The internet is awash with hot influencer takes and in depth reviews of luxurious business class seats. I’m one of them, and have been for a while, so I’d like to think I have a decent perspective here.
In a decade of sampling the world’s best business and first class airline experiences, I can honestly say that when you take away the emotion and marketing, only a few were actually transformational.
I absolutely loved putting my points and miles to use and showing others how to as well, but after a while, so many of these experiences start to feel same-y.
That’s because they are! Unbeknown to many, there are really only a handful of business class seats flying on all the global airlines, with each often separated by just a few color and material choices when the airline picks them out, much like the way we choose seats in a car.
From reclining chairs with smoking in the cabin to fully flat beds, most of which now feature doors, business class has come a long way but I don’t think there’s much more to do with the space. The future is the technology within it.
Same Seat, Different Tech
Some of the most highly regarded Cathay Pacific business class seats are the very same used by American Airlines. Oman Air and JAL use the same seat on many planes too. The list can go on and on.
The only really revolutionary seats out there are ANA’s “The Room” business class and Qatar Airways Qsuite, each of which are really high specification and not flown on other airlines. I’ve compared them head to head before and they’re a delight.
So what makes one experience better than the other, in “hard product” terms — aka not the service or the food or other things?
For me the answer is simply tech.
So many technologies have been introduced since flat bed business class seats made their way into the sky, almost all of which can make a journey better. Some are simple, like having instantly responding touch screens with incredible resolution.
Once you’ve felt that on board, a clunky old one that looks blurry just doesn’t cut it. Because of the ordering curve of buying something years before it often flies, many seats haven’t caught up and that’s where the new “race” will be.
Delta vs Virgin Atlantic: A Perfect Example
Partners Delta and Virgin Atlantic use the same seat on their A330-900neo aircraft in the form of modified Thompson Vantage XL seats. They’re stellar and instantly some of the best in the transatlantic market.
But settling into your Delta One or Virgin Upper Class experience onboard you’ll find a few differences, not just with material choices and the color of the leather, but how you can interact with the seat.
Virgin bet on bluetooth becoming a passenger desire. At the time of their order, Delta did not. On Virgin, you can pair your own personal bluetooth headphones like AirPods, Beats or Google PixelBuds directly to your in-flight entertainment to wirelessly enjoy movies and shows in flight.
I always find my own buds more comfortable than airplane options and I always prefer to be wireless. Delta, as of yet, has not added this functionality to their seats. Both of these airlines offer relatively zippy new touch screens with good resolution but one experience requires being strapped in, whereas the other you can move freely.
Personalization, Hands Free And More
What will really separate business class experiences in the coming years, aside from the catering and crew service is how seamlessly you can feel comfortable on board.
If I can pre-queue all my ideal entertainment and have that sync with my seat when I get on board by connecting with my loyalty account, I’m over the moon. I don’t want to flick aimlessly for half the flight. I’d rather do that in advance and have a short list.
If I can mirror my laptop or phone screen onto the larger in-flight screen and watch my own Netflix or movie collection, that’s also a huge win. These possibilities exist but they’ve only become viable in the last few years and most seats were installed or ordered before then. Hotels have caught up on this more than airlines.
As fleet refreshes happen and customers start to feel the simple joys like pairing their own personal wireless headphones to a seat, seeing a personal greeting on the screen and finding more areas they can control their business class setup, including position with their own devices, the technology race will take off.
This is the new ground to win in business class. The “overall” experience of on time performance, lounges, friendly service and refined food and beverage will always be an integral score factor and will likely be more impactful to hearts and minds. But — once you introduce ease and technology, people will want all the above and the ease too.