From the front to the back of the aircraft, there are significant changes in cabin layouts and class sizes, with carriers seeking new ways to differentiate their product and maximise revenue

While there is little evidence of a clear trend in aircraft cabin interiors, there is no shortage of activity as carriers upgrade and reconfigure. The pace continues to be set by those international carriers in Asia-Pacific, the Gulf and, to a degree, Europe, who rely most on winning lucrative long-haul business traffic. By contrast, the US majors with their massive domestic market have been falling behind their competitors on long-haul route service amenities as their financial woes increased.

But changes, some substantial and some subtle, abound. New business-class seats that convert to lie-flat beds, at varying degrees of recline, are becoming more and more prevalent on long-haul flights. Some carriers are eliminating first class in favour of a two-class cabin: economy and a business class that now approaches, even surpasses, previous first-class service levels. Iberia late last year, for instance, took delivery of its first Airbus A340-600 with an enhanced business class that is set to replace first class on its long-haul flights.

Outside the USA, says Mike Baughan, general manager of the commercial aircraft products group at interiors company B/E Aerospace, the lie-flat business-class segment continues, as it has for a while, to be the most active. "International airlines, particularly in the Pacific Rim, Middle East and then Europe, make money in this segment so there is continuing interest and brand differentiation and introduction of new technology," he says. "It's a growth part of the market."

Some carriers are splitting their fleet, going with a two-cabin configuration, including lie-flat beds in a new business section on a number of long-haul aircraft, while retaining first-class sections on some aircraft for certain routes. Air France is in this category, with a new lie-flat bed being fitted in its new "l'Espace Affaires" business class in two-cabin aircraft on a large portion of its fleet. The carrier is keeping a first-class cabin on aircraft serving 20 destinations, but is scaling back the number of seats in the section from 12 to eight, providing 50% more space for the remaining passengers.

Business-class innovation

Lufthansa has retained first class, but is spending c300 million ($390 million) to install a new business class with "PrivateBeds" in its long-haul aircraft. The cabin made its debut in new two-class Airbus A340-600s and three-class A330-300s. They are being fitted to existing Boeing 747-400s and A340-300s as they come in for maintenance. Over 24 aircraft are flying with the new class and all 80 of its long-haul aircraft, new and old, will fly the new class by 2006. Finnair too has just announced that from December it will start installing lie-flat beds on its long-haul fleet of six Boeing MD-11s.

Air Canada, which emerged from bankruptcy protection last autumn, will re-equip its long-haul fleet with lie-flat seating for all Executive First customers and is currently in the vendor selection process. The airline has offered a two-class cabin configuration on long-haul international routes for a number of years, but the only aircraft currently operating with lie-flat seats are its new A340-500s on the Toronto-Hong Kong route.

In a departure, Singapore Airlines (SIA), long famous for its luxurious first class, has installed two classes in its new A340-500s - a business section featuring lie-flat seats and an economy section that looks like a lot of other carriers' business sections. The aircraft made their debut on SIA's new nonstop flights to Singapore from New York and Los Angeles, with 63 lie-flat Spacebeds in Raffles business class and only 117 seats in "Executive Economy". The latter has wider than normal seats, with a 37in (94cm) pitch, and a two-three-two layout.

Some airlines are eliminating first class but adding a class between business and economy. Discarding first class, Air New Zealand (ANZ) will configure long-haul aircraft with a premium-class cabin, with lie-flat seats that can stretch to beds 202cm long; a super economy class with seats that are wider and recline more than standard economy seats and have a pitch of 39-40in; and an economy section with new-generation seats with 34in pitch and foot rests.

Ralph Norris, ANZ chief executive, says the carrier's new premium class, with seat-beds by the UK's Contour Premium Aircraft Seating, will provide customers with comfort and service at a business-class price. "Premium customers have been telling us that if we could deliver a world-beating product at a sharp price, we would see more of their business on the routes we fly," he says. The super economy and economy seats are being supplied by Germany's Recaro Aircraft Seating.

Virgin Atlantic, which launched a Premium Economy cabin between Upper Class and economy back in 1992, is increasing seats in the section from 38 to 58 to accommodate growing demand.

A number of carriers are redefining luxury in air transport. Using the long-range A340-500, Emirates began its new Dubai-New York nonstops last summer with 12 lavish fully enclosed first-class suites with leather seats that convert to flat beds, sliding doors, 480mm video monitors with 500 channels of programming, and other enhancements. It also has business and economy sections.

Virgin is also installing new "Upper Class Suites" with reclining leather seats and an Ottoman that can serve as a seat for a dinner companion. The suites, which convert into long and wide beds, are laid out in herringbone style so every passenger is on an aisle. The carrier's Upper Class has been geared as a first-class product at a business-class price and has gone through several upgrades since it started service in 1984. All Virgin's long-haul aircraft will be reconfigured with the new suites by March. Virgin has also fitted two 747-400s with four pairs of "double suites" that remain separate until passengers want to go to sleep. At that point, cabin crew can unclip a middle partition transferring the space into a double suite.

Some international operators are offering all-business point-to-point service on smaller aircraft between city-pairs deemed to have a high degree of business travellers willing to pay a premium to go nonstop, but not enough passengers for a standard aircraft. Lufthansa offers an all business-class service between Newark and Chicago to Düsseldorf and Newark to Munich, and is studying other potential routes. The corporate aircraft, operated for Lufthansa by PrivatAir, seat 48 passengers.

Swiss too has launched an all business-class service between Zurich and Newark, also operated by PrivatAir, using an extended-range version of the Boeing Business Jet configured for 56 passengers in lie-flat seats.

Changes are also taking place within Europe as carriers modify their cabins with different seating configurations. Aer Lingus is eliminating business class altogether on its European short-haul network. Swiss is installing 18 more seats on its 11 A320s with what it says are slimmer, new-technology Recaro seats that will provide passengers with more comfort and legroom and reduce aircraft weight. Swiss also plans to keep the middle seat free in its business section, something Lufthansa pioneered, beginning last March on all its German and European flights.

US experiments

According to Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition (BTC), which represents US corporate travel buyers, the major trend going on in the USA is "experimentation". Some low-fare carriers are putting in business-class seats, he notes, while American Airlines has gone the other way by cramming more economy seats back in. United Airlines has begun plying the New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes with a new three-class "premium service" product on narrowbody Boeing 757s, replacing 767 widebodies. "So it's all over the map," Mitchell says.

United's new "ps" aircraft have a 12-passenger first-class section with lie-flat beds, 26 leather business-class seats and 72 United Economy Plus seats, at a 34in pitch, compared with the 31in pitch economy seat previously on the route. By March, all nonstop flights on the two transcontinental routes - seven daily roundtrips to Los Angeles and six to San Francisco - will be on "ps" services, reducing capacity by almost 35% from the previous level.

United says these flights, offering the only lie-flat sleeper seats in domestic service, are doing very well and especially appeal to those commuting between coasts. "Taking ps is a lot like taking a flight to Europe, "says United.  "The flight time from New York to London is similar to New York-California - five to six hours - so we put in the same amenities. There are fewer seats; it's about providing customers with more space and comfort."

In another departure from the norm, United is equipping new Embraer 170s being flown by United Express partner Chautauqua Airlines with three distinct sections, instead of the standard single-class on regional services. The 170s have six 38in pitch, first-class leather seats, 16 in economy plus and 48 in economy. "It's based on what our customers are telling us," United says. "Even though the flights are short, they want to enjoy amenities in first class."

In contrast, one of its mainline competitors, American, which removed 7,200 seats from its domestic fleet to provide its passengers with the widely advertised "More room in coach," is putting the seats back in. The removal of seats, representing 6.4% of its capacity, had increased seat pitch to 33-34in from 31-32in before. BTC's Mitchell says the expanded legroom was a hit among business travellers, but American concluded it was not getting any extra passengers or higher yield from it. "People said they liked more room and enjoyed it," says American. "But to have that kind of product, you have to realise revenue from it." With air fares at 20- to 30-year lows, the airline had to add back seats, says the carrier, although American is not reinstalling on to Boeing MD-80s and 737s as many seats as it took off.

Mitchell says it was an understandable response in today's financial environment, where load factors are at record levels. "Historically, the difference between profit and loss is six passengers on any given flight," he says. "It's not true now, of course. No flights are profitable."

While true of the legacy carriers, he notes there are exceptions, like low-fare carrier Southwest Airlines, which has been profitable for decades. Southwest's seating remains at a 32in pitch, and the only change it is considering is ending its first-come, first-served seating and replacing it with - heresy - assigned seats, but only if its fabled turnaround times can remain largely intact.

Low-cost legroom

While American was putting seats back, one of its competitors, low-fare carrier JetBlue Airways, was removing a row of six seats in its Airbus A320s to give nearly two-thirds of its passengers a seat pitch of at least 34in on its flights. The remainder, those sitting in the first 10 rows, have at least a 32in seat pitch. JetBlue's seats are leather and each has a seat-back video for Live TV programming. The carrier plans to equip its new 100-seat Embraer 190s in a similar fashion when it takes delivery of the first seven of 100 on order later this year. They will have two-by-two leather seats at 32in pitch, with seat-back videos, making the aircraft considerably more attractive and comfortable than economy class in other competitors' aircraft.

Delta Air Lines is in the process of upgrading rather than replacing seats in its MD-88s, 757s and 767s as part of its "transformation plan" outlined last year. The enhancements, which include new leather covers, bring seat pitch to 32-33in from 31in. Originally, Delta said all aircraft would be reconfigured by mid-2006, but Paul Matsen, Delta's chief marketing officer, said last month that 50% of the new seats would be installed by the end of 2005, rising to 80% by mid-2006. The remaining 20% is under review as a fleet type might be retired, he added.

US carriers, with continuing losses and disastrous balance sheets, have generally put off major investments in premium classes of the type many of the world's leading airlines are making. Northwest Airlines became the first 18 months ago to begin introducing lie-flat seats in its World Business class in long-haul aircraft. The carrier, like Continental and Delta, had given up first-class sections on international flights some time ago in favour of a class labelled Business/First or Business/Elite or the like. But they had not put in the lie-flat beds in the section, as have their international competitors. American and United have lie-flat beds in first class in most long-haul aircraft.

"There is more value associated with the product the longer the flight," says BTC's Mitchell. "It's why in general international flights can return a nice yield for the airlines. Business travellers need to arrive rested and be productive en route." Mitchell thinks US carriers are beginning to realise that they need business and first-class cabins comparable to their international competitors.

B/E Aerospace's Baughan agrees, and also believes that new niche carriers will offer premium service internationally, flying 757s with all first class or 737s with all business class. All services - ground, lounge and in-flight experience - would be geared to a premium passenger experience. "That really doesn't exist with network carriers," he says. "It will be very low-density, very high-level service to address this unserved market." Such a service would be operated between smaller city-pairs than New York JFK-London Heathrow, he suggests.

New aircraft coming into fleets, including the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 7E7, also provide opportunities for new seating concepts, Baughan says, that will later be retrofitted into existing fleets. B/E Aerospace has racked up orders from a number of carriers for its A380s. It is designing "super first class cabin interiors" for both Emirates and Qantas and an unnamed US airline, and MiniPod lie-flat premium seating for an unnamed European carrier, Qantas and others. Because the business-class experience has changed so much, airlines maintaining a first-class offering "have to rethink the definition and try to create a whole new cabin experience for the passenger," says Baughan.

Economy focus

There has been much less focus on economy seating, but Baughan thinks this will change. In particular, airlines will want to transfer at least one of the attributes of premium seating - that the passenger has a fixed living space that he or she controls - into economy seating. Whatever the passenger in front does - such as reclining their seatback - should not intrude on another's "living space", he says. Developing such a product consistent with today's 31-32in pitch, is a difficult task, he admits. "We think there's a way to better use the space," he says, by bringing in new ideas and technology. "We are in detailed discussions with several airlines on this."

British Airways, the carrier that pioneered many of the industry's seating innovations, including the introduction of the first lie-flat beds in its Club World business class, now has more than 5,000 flat beds installed in more than 100 aircraft, representing 98% of its long-haul flights. The two remaining North American routes from London to Tampa and Orlando will get bed-seats by March.

BA, though, which also provided the first lie-flat beds in first class and was first to offer four distinct classes, including World Traveller Plus between business and economy sections, in its long-haul aircraft, has been silent for a while, studying its next moves in the seating arena.

"We've got people working on it," says BA. "The life of a product is five years, and five years ago we introduced Club World beds, which was revolutionary. It's our job to stay ahead."


Source: Airline Business