This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
It was in January 1988 that BA introduced the “Club World” brand, roughly ten years after the concept of long-haul business class first became known.
Initially, long-haul business class was simply a separate part of the economy cabin for full fare passengers. Then, BA introduced its Super Club cabin.
BA claimed that the introduction of Club World in 1988 which featured a dedicated crew for the first time, improved catering and ground services, increased traffic by 31%.
Since then, Club World has become by far BA’s most important cabin and it has featured the airline’s biggest innovations. The financial performance of BA is inextricably linked to the volume of Club World traffic. So much so, it was to become known as the “profit engine” of BA.
The First Club World Seats
The initial Club World seat was a “slumber seat”.
In the 1990s, BA maintained a regular pace of change in the cabin. Another new cabin interior and seat was introduced in the early 1990s with seat-back TV for the first time.
The Cradle Seat
The next significant change to Club World 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.
“Presenting a revolutionary view from business class”
At the turn of the century, BA announced one of the most significant innovations in its history, 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 2018 on OpenSkies Boeing 757 services between Paris Orly and New York.
It is no exaggeration to say that every single one of BA’s long-haul competitors responded. However, for some years, BA maintained a competitive advantage. 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 – the difference may seem subtle but you certainly notice it when trying to sleep on it.
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.
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.
The 2006 Refresh
In 2006, BA returned to tangerine to design a new seat, but with the same cabin layout as the first Club World flat bed.
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.
BA retained the 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. 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 IAG 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 utilisation. It is the most efficient. And from that point of view gives by far the best financial result for us.
The Club Suite
Competitive pressures have required BA to let go of the “yin-yang” design. BA has now caught up with the competition and introduced a new “Club Suite”.
This now offers direct aisle access, privacy and gate to gate in-flight entertainment for all. The seat also offers vastly better storage options. Unlike previous seats, this is not an entirely bespoke design but a variant of an existing design by a seat manufacturer.
The new seat is now in service on BA’s Airbus A350-1000 aircraft. It will also feature on Boeing 787-10 and Boeing 777-9 aircraft. It will also be retrofitted initially to the Boeing 777 fleet at Heathrow. Two Boeing 777-200 aircraft will be retrofitted this year.
Whilst the new cabin addresses much of the defects of the previous seat, the market remains extremely competitive and BA will need to continue to innovate in this cabin.