2019 is going to be the year of the long-haul business class war.
Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are going to introduce new long-haul business class seats with the Airbus A350-1000 aircraft.
For BA, this will be just before it officially celebrates its centenary. And Virgin Atlantic never does anything quietly.
This will be the first radical reconfiguration of their business class cabins in 15-20 years. Whilst both airlines have introduced new seats since they first introduced fully flat beds in business class near the turn of the century, the fundamental layout of the cabin has remained the same.
In the case of BA, this is its “yin-yang” 2-3/4-2 layout with backward and forward facing seats. For Virgin Atlantic, this is its reverse herringbone configuration with window seats facing into the cabin.
BA’s New Club World cabin
BA has today, Friday 2 November 2018, confirmed the following details of its new Club World cabin:
– The new larger seat will feature direct aisle access for all passengers.
– Personal storage and privacy will be improved.
– Gate to gate in-flight entertainment will be introduced for the first time, meaning that the TV monitor will be fixed into place, rather than adjustable as at present.
– BA has not given anything anyway at all regarding the look of the actual seat and cabin.
BA’s New Club World cabin on the Airbus A350-1000
The new seat will arrive when the first Airbus A350-1000 aircraft is delivered to BA in July 2019:
– Four Airbus A350-1000 will be in service by the end of 2019.
– BA will take delivery of 18 Airbus A350-1000 aircraft in total.
– BA will also take delivery of 12 Boeing 787-10 aircraft between 2020 and 2023 which will be fitted with the new cabin. The first six aircraft are due to arrive in 2020.
– BA will also take delivery of 18 Boeing 777-9 aircraft between 2022 and 2025, with 15 aircraft delivered by 2023.
Retrofitting the new seat on existing aircraft
Over 100 aircraft will be fitted with the new seat:
– Two Boeing 777 aircraft will be retrofitted with the new seat by the end of 2019. The number of Club World seats will actually increase very marginally by 1 on these aircraft, with the extra space likely to come from reducing First Class from 14 to 8 seats.
– The retrofitting of existing aircraft will continue in 2020 and will be completed by 2023.
– Given that many of BA’s competitors have experienced delays in retrofitting aircraft with new seats due to late deliveries from seat manufacturers, there may be a degree of expectations management at play here.
– It’s a safe assumption it won’t be retrofitted to Boeing 747 aircraft as most will be retired by 2023.
– Based on historical practice, Heathrow aircraft with the highest premium seating configurations, such as 4 class Boeing 777s, will be retrofitted first.
The “known unknowns”
There are still a number of “known unknowns”:
BA has not confirmed whether the new seat is an entirely bespoke new design or a variant of an “off the shelf” design by a seating manufacturer.
When BA first introduced flat beds in Club World it was a patented design by tangerine who also designed all later variations of it.
Many of BA’s competitors have introduced variations of “off the shelf” designs by seat manufacturers such as Collins Aerospace and Thompson Aero. This does make the process of certifying the seat for passenger use much easier, but does mean less differentiation in the market.
BA has not yet confirmed the precise seating configuration. However, there will be no First Class on the Airbus A350-1000. There will also be more Club World seats than the 52 Club World seats on the Boeing 747 that the Airbus A350-1000 is intended to replace. This is substantially larger than Iberia’s business class cabin on its Airbus A350-900 which has 31 seats.
For a single deck aircraft, it is certainly going to be a large cabin. Key to the cabin interior will be avoiding the “dormitory” feel of the Club World cabin on its Boeing 777-200 aircraft.
Whilst the existing Club World seat has fallen behind the rest of the market, it’s worth remembering that there are aspects of it which are very popular, such as the private jet feel of the upper deck of the Boeing 747 and the privacy of window seats.
BA Airbus A350-1000 Routes
BA is expected to confirm the first Airbus A350-1000 routes before the end of this year.
Based on precedent, the aircraft will initially operate on short-haul routes to allow for crew familiarisation. An obvious candidate is London Heathrow – Madrid, which is already served by wide body aircraft. When BA introduced the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 it did test these aircraft on London Heathrow – Frankfurt. However, this was likely due to sensitivities at the time at Iberia which was going through a restructuring exercise.
As the Airbus A350-1000 is to replace the 52 Club World seat Boeing 747, eventual routes are likely to be Accra, Cape Town, Las Vegas, Miami, Nairobi, Phoenix and Vancouver.
Given the importance of the North Atlantic market to BA, it is likely that the first Airbus A350-1000 route route will be to the US. A city with a high level of BA frequencies is also a good candidate as there is significant back-up available in the event of operational issues.
Update Saturday 16 March 2019
British Airways has started teasing images of its new seat on social media.
A full press launch of the new seat is expected at 10:00 GMT Monday 18 March 2019.