After a long, golden sunset of being installed on fewer and fewer aircraft, the retirement of older aircraft caused by the Covid-19 pandemic means that when air travel resumes, international first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
Its replacement is a new generation of superbusiness minisuites, more spacious than regular business class, and with a privacy door to create your own space, but without the over-the-top luxury of first class.
Fewer $600 bottles of Champagne, but tickets at business class prices.
So what is superbusiness? At its core it’s a top-notch business class seat that goes fully flat like a bed, without any neighbors to climb over, with an improved business class service and, most crucially, with closing privacy doors that give you a minisuite experience.
“The rapid design evolution of the minisuite shows just how serious airlines are about delivering a better sleep with enhanced privacy, better work spaces and more stowage,” explains Daniel Baron, managing director of Lift Aero Design, a Tokyo-based studio that works with airlines and seatmakers to create cabins.
Baron highlights that these superbusiness minisuites “matter to an airline because a tangible raising of the bar is typically associated with increased revenue, loyalty or both. Even if competitors react by taking the plunge for a similar product, the market disrupter might have around two years of competitive advantage due to lead time for development and installation.”
Indeed, the unparalleled and unprecedented luxury of privacy in the air, of being able to shut yourself off from the rest of the cabin and the rest of the world, while enjoying a glass of Dom Pérignon or Krug Champagne, arrived in first class only back in 2007.
That was on board the first Airbus A380s from Singapore Airlines, a byword for airline luxury for years, and indeed the carrier is now on its second generation of suite aboard the refurbished A380.
Other airlines – Emirates, Etihad, Asiana, Korean Air, China Eastern, Swiss, Garuda, ANA, and more – added first class products with doors to create suites, but the idea was reserved for first class until Qatar Airways’ Qsuite arrived on the scene in 2017.
The Qsuite is unique to Qatar Airways, but a growing number of airlines offer or plan to offer superbusiness seats, from Delta to China Eastern, JetBlue to British Airways, Shanghai Airlines to Aeroflot, to the very latest, Air China.
“An aircraft seat is a complex puzzle of challenges involving engineering, ergonomics, aesthetics, weight control, cost control, supply chain management, and on and on,” says Lift’s Daniel Baron.
“A tremendous amount of time and energy goes into getting it right within the context of ever-shifting market demand. To make it all work in harmony while reducing weight without compromising durability, look gorgeous, remain affordable, be delivered on time and stay relevant, is no small feat.”
Air China has picked the latest minisuite from German seatmaker Recaro – yes, the same Recaro which makes motor racing seats. It’s called, a little unimaginatively, the CL6720, and is an update of the CL6710 seat that you might find aboard the newest planes at TAP Air Portugal or El Al.
Like a good modern business class, it reclines to a fully flat bed and there’s direct access to the aisle for every passenger thanks to the staggered seating layout. It’s got wireless charging, space for massive inflight entertainment monitors and 4K video capacity, multiple storage options and space to work, dine and play. But the really different part is the door, which slides gently backwards to cocoon you away from the cabin.
The doors aren’t full cabin height – the only seat to fully close you off from the rest of the cabin is Emirates’ latest first class suite. There, they had to install special CCTV cameras to pass safety testing, since flight attendants must be able to see passengers at all times during takeoff and landing.
But the doors in superbusiness minisuites go up to about shoulder level when you’re seated in the takeoff and landing position, and all have to be latched open for landing in case you have to make a quick getaway in an emergency.
But as you recline your seat to the armchair, Z-bed or flat position, your head sinks down below the line of the door, making it feel a lot taller than it is, without getting claustrophobic.
“In the new ‘coexisting with Covid’ age,” says Baron, “the privacy provided by a doored cocoon is bound to transition from ‘nice option if we can afford it’ to ‘minimum standard.’
“And as minisuites become increasingly luxurious, the next conundrum will be the relevance – return on investment – of a dedicated long-haul first-class product.”
That will be especially true as minisuites look and feel increasingly luxurious. Gone are the days of beige-on-tan-on-ecru-on-eggshell-on-magnolia basic plastics, as travelers seek something more unique.
Elina Kopola from London-based TrendWorks, who specializes in consumer trend and cabin experience for aviation, makes sense of what travelers want in their superbusiness minisuites.
“We have seen dramatic reductions in business travel, yet a pent-up need to travel to escape for leisure, and to see family and friends,” Kopola says.
“Consumers have ‘managed without’ during the pandemic so when we return to normal activities – as well as travel – we look for comfort, attention to detail in build quality, and take good functionality for granted.”
The opulent luxury of first class that now feels rather like a belle epoque for aviation is being replaced by a more understated desire, Kopola explains. “The excess has gone. Privacy and an ability to modify my space is paramount now.”