The next gen­er­a­tion of busi­ness class seats takes to the skies

From double beds to pri­vate suites, Tom Ot­ley re­ports on the new busi­ness class seats tak­ing to the skies

Business Traveller - - CONTENTS -

For those trav­ellers lucky enough to fly busi­ness class on long-haul routes, it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing game to com­pare and con­trast the range of seats on of­fer. There are for­ward-fac­ing seats that re­cline fully flat. There is the for­ward/back­ward-fac­ing “yin-yang” con­fig­u­ra­tion of Bri­tish Air­ways. Then there are the var­i­ous forms of “her­ring­bone” – which takes its name from the ap­pear­ance of the seat­ing when viewed on a plan from above. Vir­gin At­lantic still has this, and other car­ri­ers have adopted ver­sions of it. There has ar­guably never been such a wide choice as there is to­day.

What all these forms of seat­ing are try­ing to achieve is a fully-flat bed in the small­est amount of space. The fully-flat bed is deemed es­sen­tial by cor­po­rate trav­ellers able to af­ford busi­ness class. They want to max­imise their pro­duc­tiv­ity by sleep­ing on night flights so they can hit the ground run­ning at their des­ti­na­tion.

Mean­while, the air­lines recog­nise that the “real es­tate” on an air­craft is ex­tremely ex­pen­sive, and the more room each seat – and pas­sen­ger – oc­cu­pies, the more they will have to charge for the ticket. And ev­ery­one shops on price to some ex­tent.

Of course, there are other fac­tors in­volved, but in terms of the seat­ing, air­lines want to of­fer a fully-flat prod­uct with direct aisle ac­cess, so you don’t have to climb over the aisle pas­sen­ger next to you when they are re­clined. They also want to strip out as much weight as pos­si­ble from the de­sign, since ev­ery ex­tra kilo­gram adds to the fuel bill of fly­ing these air­craft around the world.

Not ev­ery air­line fol­lows this – Emi­rates, for ex­am­ple, has in­tro­duced a new busi­ness class seat in a 2-3-2 con­fig­u­ra­tion, mean­ing the per­son in the mid­dle has to climb over an aisle seat. Still, by and large, most car­ri­ers are look­ing to seat de­sign­ers to come up with some­thing that is light­weight, fully-flat and with direct aisle ac­cess.

In­stalling a new cabin is an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise, not only be­cause air­lines have to ground the air­craft to fit the new prod­uct, but also be­cause the num­ber of seats is usu­ally re­duced as a re­sult. Air France, for in­stance, has seen the num­ber of seats it can fit be­tween the first two ex­its on a B777 re­duced from 35 (in a 2-3-2 con­fig­u­ra­tion) fig­u­ra­tion) to 28 in its new 1-2-1 lay­out. It’s good for or trav­ellers in terms of com­fort, but the air­line will in­vari­ably try to pass on the ex­tra cost andnd charge more per seat, since it has seven fewer ewer busi­ness tick­ets to sell.

CROSS-FLEET CON­SIS­TENCY SISTENCY

UK de­sign stu­dio Acu­men en De­sign As­so­ci­ates is re­spon­si­ble e for United’s new Po­laris seat,t, cur­rently be­ing flown on its B777-300ER -300ER but des­tined to be rolled out t across most

of the air­line’s wide-body fleet – with some 5,000 of the seats be­ing fit­ted. The project also in­volved de­sign con­sul­tancy Pri­est­man­goode and United’s own in-house team, alongg with Zo­diac Aero­space, the man­u­fac­tur­ers of the seat (in this case, from its UK fac­tory in Cwm­bran in Wales). The term Po­laris ap­plie ap­plies not only to the seat but a whole new class of ser­vice on board United (you can rea read a re­view of it on­line at busi­nesstrave busi­nesstrav­eller.com). The new seat had to be flexi flex­i­ble enough to work on air­craft of vary­ing widths, yet also of­fer a c con­sis­tent pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence. T This high­lights an­other truth of the b busi­ness class world – while air­craf air­craft dif­fer both in terms of width and in in­te­rior de­sign, an air­line wants to achieve uni­for­mity across its fleet, both in terms of the ad­van­tages to be gained dur­ing pro­cure­ment and ser­vic­ing, but also be­cause pas­sen­gers pre­fer to know what they are get­ting when they step on board.

In the case of United, this was par­tic­u­larly acute, since the mar­ket is cur­rently seg­mented be­tween high-den­sity busi­ness class and “su­per-busi­ness” class – no one is kid­ding them­selves that there is one seat that can sat­isfy the en­tire busi­ness class arena.

Qatar Air­ways’ new QSuite, which was un­veiled in March and is due to make its de­but be­tween Lon­don and Doha next month, is def­i­nitely su­per-busi­ness class – in fact, see­ing it un­veiled at the ITB trade show in Ber­lin, it could eas­ily ri­val some air­lines’ first class of­fer­ings, pro­vid­ing sliding pri­vacy doors and what the car­rier says is the first-ever double bed in busi­ness class.

Speak­ing to Busi­ness Trav­eller at the fair, Qatar Air­ways’ chief ex­ec­u­tive, Ak­bar Al Baker, said that the air­line was “never sat­is­fied in what it of­fers pas­sen­gers” and “al­ways wants to be bet­ter and [to] im­prove so that pas­sen­gers al­ways feel we are above com­peti­tors”. He even said that the QSuite would be en­hanced in an­other five years. “We will al­ways get ideas of how to give more space, more com­fort, more in­ter­ac­tion be­tween groups who want to travel to­gether, but also so they can feel they are in their own ter­ri­tory,” he said.

Yet when asked whether the seat­ing was sus­tain­able across a large wide-bod­ied fleet, Al Baker’s an­swer showed how fo­cused the air­line was on ef­fi­ciency. “We try to make sure that we don’t lose num­bers,” he said. “So, to give you an ex­am­ple, this seat that we are in­tro­duc­ing on the A350 and B777 will still ac­com­mo­date the same num­ber of pas­sen­gers. The ex­ist­ing [lay­out can seat] 42 pas­sen­gers, and in the same space we will put 42 pas­sen­gers with this prod­uct, so we are not los­ing on rev­enue. And we will not raise the ticket price to pay for it.”

Delta Air Lines has also an­nounced a new su­per­busi­ness class suite with doors for its A350 air­craft. Billed as the “world’s first all-suite busi­ness class” prod­uct, and con­ceived by Fac­tory De­sign of Lon­don,

each new Delta One seat has a sliding door. Fel­low US air­line Jet Blue is the only other car­rier to of­fer sliding doors, in its Mint busi­ness class, but this fea­ture is only avail­able in se­lect seats.

Delta’s A350 cabin will fea­ture 32 seats split across eight rows, con­fig­ured 1-2-1. The car­rier will pri­mar­ily use the air­craft on flights be­tween the US and Asia, al­though the in­ten­tion is to retro­fit the new prod­uct pro­gres­sively to its B777 fleet.

A DEL­I­CATE BAL­ANCE

For other car­ri­ers, the aim is to im­prove their prod­ucts while not pric­ing them­selves out of the mar­ket. Ian Dry­burgh, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Acu­men, says: “A lot of air­lines are strug­gling to make any money at all, and it’s van­ity for them to be fly­ing around some of the seats they are do­ing. What they need are seats that give them a chance of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing them­selves but at the same time have a fight­ing chance of mak­ing some money.”

Acu­men aims to have its Op­tima seat­ing – the ba­sis for United’s Po­laris seat – adopted by more than a dozen air­lines in the com­ing years. To that end, it has teamed up with Zo­diac Aero­space to mar­ket it both di­rectly to air­lines look­ing to im­prove their seat­ing, but also to Boe­ing and Air­bus so that it will be of­fered as a cat­a­logue op­tion to those buy­ing new air­craft.

“We want to sell it en masse,” Dry­burgh says. The Op­tima’s de­sign is there­fore mod­u­lar, al­low­ing it to be adapted ac­cord­ing to what air­lines might want with­out adding too much ex­tra cost, or re­quir­ing new cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Lastly, busi­ness class can’t be con­sid­ered in iso­la­tion. The im­prove­ments in this cabin, and the ex­tra seats added to econ­omy class as air­lines take ad­van­tage of new slim­line seat­ing to ac­com­mo­date more pas­sen­gers at the back of the plane, have led to the wide­spread in­tro­duc­tion of a pre­mium econ­omy op­tion. For trav­ellers ei­ther un­able or un­will­ing to pur­chase busi­ness class seats (many cor­po­ra­tions won’t pay for their trav­ellers to fly busi­ness), it’s an at­trac­tive op­tion, but for the air­line, pre­mium econ­omy also runs the risk of can­ni­bal­is­ing busi­ness class. They there­fore need to be care­ful not to of­fer too much in busi­ness – and risk pric­ing out valu­able cus­tomers – or of­fer too lit­tle and drive peo­ple to opt for pre­mium econ­omy in­stead.

Which­ever cabin you choose to fly in, seat tech­nol­ogy holds out the prom­ise for a more com­fort­able jour­ney. While busi­ness class is see­ing the big­gest im­prove­ments tak­ing place, the air­lines are also hop­ing that our sky-high ex­pec­ta­tions will con­tinue to be ac­com­pa­nied by a will­ing­ness to pay a pre­mium for the ex­pe­ri­ence. Bet­ter have that glass of cham­pagne af­ter all.

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Above and be­low: The Op­tima seat

Above and top left: United Po­laris Right: Qatar Air­ways QSuite; Delta One

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