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Airlines go flat out for comfort

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Odyssey's reclining chair with en-suite sofa could be the future of airline beds.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In-flight comfort is expected to take a leap forward in 2006, with more carriers introducing fully reclining seats and manufacturers putting the finishing touches on what is being hailed as the future of airline beds.

The advances come as many operators are beginning to weigh up the economic benefits of adding extra space in business class, a move that could trigger a major overhaul of airline seating.

"We're sure more and more carriers will go full flat and maybe they'll sacrifice first class as part of that and move to a two class airline as opposed to a three class airline, and that'll be part of the whole economics," says Phil Lewis, the managing director of seat manufacturer Contour.

Currently only three airlines have fully flat beds in business-- South Africa Airways, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Others such as Air New Zealand have introduced a fully flat seat.

In 2006 Air Canada is launching a similar product to the Air New Zealand, while United, British Airways and American Airlines are rolling out a new premium product. Emirates is also upgrading both first and business.

Most airlines upgrade their seats once ever five to 10 years, but with the price tag of $40,000 per seat on the increase, it's an expensive operation.

Says Lewis, few seats offer an improvement to industry standards that were set more than half a century ago.

"The fundamentals are the fundamentals. You go back to a seat we produced for BOAC in 1948 called the Slumberette. Okay, it had the space, it had the bed, the only thing it didn't have was the complex electronics."

Contour, however, believes it is poised to revolutionize the premium class seating sector with the unveiling of its new product, the Odyssey.

The seat, still in the concept stage, will offer passengers the choice of reclining in their seat, or sprawling flat out on an "en-suite" sofa, which combines with the seat to form a 79-inch bed.

"Flatter, wider, longer seats. I mean the bottom line, that's really what it comes down to," says Lewis.

"It's about how much living space have I got? Living space is a combination of how much length, how much width and how much privacy have I got?"

The Odyssey also features extras including ambient lighting, enhanced storage space and a pull-out 12-inch monitor that can be viewed from either the seat or the bed.

Contour says it has already received a positive response from airlines interested in the product.

CNN's Richard Quest and Shantelle Stein contributed to this story.

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