British Airways is about to officially launch its new Club World seat. This is the first radical redesign of its long-haul business cabin in 20 years.
It is by some margin the most important cabin for the airline. The financial performance of BA is inextricably linked to the volume of long-haul business class traffic. Here’s how it has evolved, both in terms of cabin design and marketing, since the very first origins of “Club” 40 years ago.
The Origins Of “Club”
Which airline deserves credit for the introduction of long-haul business class depends on who you ask.
Qantas claims to be the first airline to introduce a dedicated long-haul business class cabin in 1979.
However, it was in May 1977 that British Airways introduced an “Executive Club” cabin on its Boeing 747 flights to New York. The relatively large size of the aircraft allowed for the introduction of new cabins. This was a separate cabin for economy passengers paying the full fare, divided by a not particularly attractive curtain.
A year later this became known as Club, a word which has become synonymous with business class. The Club cabin was soon extended to all transatlantic routes, and then worldwide.
In March 1981, BA launched “Super Club” on transatlantic routes
These were expanding seats in a 2-2-2 configuration with a folding table in the middle of each seat pair. BA promised it was the widest airline seat available with 24 inches between arm rests.
The “Super Club” seat was extended to all long-haul routes worldwide, as illustrated by the 1984 advert below where the aircraft had to be opened up to fit the seat in it. This was one of Saatchi & Saatchi’s earliest TV adverts for BA and you can see the cinematic influence.
This is one iteration of the “Super Club” seat. Before personal TV screens were introduced in the 1990s, personal at seat in-flight entertainment amounted to in-flight audio only.
It was in January 1988 that BA introduced the “Club World” brand.
Club on short-haul flights was also rebranded as Club Europe. For the first time Club World had a dedicated cabin crew as well as new a “slumberseat”.
The launch was marked with this TV advert. A group of colleagues in London think they have set up a colleague seconded to New York to fail by despatching him on a red rye flight to London in business class. “Like a lamb to the slaughter, gentleman”.
Whilst the advert emphasised how the Club World cabin addresses the needs of the business traveller, such naked male one-upmanship is not something we would see in airline advertising today.
A similarly male focused ad followed a year later with two businessmen completing a deal in BA’s Club World cabin.
The Early 1990s
The 1990s, often viewed as BA’s golden era, saw a number of innovations at BA.
Another new cabin interior and seat was introduced in the early 1990s with seat-back TV for the first time. Passengers in World Traveller had to wait considerably longer.
In 1993, BA introduced the world’s first arrivals lounges at London Heathrow. This was in response to passenger feedback that they effectively felt abandoned by airlines on arrival. Remarkably, there are still relatively few of these around the world today. Other innovations introduced by BA included Fast Track Customs & Immigration lines for First and business class passengers at Heathrow.
In 1995, BA introduced the first fully flat beds in First Class on Boeing 747 and DC-10 aircraft. This and other features of First Class such as pre-flight dining and Sleeper Services would soon come to Club World.
The Cradle Seat
The next evolution of long-haul business class came with the “cradle seat” in 1996.
The concept behind this seat was that rather than simply reclining, the seat would tilt and, with the aid of “ears” in the headrest and a built in leg-rest, it would support the entire body whatever the position of the seat.
As part of its “well-being in the air” programme BA added lighter meal options to the menu. It also offered a self-service “raid the larder”.
BA did draw controversy with a marketing campaign to support the new seat. One advert 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.
By the late 1990s BA was faced increased competition from Virgin Atlantic which had secured access to London Heathrow and was launching many rival routes to BA.
At the turn of the century, BA announced a package of new investments which included the introduction of its first premium economy cabin, World Traveller Plus. The most significant was the first fully flat bed in business class.
Designed by tangerine, it featured a patented “yin-yang” layout of rear and forward facing seats that would convert into fully flat beds.
The cabin first launched on London Heathrow – New York JFK and was soon extended to destinations such as Hong Kong. It did take some time to retro-fit the seat to the entire long-haul fleet with the 1996 cradle seat still operating on Boeing 767 flights from Manchester to New York JFK until around 2006. This cabin would be retained, albeit with new seat coverings, on Boeing 767 aircraft until their retirement. It was also still in operation until quite recently on OpenSkies Boeing 757 services between Paris Orly and New York.
For some years BA maintained a competitive advantage over its rivals. This was for three reasons. The design was patented. Its US rivals were reeling from the impact of the events of 11 September 2001. Many of its European and Asia-Pacific rivals opted for angled flat beds, which did not offer the same sleeping experience as a fully flat bed.
The over-riding emphasis of the new cabin was an environment that was conducive to sleeping. BA introduced a “Sleeper Service” on many late evening red-eye flights from the US East Coast with pre-flight dining and a truncated meal service to maximise available time for sleep on board the aircraft. This is illustrated in these very effective TV adverts featuring passengers going to sleep in New York and waking up in London.
In 2003, Virgin Atlantic introduced its own fully flat beds with its “Upper Class Suite” which also provided for aisle access for all passengers. In response, BA made some minor modifications to its seat which included a new softer mattress.
As Virgin Atlantic and other airlines started to catch-up, BA started to emphasise its increased frequencies and larger route network:
For some years, BA had the benefit of clear leadership position over its US rivals. However, they too did begin to catch-up. This advert with the strap line “Business class is different on British Airways” was produced by the New York office of M&C Saatchi for the US market. A businessman sits in his office in New York and items such as a glass of champagne are placed beside him by an invisible hand. This was intended to highlight the nature of its service that anticipates passenger needs.
In 2006, BA returned to tangerine to design a new seat, but with the same cabin layout as the first Club World flat bed.
It also turned to the design agency Winkreative to design the cabin interior, which saw lampshades introduced on the ceiling of aircraft. Some of Winkreative’ ideas such as lamps on the seats along the aisle of the aircraft did not make the final design.
The principal improvements were a longer “Z bed” position, an electronic privacy divider, and more room at the shoulder and improved storage with a personal storage drawer. BA also replaced its self-service “raid the larder” with a new expanded Club Kitchen. Microwaves were also added, at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds each.
Falling Behind & Reluctant Change
BA retained the existing 2006 Club World seat on Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 aircraft with some minor modifications, such as the seat controls and improved at seat power.
It was at this point that BA started to fall behind. The patented “yin-yang” layout became a curse. Many of its rivals that had previously offered inferior seats to BA leap-frogged the airline with seats purchased direct from seat manufacturers. These offered not only direct aisle access but also much better personal storage and space to work.
However, BA was very reluctant to change its existing layout. Willie Walsh, CEO of BA’s parent company International Airlines Group said this in 2015:
In relation to the fantastic British Airways [Club World Business Class] product, we measure the success of that product in financial terms obviously, and in financial terms that product is doing extremely well. And we don’t see any reason to make any changes.
However, with the arrival of the 787-10 and the A350-1000 there is both a need in terms of the 350-1000 and an opportunity with the 10 to look at a new version of the existing product. So we are working on that. You should expect to see BA continue to innovate the product. But I’d describe it more as refreshing the existing product rather than a radical change. We don’t see any reason to change the basic structure of the product that we have on board the aircraft, which, as you know, is extremely efficient in terms of space utilization. It is the most efficient. And from that point of view gives by far the best financial result for us.
However, market forces have required BA to launch an entirely new seat and cabin configuration which is expected very imminently. This will feature on new deliveries of Airbus A350-1000, Boeing 787-10 and Boeing 777-9 aircraft. It will also be retrofitted to much of its existing long-haul fleet. Watch this space..