This year marks 40 years since the introduction of business class.
That’s if you believe Qantas’ claim that it was the first airline to introduce a dedicated business class cabin.
It was not the first airline to introduce a class between economy and First Class. BA introduced “Executive Class” in 1977, later to become “Super Club”. Pan Am introduced its “Clipper Class” on 29 October 1978. That year, Delta also introduced “Medallion Service”. However, this was essentially designated economy seating with enhanced amenities for passengers purchasing full fare tickets.
The basis for Qantas’ claim seems to it introduced a dedicated cabin on its Boeing 747s in 1979, as per the advert below for the UK press in 1983.
Qantas promised a dedicated check-in, priority baggage handling, a separate cabin with dedicated cabin crew, wider seats and a choice of meals served on fine bone china.
The business class cabin has of course moved a long way from a wider seat and more leg room than economy.
In the 1990s, airlines introduced cradle/recliner type seats designed to support the whole body.
Around the same time, many airlines including Continental, Delta, Finnair, KLM and SAS combined business and First Class into one.
Others such as Virgin Atlantic had only ever operated business class and, if not wholly justified, positioned it as a First Class service at a business class price. This, combined with no need to maintain a differentiation with First Class (you don’t get an espresso or cappuccino in BA Club World!), has also has a powerful psychological advantage of making business class passengers feel they are travelling in the most important cabin.
In 2000, the revolution came. BA introduced the first fully flat beds in business class.
Designed by Tangerine, this was a patented “yin-yang” layout with rear and forward facing seats that converted into a fully flat bed.
It took some time for the rest of the industry to catch-up. This was for two reasons. North American airlines were reeling from the impact of the events of 11 September 2001 and simply didn’t have the money to invest in the cabins. Many of BA’s rivals, unable to copy BA’s design and eager not to have to reduce the number of seats in the cabin, opted for angled lie flat seats. The difference in angle may not seem much. But it did when you were trying to sleep at it.
Others, such as Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, and Delta initially opted for fully flat herringbone seats, which have the disadvantage of facing into the aisle.
After their initial mis-steps, airlines have now mostly caught up and, in the case of BA, leap-frogged it. Fully flat beds, which are largely customised variants of seats designed by Safran and Thompson Aero with direct aisle access for all, are now becoming the norm. Albeit manufacturers have struggled to keep up with demand and for some airlines, notably United, it has taken significantly longer than expected to roll out new cabins.
LATAM was the first airline this year to unveil a new business class cabin with interiors designed by London based agency PriestmanGoode. With BA and Virgin also due to unveil new cabins, this will be a busy year for new business class cabins.
With less differences in the physical cabin design, airlines are now seeking to differentiate in other ways. US airlines have never been known for industry leading lounges, but many such as United have made significant investments in lounges for international passengers. Branded in-flight bedding and restaurant style dining, albeit with some limitations and mixed success, are being added.
It’s not just the cabins that have changed over the past forty years. In its early years, business class was firmly targeted at the male traveller.
In 1984, Virgin ran a free economy ticket campaign for business class passengers suggesting that passengers could give them to the their secretaries. A cartoon depicts a harassed male executive with a female secretary threatening to tell all about a weekend in Brighton if she doesn’t receive the ticket.
Even in the later half of the 1990s, BA was criticised for a print advertising campaign for its new Club World cradle seat developed by M&C Saatchi New York.
It depicted a mother holding a baby, but with the face of an older businessman superimposed over the baby’s face. The text of the advert read “The new Club World cradle seat. Lullaby not included.” Many female passengers wrote to the airline to complain it was demeaning to cabin crew. (New York Times)
And business class is no longer just about the business traveller.
Business travellers are lucrative. They buy expensive fares at short notice. Large corporate clients provide huge volumes of passengers. Club World is not dubbed the profit engine of BA for no reason. However, it is seasonal. And whilst it is buoyant when the economy is performing well, history has shown discretionary travel is very first line of expenditure to be cut in a downturn. Premium leisure travellers have proven to be much more resilient. Through flash sales, or long advance purchase requirements, airlines have got better a targeting premium leisure passengers and will no doubt continue to do so.
What’s next for business class?
It is going to take until at least the early 2020s before airlines complete the current investment cycle of new cabins and for aircraft with older cabins to retired.
In the longer term, with many more airlines having withdrawn First Class, it will no doubt adopt more of its features: better privacy, improved amenities with more options for personalisation and better ground services.
In turn, many original aspects of business class have filtered down to premium economy. Although this cabin has been a fixture of both BA and Virgin for decades, many airlines are still only just introducing it.
And although it may feel that business class seats have gone as far as they can, you never know what is next.