Thursday, January 29, 2009

Best business class seats on the A380 and beyond

WHICH airline is the best in bed - and what's in store for business travellers aboard the latest superjumbos. Steve Creedy sleeps around to find out.

Nearly all the marketing buzz about the new superjumbos has focused on first-class luxury. But the real battle is for the hearts, minds and spines of business-class travellers - and things are about to get very interesting.

By February, all three airlines operating the double-decker A380 will be bringing them to Australia and working hard to tempt you into their beds. The plane is at the vanguard of a push for "high yield" passengers which has generated a vast array of high-tech seats and cabin configurations.

Passengers can find themselves flying forwards at an angle, or backwards, as they play with computerised entertainment systems that have enough grunt to run a small company and still screen the next instalment of The Mummy series.

Interestingly, it was our own flying kangaroo that started all this back in 1979. It was then that Qantas introduced the world's first "business class" service, with priority baggage collection, a private cabin with its own staff, an "exclusive" coat closet and an "ever open" free bar service.

But that was just the beginning. Fast-forward three decades and those "extra wide" seats have morphed into something with enough buttons and gizmos to earn a place on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Matt Daimler, of, says reclining chairs with about 50 inches (127cm) of seat pitch were the norm as recently as eight or nine years ago. (Seat pitch is the distance between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front, inches being the industry standard.) While some of these seats are still used on less popular routes, or by cash-strapped carriers, they are considered a poor option. Competitive routes such as Australia-Europe typically boast "lie-flat" or "flat-bed" seats.

The concept of a flying bed is not new - some of the old flying boats had them - but it re-emerged in the first-class cabin in the 1990s.

British Airways' Club World pioneered the sleeper seat in business class as part of a $500 million revamp announced in 2000. Asia-Pacific carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific soon jumped on the concept. Singapore's Spacebed, a lie-flat seat introduced in 2002, was then seen as the seat to beat. But like many first-generation sleeper beds, it was not what customers actually considered horizontal.

Aircraft fly on an angle and it was thought that leaving the seats on a slight slope would counteract this. The concept was unpopular with many flyers, however, who found themselves succumbing to gravity and slipping down the seats. The result was a change to "flat-bed" seats which go completely, well, flat.

"Lie-flat seats tend to confuse folks, especially with the liberties a marketing department will take," Daimler says. "The airline needs only 60 inches of pitch for one of these seats."

Flat-bed seats need 70 to 80 inches of space between rows, making them more expensive to use. However, they are far more comfortable for sleeping - which is, after all, the holy grail of business travellers.

What to look for

Matt Daimler of says flat-bed seats should be more than 20 inches wide with a seat pitch of at least 73 inches (185cm). And they should definitely come with a personal television and a laptop power port.

"Features that would rank highly in my book - and make me choose one carrier over the other - are armrests that fold down to a 27-inch-plus seat width (enough to roll over more comfortably) and on-demand movies and television shows on the personal in-flight entertainment system," he says.

Be wary of the fact that different planes or routes may have different seats. Singapore Airlines, for example, still has Spacebeds on some planes and does not plan to replace them on Boeing 747s destined to be superseded by A380s. It also does not have the new wide seats on "regional" routes and that includes Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. Likewise, four recent flights on Emirates involved three different seats.