Air France Will Swap Business Seats for Coach in Summer Lull

Air France will fit its long-haul fleet with removable business-class berths that can be swapped for economy seats in the summer when corporate travel slows.

Of the 40 flat-bed business seats being installed in Air France’s Boeing Co. 777 wide-body planes, 24 can be stripped out to accommodate 60 coach-class passengers, a net gain of 36 people per flight, the Paris-based carrier said.

Air France is betting that an adjustable layout will help sustain earnings during a summer lull in top-end travel as it embraces lie-flat berths that will cut the number of business seats in each 777 by eight. The carrier is overhauling premium cabins after losing ground to British Airways, which pioneered flat beds, and glitzier offerings from Gulf and Asian carriers.

“We need to be flexible to maximize revenue,” said Air France-KLM Group Chief Executive Officer Alexandre de Juniac, who flew from Paris to New York last night on the inaugural flight featuring the new shell-style seats.

Business cabins in 44 777s comprising about 40 percent of the long-haul fleet will be fitted with the berths by the summer of 2016, with each seat costing 53,000 euros ($72,000), or almost double that including in-flight-entertainment systems.

A380s Miss Out

Air France, the French unit of Europe’s biggest airline, will also introduce new first-class seats from September on routes to Singapore and Jakarta.

Neither of the new berths will immediately be available on the carrier’s flagship Airbus Group NV A380 superjumbos, nor the A330s which also ply long-haul routes, with those aircraft to be upgraded by the summer of 2017, Juniac said. That will bring total investment in new seats to more 1 billion euros.

The business seats, which can be removed overnight by maintenance crews, will be arranged in a four-abreast 1-2-1 layout so that no passenger has to pass another to get get out, compared with the current seven-abreast 2-3-2 offering.

While significantly larger than previous seats, the berths are of a cocoon-like construction that allows them to recline by partly rotating, minimizing the extra space needed.

Deutsche Lufthansa AG also has business seats that can be swapped to economy, though Air France’s plan is more ambitious, according to business-customer experience manager Eugenie Audebert, who has worked on the project for four years.

Cream & Gray

“We wanted to be able to change the design quickly,” Audebert said on the New York flight. “In the summertime we have a drop in business class demand and we have more leisure demand. Until now we weren’t able to be flexible because the seats couldn’t be changed quickly.”

Based on the Cirrus model from Zodiac Aerospace SA also used in Delta Air Lines Ltd., American Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. jetliners, the seats were modified by U.K. designer Mark Collins to add more foot-room and fake leather instead of plastic.

The chosen color-scheme is cream and gray, except for the red interior of a personal storage cupboard. Collins said the design aims to evoke a period in the 1950s and 1960s when French designers were experimenting with new industrial processes and Air France was seen as the ultimate in luxury.

Lufthansa said it’s “version change” seat layout has been deployed across the long-haul fleet for a decade, though with the introduction of complicated entertainment systems berths are generally swapped around only for periods of several weeks or more, rather than as little as one day as in the past.

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