Frequent flyers in British Airways’ ‘Club World’ Business Class cabin have long derided what they view as an outdated and uncompetitive hard product. British Airways may have “revolutionised” the industry back in 2000 when it introduced the world’s first fully-flat Business Class seat but little has changed since then.
Despite a £100 million upgrade to the Club World product in 2006, BA has retained its famous ‘ying-yang’ layout – resulting in one of the densest Business Class cabins in the industry (stretching to eight seats per row on BA’s fleet of Boeing 747’s and 777’s).
While major competitors, including Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and Delta Air Lines have long offered direct aisle access for every passenger, BA has opted for only minor cosmetic changes. Passengers lament the cramped conditions, lack of privacy, an absence of storage space and disappointing in-flight entertainment.
Willie Walsh, the former chief executive of British Airways and now head of the airline’s parent company, IAG has previously said it was a “mistake” to patent the Club World seat. During an interview last year, Walsh commented: “I suspect had we allowed people to use that configuration (Club World), more and more people would have adopted it.”
He explained that BA’s view at the time was that it would give them a “competitive advantage” but it was “clearly not sustainable today, obviously.”
£400 million investment in BA’s Business Class offering
In the last 12-months, however, the new head of BA, Alex Cruz has been leading a project to improve the airline’s lacklustre Business Class experience. In April, Cruz announced a £400 million investment in the Club World product – since bumped up to £600 million. Investment would be immediately focused on the soft product offerings with a big focus on acclaimed DO&CO catering and new bedding from luxury British brand, The White Company.
Many of those changes are still to be seen by most customers as BA’s rolls out the product (very) slowly across its route network. But what of a new Business Class seat – the one element that most frequent flyers are now demanding?
We’ve known for some time that British Airways will introduce a new Club World seat on its Airbus A350 aircraft – the first of which will be delivered to the airline in 2019. Initially, BA planned on installing an updated model of its current seat – leading Cruz to announce in 2016 that the product “doesn’t appear to be sufficiently revolutionary” to retrofit across BA’s fleet.
Rethinking approach to new seat to be installed on A350’s
But a lot has changed since then and British Airways has had a massive rethink of its approach. Last year, Cruz explained:
“We have made a decision to move away from the [current] Club seats. The time has come for us to change. This has been a tremendously innovative product, but we are falling behind some of our competitors. So the decision has been made we are going to move to a different seat.”
“But if there is one attribute we are absolutely committed to as part of the Club World proposition from British Airways, [it] will be to have full aisle access. We must have aisle access for all passengers.”
Cruz has also said the new seat will now to be retrofitted to the airline’s existing fleet although refuses to speculate on how “deep” that refurbishment will go.
The question now is what will the new Club World seat look like? A British Airways patent, filed last year gave a glimpse of what the product could look like – building on the existing seat, the new design would offer direct aisle access by utilising a separate ‘monument’ to house the IFE screen, storage space and foot cubby.
The advantage for BA, of course, would be its ability to retain the current dense configuration while significantly improving the experience for passengers.
BA has opted for an ‘off the shelf’ product
Yet two sources who are familiar with the matter have confirmed that Cruz has knocked an expensive in-house R&D project on the head. Instead, British Airways will be tailoring an “off the shelf” product to meet its own requirements.
Several months ago, a source told us BA had chosen the same seat currently used by Emirates on its Airbus A380 fleet. Since then, a second source has verified the accuracy of this statement, saying the airline would “BA-ify” the Zodiac SKYLounge Core Business Class seat – currently in service with Emirates, ANA and others.
Produced by French aircraft seat manufacturer, Zodiac Aerospace, the SKYLounge Core is described by its designers as a “reliable and risk-free solution.” Its design has been valued by airlines for its modular architecture which can be easily customised to represent an airline’s individual brand and design tastes.
For BA passengers, the staggered 1-2-1 all-forward facing configuration would be a step-change in comfort. The seat offers a significant amount of privacy and storage space. Passengers will also finally be able to enjoy in-flight entertainment during TTOL.
For its part, British Airways has remained tight-lipped about what the new seat will look like. With the new product set to debut next year, it may still be some time before the airline confirms what product they have opted for.