Business Class Versus Economy: Why Business Keeps Getting Better

Airplane passenger

Should airlines be forced to offer a minimum amount of legroom in economy class?

News of the passage through the US House of Representatives of the SEAT Act, requiring the US Federal Aircraft Administration to establish minimum seat sizes and minimum distances between rows to protect the health and safety of passengers, was greeted with a resounding cheer from flyers’ groups and the aviation media.

Since the US sets the pace in aviation matters, it’s likely that Australian airlines would play the game by the same rules. The ball is now in the FAA’s court, but whether this turns into a win for economy-class travellers depends on just where the minimum requirements are set.

A spokesman for Flyers Rights, the US’s largest airline industry consumer advocacy group, suggested the minimum seat pitch and width be established at 28 inches (71 centimetres) and 18 inches (46 centimetres) respectively.

That width would be a welcome benchmark in a world that all too frequently offers a width of 43 centimetres, but a pitch of 71 centimetres? No thanks. At the moment, low-cost carriers frequently offer a minimum pitch of 74 centimetres. That’s knees-against-the-seatback territory for anyone slightly over medium height, even before the passenger in front reclines their seat.

If regulators are keen to ensure even minimum standards of passenger comfort and safety, they’ll have to think bigger.

The rise of the pointy end

While airlines continue to ram ever more seats into their economy class, finding ingenious ways to pare down toilets and galleys and installing 10 seats across in aircraft that were designed for rows of nine, for business-class flyers the experience is on the skyway to heaven. So good, in fact, that a business seat aboard a leading airline outshines the first-class seat of a decade ago.

Business class flyers tend to fuss over the details, and a lumpy seat or a badly mixed cocktail can send them into the arms of a rival carrier. Thus airlines are inclined to pull out all stops for this high-yield, privileged elite.

On a long-haul flight, seat pitch in a business-class seat is generally in the range 147-190 centimetres, which guarantees plenty of leg room. At the top of the airline league tables expect dine-on-demand, a video screen approaching 50 centimetres and noise-cancelling-headphones. Anything less than a fully lie-flat business seat doesn’t make the cut.

Although they might fold to 180 degrees, angled-flat seats found on some Air France, American Airlines, Finnair, KLM and Philippine Airlines flights, to name just a few, tilt downwards in the fully reclined position, which tends to slide the sleeper toward the footrest. There is even a website, flatseats.com, that distinguishes between angled-flat and fully-flat seats for every airline you’re likely to fly.

How about doors? Because doors that enclose business-class flyers in their own private realm are the latest must-have for airlines looking to fly above the common herd. As are suites for two that transform into double beds.

A number of airlines including Cathay Pacific, Air Canada and American Airlines offer reverse herringbone seats in at least some of their business-class cabins, which angle flyers so those seated in the central seats face away from each other. Deployed in a 1-2-1 configuration, reverse herringbone seating gives greater privacy plus direct aisle access. No passenger has to perform yogic contortions to access the aisle from a window seat, or wake a sleeping neighbour when it’s time for a toilet break. On the other hand, if you’re travelling as a couple, interacting becomes problematic.

What’s next for business class?

A business class seat costs between $US30,000 and $US80,000 to develop, build and install, and the product is constantly evolving. In 2015, when Singapore Airlines unveiled new business class seats for its Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A350 aircraft, the design process took two years and involved 500 of the airline’s premium frequent flyers in the consultation process.

When the airline began a refresh of the business class seat aboard its A380s in 2017 it opted for a completely new design with enhanced storage and centre seats that convert to a double bed, albeit with a divider from about the knees down. This is also a slimmer seat, since some flyers found the airline’s armchair-like business seating was too generous, preferring a seat that cups the sitter.

Many long-haul flyers prefer the A380, prized for its quiet, smooth ride, roomy cabin and separate business class deck. Upper deck window seats on the A380 come with extra storage thanks to the big side bins. Several leading airlines such as Emirates and Qatar have taken advantage of the roomy dimensions of the A380’s upper deck to install clubby bars.

Qantas is currently refreshing the seats and layout of the business class cabin aboard the Airbus A380s the airline uses on its Britain and US services, installing the Business Suite already seen aboard the airline’s Airbus A330s and Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The upgraded seat sits in a 1-2-1 configuration with a moveable privacy screen between the middle seats, a wider video screen and improved storage and workspace. There’s also a bigger lounge on the upper deck, used by both business and first-class flyers.

Current pace-setter for business class seating is Qatar Airways’ Qsuite, which has gone all out in its bid to win hearts, minds and bottoms – and done it. The game-changer here is the suite concept, which allows a couple to create their own private enclosed space. That’s not unique to Qatar, just that they’ve managed to do it better than any other airline. Apart from a few leading airlines’ first-class suites, the Qsuite’s seats fold flat to create the best double bed in the skies

Best Business Class Airlines according to the 2017 Skytrax Awards

1 Qatar Airways

2 ANA Nippon Airways

3 Singapore Airlines

4 Etihad Airways

5 Lufthansa

6 Turkish Airlines

7 Garuda Indonesia

8 Cathay Pacific

9 Emirates

10 EVA Air

SOURCE: Traveller