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As a Ph.D. student from a (pretty rich!) European research group, I'm about to attend a conference in New Zealand. The second leg of a potential flight takes 16 hours to reach the destination, and it seems to be the hell of discomfort to spend all that time on an economy seat (I once had a 10-hour-flight experience, and I was in trouble because of my relatively long legs despite time-to-time walks in the plane's aisle). The cost of a business seat is around 4 times the cost of an economy one, something around 3500 Euros. Thus, I'm just wondering how reasonable the request to have such a seat is.

PS. I do know that a first-hand approach is actually asking my supervisor what he thinks about it. But I'd rather not ask such a question if it would sound silly and unreasonable.

Any experiences and thoughts (particularly from those who had already been involved in any side of such a situation) are welcome!

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jul 10 at 11:54
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    Have you considered getting an exit row seat? These have ample leg room, and the upgrade is typically far cheaper than moving up to the next class of seat, and probably cheap enough that you could just pay for it yourself. I always opt for these on long flights. – JBentley Jul 10 at 12:28
  • Would you be willing to cover the cost difference to upgrade from your own pocket? – David K Jul 10 at 17:26
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    @DavidK: It literally depends on the difference! I would if that is reasonable in view my income and expenses. – Roboticist Jul 10 at 18:13
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    Are there any "premium economy" options? That might be a better middle ground. – Alexander - Reinstate Monica Jul 10 at 22:32

11 Answers 11

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In Canada it is illegal to get anything but economy fare (including trains) and charge this to any one of the national tri-Council grants (there are exceptions if there is no other availability but this is rarely the case.)

The best you can do is buy an upgradable economy fare and hope for the best, or pay for an exit-row seat.

Overall your request will be perceived not only unreasonable but also blatantly unreasonable, unless you have special conditions or a rich sponsor.

I can say more. Some years ago a candidate for a position where I work insisted on getting a business-class ticket for the interview and he was just removed from the shortlist.

Edit: is this a direct flight? This wiki list of long flights https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longest_flights does not include European-Asian city pairs.

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    They're not on the list of longest flights because Europe and East Asia are relatively close to each other. For example, from Frankfurt alone you can fly direct to Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Changsha, Guangzhou, Qingdao, Shenyang, Singapore, Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and seasonally to Ulaanbaatar – Noah Snyder Jul 8 at 1:00
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    @NoahSnyder It subsequently turned out that the asker meant New Zealand, not East Asia. – David Richerby Jul 8 at 15:04
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    +1 for pointing out that the funding source will have rules and restrictions on travel. If the funding source is internal discretionary funds, there may be a policy allowing upgraded travel for flights over a certain duration. The OP might want to search around their institution's intranet policy archive for this. It will at least indicate what leeway their supervisor has, or doesn't have. – CCTO Jul 8 at 17:08
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    I'm confused about why an answer that leads with what's legal/illegal in Canada has so many upvotes when the OP indicates they're traveling from somewhere in Europe to New Zealand. – aroth Jul 10 at 11:37
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    @aroth I think putting blatantly in italics is what won people over here – smcs Jul 10 at 14:34
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I worked in the scientific instruments business at VP level for 20yrs and went to many conferences where everyone from PhD students to Nobel Prizewinners were there. I can tell you without hesitation that almost NOBODY goes business class unless they are the invited Nobel keynote speaker. Please don't even ask your supervisor as you risk being branded negatively for the rest of your time there. Instead, plan the flight times to minimise cost and maximise the time you have up front of the conference to recover from the flight and get your bearings, including an extra night in the hotel as a previous contributor suggested. On the way home, don't extend your stay on the back end as there is no "compus mentus" justification and anyway if you have worked the conference fully you will want to get the hell away by then! Book a return flight for the time you would be most likely naturally asleep to maximise your chances of being unconscious. Good luck and keep a clear record of your expenses and the reason for them as someone could put you on the spot at any time. Bear in mind that research funding often comes from charities etc. so assuming you are 'rich' and acting like it is both immoral and consequently very unpopular.

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    @Roboticist Although your username is probably a give-away, your question says nothing about engineering, and engineering is not the only subject in which research is done. A lot of medical research, for example, is sponsored by charitable organizations. – David Richerby Jul 8 at 15:07
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    On the way home, don't extend your stay on the back end (...). At my university, doing this is actually very common (especially if you would get to go to new zealand!!). Of course, you pay any additional hotel nights and if it makes the flights more expensive, the price difference. I also don't see why you would "want to get the hell away". Of course, check with your university/funding policy whether this is allowed. – user53923 Jul 8 at 16:03
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    It's rather far fetched to say that in Europe almost all engineering research is funded by industry. Unless this group is doing contracted research only there is very, very likely a large portion of public funding (read tax payers money) in the game... with restrictions on how to spend the money. So the same reasoning applies as would for money from charity. – Ghanima Jul 8 at 17:34
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    The term is "compos mentis", not "compus mentus", you might want to change that. (And I don't quite see how it applies here.) – sgf Jul 8 at 20:00
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    @gerrit Of course you should ask for permission (and depending on the university it may be allowed/not allowed), but I think it is a reasonable question to ask, since it doesn't cost them anything extra (thankfully, my university indeed sees it that way, I know others don't). – user53923 Jul 9 at 12:38
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Yes, the request would be unreasonable.* But let’s try to look at this from a different angle: think about how very fortunate you are to be doing your PhD at a “pretty rich” European research group, and to have an opportunity to travel to a beautiful place like New Zealand. The fact that under such happy circumstances you are focusing on the discomfort of travel, describing it with words like “hell”, seems like a missed opportunity to me. Why not use the occasion instead to remind yourself of how lucky you are, and how good your professional life is compared to that of pretty much... everyone else?

I’ve been on many long flights and have been doing academia-related travel for many years now, in all but a few occasions on economy class. I still find travel a magical experience, and whenever I board a plane to go somewhere far away I always find myself thinking about how lucky I am to have these sorts of opportunities. It can be a bit uncomfortable of course, but honestly I think that is a completely negligible part of the experience. So maybe you can find a way to adjust your point of view and look at your situation with a similarly positive mindset? Just a thought. Hope you enjoy New Zealand in any case!


*Since you mention that you have long legs, you may be medically justified in asking your research group to pay a modest fee to upgrade your ticket to economy plus, so that you can get to sit in an exit row or other location with more legroom. At least that would be a reasonable thing to ask your supervisor about. But business class? No, it’s not a good idea to bring it up...

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    I appreciate your euphemism (+1) :), yet this question is raised because I do remember the muscle spasm corresponding to my former 10-hour flight after which I had to get to a series of physiotherapy sessions for a week. I just wanted to figure out a way to minimize what I would face with after the flight. – Roboticist Jul 8 at 15:49
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    @Roboticist if there's a medical issue you may want to edit that into the question, it does put a slightly different spin on things (not that it changes the answer, but at least it makes the premise of the question seem slightly less weird). – Dan Romik Jul 8 at 17:03
  • @Roboticist: Is it a medical issue in the sense that if you went on this trip, you could see yourself having a high chance of getting medically harmed and then suing the school, with no way to avoid it (by walking or whatever on the plain)? If so, and you can justify/prove it, I imagine maybe the school would like to avoid that possibility in which case maybe it's worth asking. But I imagine if you have to ask about it here then this doesn't apply to you... – Mehrdad Jul 11 at 3:06
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You say that you were "in trouble". Do you mean that you experienced, or feared, some diagnosable medical condition?

If so, you might consider visiting a doctor. If you get a doctor's note saying "Roboticist is at elevated risk for XYZ, and I recommend that s/he fly premium economy or business if at all possible", then you might be allowed to book premium economy seats.

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    This is formally correct, but I think the likelihood of this approach leading to the outcome "business class" is negligible: from a medical point of view, the "window" between should not fly at all for medical reasons and can be mitigated by less expensive measures than business class (exit row seat was mentioned, getting up to do some excercise, possibly anti-thrombosis stockings) plus the university as employer cannot risk roboticist's health anyways and they could send 2 other people to the conference instead for the same money. I do think it is a good idea to talk to a doctor, though: +1 – cbeleites supports Monica Jul 9 at 9:07
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    @cbeleites For several years before I got my knees replaced I had a problem with arthritis limiting my range of motion after even about 20 minutes in one position. If I had flown ten hours in economy I would have been in pain and needed a wheelchair to leave the aircraft, but my life and long term health would have been in no danger. Fortunately, I was retired and paying for my own tickets, so I could go business or first, never economy, on long haul flights. – Patricia Shanahan Jul 9 at 13:35
  • @PatriciaShanahan: good catch - I was thinking more along the lines of things like thrombosis. Still, I think the employer argument would just be the same for causing short term disability. Such a condition may mean that you should not be in the exit row, but the corresponding inner row may have more legspace as well. – cbeleites supports Monica Jul 9 at 14:24
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    A colleague of mine successfully uses this strategy to book premium economy. The university is legally restricted from questioning the doctor's recommendation (USA). – Cecilia Jul 10 at 1:08
  • @cbeleites I'm not a doctor but from what I've been told, it is currently believed that thrombosis risk has nothing to do with your comfort level or seat class. – A Simple Algorithm Jul 11 at 1:17
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In my (also European) country, business class travel for PhD students is just as unheard of as for the other countries that we have answers for. More precisely: reimbursement for that is unheard of.

And even in the rare cases here where the PhD student has their own budget for travel, the usual outcome is that they keep the costs as low as possible in order to use the saved money to attend one more conference. So you need to be aware that that "normal" is what you'd likely be judged against.


That being said, I do see a number of measures you could take to alleviate the problems you describe with a previous long distance flight.

  • Aisle and exit row seats have been mentioned already. But even if you are in a middle seat it is fine if you get out to walk around for half an hour every 1 1/2 hrs or so.

  • Talk to a doctor has been mentioned in another answer. I'd recommend that as well, but less with the aim of getting an attestation for going business class but rather to find out what medical risks you run and possibilities to mitigate them exist - or even whether your personal risk when flying is high so you should avoid flying.

  • You could also book shorter flights with more stopovers. Where I am, it is possible to combine some holidays (usually up to 3 or 5 working days) with a business trip and still get full reimbursement. Thus, you could even combine short flights with an additional day to see some places on the way and get your legs back to normal shape. You'd have to pay for the accomodation during your holiday yourself, of course.
    However, multiple shorter flights may be available at a lower total price: in that case no question whatsover would arise about reimbursement of the flight.

  • (I did have a bit of a discussion once with administration when I wanted to leave on a Fri direction America to have a full day to get rid of jet lag with my presentation being on the first full day of the conference on Monday. Prof said this is totally reasonable and that was that. I'd doubly argue this when going east as like many people I find jet lag much worse when going east vs. going west and insist that such an acclimatization and preparation day is work and not holidays.)

  • I've been lucky in choosing flights with less popular flight time/weekday and/or route. Again, you can often recognize them by still having cheaper tickets available comparably late. I've had long distance flights where I could lie down across a complete 4-seat row.

  • In any case, it doesn't hurt to ask when boarding whether you can be reseated to some place with more space if one should be free.

  • Of course, you may also make sure you do the online check in as early as possible to secure a suitable seat and/or go for the additional fee for the exit row yourself if administration won't reimburse it.
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    However, multiple shorter flights may be available at a lower total price: in that case no question whatsover would arise about reimbursement of the flight. — you might be surprised by what questions bureaucrats may come up with. – gerrit Jul 9 at 9:00
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    @gerrit: I am, regularly :-D – cbeleites supports Monica Jul 9 at 9:03
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Congrats on being in a rich research group, it can only help! :)

A workaround could be to ask your supervisor how much budget there is for your travel/accommodation expenses for the whole PhD. Depending on their answer and your evaluation of potential future travels, you can see yourself if the request is reasonable or not.

In the same kind of idea, you could try to find out whether it's common for professors in your research group to travel on business class: if nobody does or only the most senior researchers, chances are that it's not a reasonable request.

PS: if you manage to convince your supervisor don't tell your fellow PhD students at the conference or they're going to hate you ;)

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    A workaround could be to ask your supervisor how much budget there is for your travel/accommodation expenses for the whole PhD, this only works if business-class travel is permissible. Given that industry seems very selective about such travel these days, I doubt most universities will permit. – user2768 Jul 8 at 15:41
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During my post-doc I sometimes travelled from my university in Europe to the USA in business class. But I only did this if the fare difference was small ( < 20% on top of premium economy ticket price, which I was allowed due to my height) and if I had a meeting or work-related activity within 6 hours of landing.

I would never, ever, dream of asking for a business class ticket simply because I have a long flight. It's important to remember that your flight ticket is being paid for with someone else's money. Be that the taxpayer (on many grants / projects) or a private foundation (such as the Wellcome trust in the UK). I think we have a duty to spend that money wisely, and it's hard to morally justify that a business class ticket which is four times more than the economy ticket is worthwhile.

(edit) It's also worth looking up if your department / university has a policy for this. Mine, a prestigious university with [IMO] more money than sense, says: No business class tickets unless you pay the fare difference yourself. This seems to be pretty common.

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You can always ask your supervisor, but it's probably not their decision. In practice, supervisors usually have constraints on how they can use "their" funding - their department usually manages the funding on behalf of the funding body, and the supervisor can only do things that the funder and the department will allow. It's very unusual for funders to be willing to fund business-class flights in my experience, and often the university or department itself may also have a policy that prohibits it.

Whether or not your supervisor will perceive a request for a business-class flight from you as being unreasonable depends on the way in which you make the request and their personality, but regardless of their opinion of your request, I would have thought that the request itself is unlikely to be successful. Your best bet is probably to go with whatever flight they offer, and personally pay for cheap upgrades like more leg room, an exit row seat, etc.

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In many cases it's possible to find someone who could go to the conference instead of you, especially if you raise the point well in advance. You could even arrange for someone else to present your paper, if that's the purpose of the trip. I bet there are people in your group who wouldn't mind a 16-hour flight on an economy ticket if they get the opportunity to attend the conference.

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I personally think the request would be unreasonable. Look at it this way -- your desired airfare can fly four students to the conference.

I think the real options for you are to a) back out of the conference, if you find the idea of coach travel to NZ to be something you really can't do (and explain it to your group that way -- I think people would understand it quite well. Apologize, saying you thought you would be able to tolerate the trip when you agreed to go, but now you realize it's just something you won't be able to do); b) offer to foot the increase on your own dime, if a mechanism can be found to help you do that; c) grin and bear it.

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Some personal anecdote, since the OP asks for experience and thoughts.

I once travelled from Europe to Australia with a stopover in Qatar. So the Qatar-Australia leg was pretty long. As it happens, the major Arabian Carriers (Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad) fly the Airbus A-380, which is a twin-aisle, double decker plane.

As the A-380 has two decks, it features two staircases connecting the lower with the upper deck. During my very-long flights, I occasionally walked back to the aft staircase. Since the stairs are closed during the flight, there was nothing really going on there, except passengers accessing the toilets. This left plenty of space to hang out.

So, I could stretch my legs and do some gymnastics.

An A-380 layout

I honestly have no idea if other wide-body (single-deck) jets would allow you to do the same, but judging from the layout of the A-330, which notes "Gallery/Storage" in the region connecting the two aisles at the very back of the plane, I suspect a passenger doing gymnastics there, would impede the flight attendants.

An A-330 layout

So, in summary: try to get a flight on an A-380 for the longer leg of your flight.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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    Depends on the airline but most don't like passengers hanging around in the galley areas and vestibules. – David Richerby Jul 10 at 9:30
  • It is entirely possible to do walking circuits inside most wide-body aircrafts. You might have to contend with crew in the galley area and navigate around traffic in the washroom areas, but small to medium-length circuits that avoid the business-class/first-class area are pretty much possible on most types and with most configurations I know. – ZeroTheHero Jul 10 at 10:23
  • @David: that's why I specifically point out the A-380, since they don't seem to have much going on in the very back. – Dohn Joe Jul 10 at 11:00

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