A Business-Class Seat That Lets Flyers Sleep From Takeoff to Landing

Qantas’s business seats recline even during takeoffs and landings

Airlines have been churning out new luxuries for years to get business travelers to pay big bucks for seats in the front of the plane. Those seats can go for as much as 10 times the price of a ticket in the increasingly cramped economy cabin. Etihad Airways offers business-class passengers in 40 cities chauffeured car service to and from flights. Emirates’ double-decker Airbus A380s boast a stand-up bar where premium-class flyers can mingle. Singapore Airlines lets business-class customers order their dinner in advance from a menu of more than 60 dishes devised by its panel of top chefs. But David Killingback, a managing director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Singapore, says that for him the deciding factor would be something far simpler: the ability to get a good night’s sleep during the almost eight-hour overnight flight from Singapore to Melbourne.

“I don’t care if they serve dog food or chateaubriand for dinner,” says Killingback, who has flown the route as many as four times in a single week. “I want to be able to get to sleep as quickly as possible without disturbance and wake at the last possible minute.”

Qantas Airways says it has just the ticket for businesspeople such as Killingback. Confident that sleep is the luxury frequent flyers crave most, Qantas is introducing business-class seats that let passengers rest in at least a partially reclining position from the moment they board until touchdown at their destination.

Key to the product’s safety is an over-the-shoulder sash—much like a car seat belt—that will connect with the usual around-the-waist belt to provide extra restraint during takeoff and landing, according to Andy Morris, vice president for sales and marketing at Belfast-based Thompson Aero Seating, which designed the seat.

At those critical times, the seats won’t be able to recline less than 25 degrees from the horizontal on international flights and 21 degrees within Australia, or about 7 inches and 5 inches, respectively. That’s sufficient to allow the shoulder belt to work, withstanding the 16G forces that can be exerted in a survivable accident, Morris says. The berths can be switched to fully flat mode once the plane is in level flight.

Qantas says it’s awaiting approvals from Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority, the only remaining worldwide regulatory approval it needs to let the new seats recline during takeoffs and landings. Without extra measures such as the shoulder sash, sudden deceleration could cause someone lying flat to “torpedo underneath” the standard belt, says Stuart Hughes, a managing director at aviation-safety consultants Baines Simmons.

The gate-to-gate sleeper seats, which took Thompson Aero 18 months to develop, have undergone 100 hours of trials. They’ll be fitted on domestic Airbus A330 wide-bodies starting in December, with an international rollout the following month. Qantas’s entire fleet of 28 A330s will be refitted by the end of 2016.

“They’re differentiating their products,” says Con Korfiatis, a partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles International and a former chief executive officer of Qantas’s budget airline, Jetstar Asia. “They’re holding out for a higher yield,” he adds, referring to a measure of ticket prices.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that business-class seats can cost an airline as much as $35,000 each to purchase from a manufacturer, vs. $2,300 for an economy seat. But carriers have good reason for spending so heavily on front-cabin comfort: Premium-class passengers account for almost 30 percent of airline revenue globally, according to an International Monetary Fund estimate, and that share can be much higher on some long-haul flights. For instance, business- and first-class flyers account for about 75 percent of revenue on some transcontinental routes in the U.S., consultant Michael Boyd says.

Qantas plans to offer its new seats on flights to Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Jakarta, Manila, and Shanghai. They’ll also be used on long domestic routes, such as Sydney and Melbourne to the western city of Perth.

Coach passengers on Qantas won’t be quite as lucky. Over the past two years the airline has swapped the last of its Boeing 737-400 jets for 737-800s with four extra rows. The newer planes have 30 inches of legroom in economy, 1 inch less than the 737-400s, according to travel website SeatGuru. Starting in mid-2015, Qantas will start squeezing another economy row onto the planes by shrinking the galley and toilet.

SeatGuru shows coach seats on Qantas’s international A330s have a 31-inch pitch, about half that available in business. (Pitch is a measure of the distance between the back cushion surface and the rear of the seat in front.) Economy seats are 17 inches wide, compared with 21.5 inches, according to SeatGuru. That means five economy seats fit into the space of two in business. Qantas doesn’t confirm seat sizes, a spokeswoman says.

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