you come back you spent two seconds flipping it over into a bed that actually goes flat and is more comfortable than the recline-to-flat versions. (Or, if the crew sees you, they insist on doing it for you.)

I miss the deeply reclined position with these seats, though -- the "armchair in the sky" that some seats offer is a big plus.

I'm not sure that you read the rankings right if you think that we're saying Virgin Australia is the least comfortable -- we picked Virgin as third from bottom and over the Qantas original Skybed, since the 777 business seat goes flat.

2 on 23/7/12 by Libertyscott

There are no complementary massages in the Auckland lounge of Air NZ, that facility was removed at the end of 2011, the massage room has removed, which is a great loss in my view.

The other negative about flying Air NZ from Australia is that the Trans Tasman product is variable.  A few flights have the 777-300ER and a few more have the 777-200ER and the 747, all of which provide virtually the same product effectively for the 3.5(or 7 from Perth) hour hop.   However, half the Sydney flights are in the 767, which offers (perfectly good) recliners, but the majority of Trans Tasman flights are with A320s with no business class product at all.  You might get booked into the enhanced economy "Works Deluxe" product which is a little like flying business class within Europe (middle seat blocked, business class lounge and luggage allowances, 34" seat pitch instead of 30", but economy class meal).  

NZ is very good in Business Premier, but it requires a keen eye to get the connections on the right aircraft.  Fine from Perth (all 777), not so good from Adelaide or Cairns (all A320), fine from Brisbane and Melbourne (almost always 777/747 connecting), Sydney is 50/50

1 on 23/7/12 by John

Oh, damn -- the massage was such a bonus when I passed through Auckland after a stressful day late last year. Thanks, Libertyscott, I'll make that edit.

I'm not so sure that the trans-Tasman leg is such a huge drawback. While I seriously wish there were a business class product on the new A320s, I don't really have a huge quarrel with the excellent entertainment and 35" of legroom -- as long as you're not paying for biz.

(I went on about this at some length last year too, mind...)

3 on 23/7/12 by am

The problem with a topic like this is that it's just so subjective! 

I don't particularly like sleeping surrounded by high walls, and find the padding on the Delta seat to be pretty poor (i certainly wouldn't rate the Delta seat ahead of Qantas'). I've never flown Air Canada, but agree that the old Air New Zealand seat makes a very comfortable bed (and I imagine the new one is even better though I haven't tried it yet).

My other issue with herringbone seats in the lack of storage. I like the Qantas seat because it has plenty of space around it with two proper armrests, particuarly at the window on the A380 (with the storage bins).

It should also be noted that the Qantas seat does actually have a decent gap between the end of the fully reclined bed and the seat in front of it, so there are really no problems getting out for an average sized adult (unlike the United/Virgin seats).

1 on 24/7/12 by John

Oh, absolutely -- that's why we're up-front about what's a plus point in our book. I'm well aware that many people strongly dislike what they see as "coffin class", but on balance I'll take the downsides as a tradeoff for the upsides.

I don't find the herringbones as bad as all that for storage -- not least because you've got the space under and on the ottoman to put things during the day, plus usually some form of elbow-space, often under an armrest (in the Air NZ example, for instance). I'll agree with you, though: upstairs on an A380 or 747 with the extra side bins? A real winner.

And I'm not sure how thick your legs are, but if you can get through this gap then I'd love to know what crunches you do to keep them so toned! ;)

1 on 24/7/12 by am

Haha, perhaps I was being a little bit optimistic when I said average sized adult. Certainly the Qantas seat is significantly easier to get out of than the United seat (which goes into the seat infront with a tiny gap at the end of the armrest) or the Virgin seat (which ends up under the overhang of the seat infront from memory).

4 on 23/7/12 by DrTGanguly

Excellent Article John.  It is always good to see what the Pro's think of the pacific offerings.  I must admitt I mix my flying with pleasure and work trips.  As such I have never been enticed by the reports of the service and lack of 'panache' offered by Delta or Air Canada.

I agree wholeheartedly with the issue of direct aisle access; however, I swear I recall there being a gap between the Sky Bed II on QF and the seat in front.....admittedly I was exhausted and had a few glasses of bubbles onboard last time I was on an A380 (QF10).  Is anyone able to clarify this?  In that case the almost direct aisle access and the direct flights and lounges make QF a good contender for first place.  But maybe if you don't have a QF Plat. card and it is only the seat you are assessing there might be some contention.One last thoughtm flight timing and schedule?  Daily from BNE/MEL and 24 services a week from SYD, can that be beat? 

1 on 24/7/12 by John

Thanks Dr T. I too mix flying for business and leisure, and I find I'm always more judgmental when it's my money (or miles) that's been spent!

There is a fairly small gap between the end of the 2nd-gen Skybed and the seat in front, but with the bulge of the seatback it's still a clamber.

In terms of schedule, you're quite right, Qantas is firmly ahead, but there's only three hours between (say) QF11 and QF107 out of Sydney, so it's not a huge difference. I know several passengers out of Brisbane and Melbourne who prefer to connect on Air NZ via Auckland and SFO rather than Sydney and LAX, for example.

(And I'll not disagree that Qantas' lounges are a reason to fly the Red Roo all on their own!)

5 on 24/7/12 by Al

Very interesting analysis. I was surpised to see Air New Zealand at #1, it's not like flying from Sydney or Melbourne to the USA via NZ instead of direct is really a choice many people would make though.

I can see that Air Canada makes more sense, I  have flown them once to get to Seattle and yes, makes more sense than flying into LAX!

If only Cathay Pacific had direct SYD-LAX or SYD-LAX flights with their new business class, now that would be the winenr outright!

1 on 24/7/12 by John

Sure, Sydneysiders or Melburnians have other options. (More for the former, though -- it's Qantas or United for Melbourne.)

But if you're having to connect via MEL or SYD, you might as well connect in AKL instead -- especially since that means you can connect via SFO rather than LAX for your onward flight. And with the Air NZ seat firmly above the Virgin Australia seat in terms of comfort, I know several Velocity loyalists who choose to fly via AKL.

If the US-AU routes were thrown open to international competition I'd love to see Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific stick their noses into that market. It'd be a very interesting stoush!

1 on 13/10/14 by franz

I am from ADL and it makes sense there to connect at AKL.I have done the via Sydney option before to LA back in the Ansett Era connecting to Air New Zealand and the thought of having to use the bus between terminals is something I do not wish to do again.This was dating back to 2001.Now That I am with Velocity I would choose a nonstop out of my home state should I do the trip again to AKL with a same terminal transit and connect onto the west coast of America there.


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