It was some fifteen years ago in May 1999 that British Airways shook up the market for long-haul business class travel with the launch of its fully flat Club World “flying bed”.
Designed by Tangerine, it was arguably the singlest biggest innovation since the original introduction of business class (which Qantas claims credit for.)
The introduction of fully flat beds reset the benchmark for business class. The genius of BA’s original design was that it offered a radical step-change in the passenger experience, whilst preserving the seating destiny of eight seats across in the cabin – a vital factor in the overall profitability of the cabin which led Tangerine to brand Club World the “profit engine” of BA. This was due to a patented “yin yang” configuration.
The introduction of flat beds shaped BA’s business class offer over the coming decade with the in-flight service on overnight flights designed to maximise sleeping.
Whilst BA’s competitors responded, there were many missteps along the way. BA’s main European rivals, Air France, KLM and Lufthansa and many others introduced angled flat beds which fell some way short of the experienced offered by a flat bed.
US carriers, hit by the aftermarth of the events of 11 September 2001, were slow to act. Virgin Atlantic, Delta, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific introduced fully flat seats in a “herringbone” configuration which whilst providing all passengers with aisle access, have limitations, principally the lack of options between seating upright and lying fully flat.
BA modified its original Club World bed (which had undergone only minor modifications previously) in 2006, introducing better at seat storage and privacy, whilst preserving the “yin yang” layout. A modified version of the original bed is still to be found on BA’s remaining Boeing 767s and OpenSkies’ Boeing 757s.
BA has also maintained the original Club World seat on the recently introduced Airbus A380 and Boeing 787.
However, the competition is catching up. KLM and Lufthansa are rolling out fully flat beds.
American Airlines, Air France, Cathay Pacific, and Finnair have also introduced Zodiac Cirrus III seat which provide all passengers with direct aisle access (noteworthy in itself for how many airlines are purchasing “off the shelf” seats).
With direct aisle access for all becoming the standard in business class, BA is at risk at becoming uncompetitive in business class (though we’ll admit it’s not a huge issue for us). Particularly, when you couple seating with BA’s “just enough” approach to the in-flight product (only one choice of coffee, a modest second meal service etc.) Whilst BA’s traffic statistics point to strong premium demand, consumer sentiment can change quickly.
The dilemma facing BA is that for it to introduce a seat with direct aisle access means moving away from an eight across configuration (save for the Boeing 787 and Upper Decks of the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380). BA has one of highest number of seats in business class with up to 70 seats on a Boeing 747 and 97 seats on an A380 (Emirates has 76). Indeed, BA has hinted that it is looking to increase the number of business class seats on some of its 747s even further to meet demand on some routes.
Put simply, the revenue lost from a reduction in the number of business class seats needs to be to matched by an increase in fares.
The next opportunity for BA to upgrade its business class is with the introduction of the Airbus A350, due to be delivered from 2017. So it is interesting to see that Australian Business Traveller has an extensive report on a patent application filed by BA for a new seat in a 1-2-1 configuration with direct aisle access, designed by agency Priestman Goode.
The full application can be viewed online which includes an extensive collection of diagrams and mock photographs from page 21 onwards.
It should be emphasised that a patent application is not a sign this will be the next Club World seat. There may be many other designs under consideration. But it is noteworthy to see evidence of BA addressing the issue and it continuing to develop its own bespoke business class seating.