A British Battle for the Best Business Class

There is a lot of good that comes with being an early adopter, but there is a lot of bad as well. When it comes to flat beds in business class, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic were both early on the scene. That meant travelers flying both airlines flew what were then leading products, but it also meant that other airlines had plenty of time to surpass their initial efforts. Though both airlines had refreshed their products, there wasn’t really an enormous push to reinvent the wheel. After all, when your primary hub is slot-constrained Heathrow serving business-rich London, even a dated business class will outperform how it would do elsewhere.

After nearly two decades, both of these airlines have now chosen to do something brand new, and they launched their seat within a month of each other. Each will fix the flaws of their previous seats, and both are taking two different approaches to design.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I was supposed to be in London for the rollout of the Virgin Atlantic seat this week, but instead of settling into my Upper Class suite courtesy of Virgin Atlantic on Saturday, I found myself settling into a much less comfortable seat in the waiting room of my local urgent care. A nasty head/sinus/energy-zapping thing kept me in bed for a few days, and I was sad to miss it.

Virgin Atlantic’s Social Space

When Virgin Atlantic rolled out its first true flat bed in 2003 (it had installed angled flat beds in 2000), the seat was a big deal. The unique herringbone design allowed travelers to sit at a slight angle, having their backs toward the window and their eyes peering into the aisle. It was private on three sides (not the aisle side), and it gave every traveler direct aisle access, but a far superior design would have been to have travelers turn their backs on the aisle and face into a more scenic window view. That “reverse herringbone” design has become an industry standard.

Further, while Virgin did introduce a fully flat bed, it was clunky. Unlike most seats, the seat couldn’t simply recline into a bed. It required flipping the back of the seat over to create the flat surface. This sounds great in theory, but it was a lot of work and it was disruptive to the traveler. Time has shown that this isn’t a preferred way to build a seat.

In , the airline has adopted the reverse herringbone design and the seat now fully reclines into a bed. Problem solved. Judging from media response, however, there are still complaints. Apparently all business class seats must now have doors or they aren’t considered worthy. I don’t understand this myself, but this seat has a half door, if that, so it has already received some criticism. Virgin says it doesn’t want to close people off entirely, and this is about being social. This also fits with the theme in the new “Loft” area where 8 people can stand and sit and have drinks. It’s an updated version of the bar into more of a lounge area.

If you look at the layout of the aircraft, the Loft sits at the primary entry door, between Upper Class and premium economy.

The Loft area takes up what would probably be a galley on most aircraft. But Virgin Atlantic puts a great deal of importance on having this social space. That seems to be the overall theme of the design.

British Airways Goes With Doors

Contrast this with what British Airways has done. BA introduced its first business class flat bed in 2000 when such a thing was truly revolutionary. But the seats introduced in 2000 also had their flaws. Notably, there were 8 seats across on the 777 or 747 (downstairs). That means only half the seats onboard had direct access to the aisle. Further, the seats alternated facing backwards and forwards. While I never had a problem sitting backwards and even found it novel, others did. The original seat had very limited storage as well, but that problem was alleviated in later revisions.

BA held on to its dense configuration for years, and it’s hard to blame the airline for it. Density meant there were a lot more opportunities to put people on those planes. But eventually, change had to come as even its own partner American surpassed it (and by a lot). Like Virgin Atlantic, when it goes into service later this year.

Club Suite

The new BA seats are indeed suites with doors. They are reverse herringbone in design and they look sharp with their dark colors. The unfortunate thing about this and all current generation seats is that they aren’t very family-friendly. They are designed for the individual business traveler, which is unsurprising since those are the people who spend all the money (or, at least, their companies do).

I’ve seen some people react with disappointment that neither of these airlines have stepped up to roll out something revolutionary. It’s hard to imagine why BA would want to do that. Clearly it saw the numbers and realized it needed a competitive product, but did it need a revolution? No. It could continue to serve its London travelers well with something that didn’t leapfrog the competition. I’m somewhat surprised Virgin Atlantic didn’t try something more revolutionary. After all, its partner Delta across the Atlantic was one of the first to put a door on a business class suite, and playing second fiddle to BA means trying to keep one step ahead of them. But Virgin has chosen a safer, more social path. That’s not to say this is a bad decision by Virgin. Some may nitpick about minor things, but overall, these products look to be excellent entries into the market for both carriers.

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