Business class was that silent and spacious sanctuary for the well-heeled, at least until the pandemic destroyed global aviation. But as flights creep back, this once-exclusive haven is being invaded by the masses.

Flush with cash and a record number of air miles after a year on the ground, leisure travelers are splurging on premium seats for their first trips back. They’re not just after the plated food, champagne and little cosmetics that typically come with the higher fares. Rather, they’re trying to minimize the risk of catching COVID-19 in the cheek-to-cheek jostle of coach.

The popularity of these lucrative seats — especially among passengers who would usually shoehorn into economy — is an unexpected boon for airlines weathering a crisis that’s forecast to have cost them a staggering $174 billion in losses by the end of 2021. As vaccinations roll out at pace in the Middle East, the U.K. and the U.S., free-spending vacationers are emerging as a new market to exploit for carriers desperate to claw back revenue.