Burn your Qantas pyjamas, shred your Etihad slippers, chuck your Qatar face mask in the trash: lie-flat business class could be in its twilight years.
How so? According to Anthony Harcup – senior director at design house Teague – from the year 2025, business class is going to start looking a lot different. According to Harcup, this is because technological developments and geo-political shifts (and changing consumer preferences) mean double aisle jets are on the decline and single-aisle jets (and shorter flights) are becoming the money makers for airlines.
Harcup predicts this will lead to a business class revolution, in which the focus of the pointy end shifts from sleeping to working.
The result? Lie-flat business class seats may start getting the boot. But it’s not all bad news, Harcup also told DMARGE there will be a lot of exciting new developments, and intriguing designs competing in this soon-to-be-contested design space.
Harcup provided DMARGE with the following statement (he has also discussed this topic previously with CNN): “Business Class seats are generally characterized by a seat that transforms into a bed, often made private by way of a suite door that closes-off the passenger from the aisle to create more privacy.”
“These products were brought about so that passengers could sleep on flights of 8hrs+ and were developed for widebody aircraft – because these were the only aircraft able to fly long haul. The geometry and features were developed within this product ecosystem – large and voluminous aircraft cabins with relatively high ceilings and significant payloads, flying to major airport hubs accustomed to accommodating and servicing larger and more complex aircraft.”
“Business class is changing shape and I believe premium seating products are still finding their true identity and purpose in a disrupted market place.”Anthony Harcup
In the last 5 years, however, there has been a major decrease in demand for widebody aircraft in favour of more versatile, fuel-efficient long-range narrow-body aircraft. As a result, Harcup says, airlines have started to equip their single-aisle aircraft with premium lay-flat seats, “so that they can service mid and long haul routes with similar levels of comfort to wide body.”
“If this continues, the future market for business class travel (or at least a large segment of it) will be on single aisle aircraft…”Anthony Harcup
Harcup adds: “Initially we saw lay-flat seats (like the Thompson vantage seat, or Safran Cirrus) being directly transferred from widebody to narrow-body. As these are not purpose-designed for single-aisle proportions, they result in either sub-optimal passenger experience (like having to step over your neighbour to get out of a window seat) or a sub-optimal passenger density (the relaxed installation angle leaves a huge aisle).”
For this reason, Harcup says, “we are now seeing a new generation of seats that are designed specifically to optimize the geometry of the single aisle cabin (like Thompsons vantage solo/ Jetblue MINT2)…” He also reckons that in the next few years we will see an influx of new-to-market, purpose-designed single aisle seats.
“They have been in development with all the major seat suppliers for a number of years and are now being selected for development by many of the major airlines.”Anthony Harcup
“But….. I believe that whilst these products are definitely a step forward, the future of business class seating will be more sympathetic to the single aisle environment and product ecosystem,” Harcup adds.
Harcup says that putting flat-bed seats in single aisle aircraft could, looking back in a few years, look like a knee-jerk reaction to a market demand that the industry has not yet fully understood. Why? There are different market dynamics at play now.
How so? In double aisle jets, the fundamental experience driver for lie flat seats “was to provide a comfortable and private sleeping environment for flight times of 8-14hrs – so unarguably a flat-bed was (and still is) a great answer – especially if you have a connecting flight to endure afterwards,” Harcup says.
On a long haul narrow-body, however, the kind of jet which Harcup sees the aviation world gravitating towards, you are more likely to be travelling point-to-point (no connecting flight) and you are more likely to be on a flight with a duration of 4-6 hours (punctuated with food service). Additionally, Harcup shared with DMARGE, “many of these flights are day-flights with wifi connectivity (so passengers may-well value productivity oversleep).”
“If sleeping is no-longer the primary experience we are designing for, then we are likely in the experimental first stages of defining a completely new generation of products that will utilize space in a whole new way.”Anthony Harcup
“We have an opportunity (and arguably a responsibility) to redefine what a ‘premium experience’ is in this case. If we don’t need to go flat to be comfortable for 4-6hrs, where else should we invest that valuable real estate? Perhaps the configuration of furniture elements will be very different? If the cushions no longer need to be flat, perhaps we will see more interesting seats and upholstery?”
“Additionally,” Harcup says, “airlines are not used to operating single aisle aircraft equipped with heavy and complex seating products with powered mechanisms – and generally this impacts their fuel efficiency, reliability and versatility.”
“I think we will see more simple, lightweight seating solutions – and we are seeing some concept-seats leaning this way already.”Anthony Harcup
Given the general development timelines, Harcup thinks we will start to see products along these lines beginning to emerge from 2025, and he predicts that single-aisle premium seating “will become the new battle-ground for IP in aircraft interiors.”
Harcup also told DMARGE that airlines would look to make the most of the ‘wasted’ space that often occurs at the start of business class on single-aisle jets not only by using it to create special, first-class style suites, but also potentially for coat storage or galley equipment.
“When putting a premium service on a narrow-body that is expected to match that of a wide-body, space for galley equipment, food preparation, and coat storage is challenging to find – comparative to wide-bodies where there is vastly more real estate and areas of opportunity to take advantage of.”