Where and when did the trend start?
The flat bed in long-haul and first-class business cabins is now taken for granted. Most airlines have offered it for some time. Layout and quality differ, of course, but the ability to lay flat (or nearly flat in some cases) is certainly now standard. This wasn’t always the case, and the current trend only really started around the year 2000.
First luxury on board
It is often cited that British Airways was the first airline to introduce a flat bed on board aircraft. This is only partially true. It was the first major airline to introduce a regular extended seat product with wide availability. There are, however, much older examples of beds and sleeping arrangements on board.
Dating back to the beginnings of aviation before World War II, flying boats are a good example of this early luxury. The Boeing 314 seaplane, for example, operated Pan American World Airways Clipper services. This had armchair-style seating in several compartments, which could be converted into beds for overnight services.
Clipper services featured many luxuries, including dining rooms and sleeping quarters. Photo: Getty Images
The Douglas DC-3 is another early example. While most airlines operated it with around 28 seats on daytime services, there was an early version with sleeper seats. The Douglas Sleeper Transport (or DST) was launched in 1935 with American Airlines. The DST’s seats were converted to 14 berths and it was used with several stops on US transcontinental services.
The DC-3 was widely used, from the start for sleeper services in the United States as well. Photo: Getty Images
The increase in passenger numbers and the shift to landplanes after the war led to changes in facilities and space on board. The concept of economy class took off and the increase in the number of passengers changed the economics of flying.
Switch to today’s cabin concept
A separate first class section soon appeared with many airlines. TWA was one of the first airlines to offer this, installing separate first and economy class cabins in 1955. This differentiation offered more space and better service, but not usually the lounges, beds and other luxuries that we saw before. Regulated air fares in the United States at that time certainly did not help the development of the class.
With larger jets and more frequent flyers, this differentiation has increased. The Boeing 747 really started to allow airlines to offer more in the 1970s. We saw the return of onboard lounge space (such as the excellent Qantas Captain Cook upper deck lounge).
Qantas Upper Deck 747 lounge. Photo: Qantas
Airlines have used the extra space for bars, restaurants, tables and even pianos. However, we still haven’t seen flat beds – passengers weren’t expecting that either!
With bigger planes and more passengers, the premium cabins have gotten better – it’s BOAC’s premier class on the 747. Photo: Getty Images
There have been some experimentations, however. On the Boeing 747, Singapore Airlines had lounge seats that could be converted into beds for nighttime use. There were also flat beds on the 1960s Soviet Tupolev Tu-114. Aeroflot configured the aircraft with first-class cabins that offered bunk beds for night flights.
British Airways and the flatbed
Although there were earlier examples, British Airways was the first major airline to introduce an extended seat (as we know it today) in a fixed cabin. He did it in first class initially. The airline had been experimenting with a new first-class product, known as the “SleeperSeat” since the 1980s. It was a standard seat, but with much more recline (not yet a true elongated product). It introduced the fully reclining seat in first class in 1995. Other airlines followed, but the products remained an exclusive first class experience.
Original British Airways first class product. Photo: Getty Images
It was once again British Airways that took the concept further, introducing stretched seats in the business class cabin in 2000, along with a new Club World-branded business class service. It was revolutionary at the time, with a new design that allowed for a larger cabin capacity while remaining economical. It did so with a stretched seat laid out 2-4-2 across the cabin in a fore/aft “yin-yang” layout.
This cabin layout remains with British Airways today, although now much outdated compared to other seats. British Airways launched the new Club Suite to replace it, but the old style will remain on some aircraft for many years.
Suite Club with British Airways today. Photo: Justin Hayward/Simple Flight
Many differences, but also similarities in commercial products
Of course, the availability of business and first class flatbeds has exploded over the past 20 years. There are few airlines now that would try to offer a wide-body long-haul business cabin without it (although there are plenty of medium-haul cabins without it, and ever-increasing flight lengths) .
British Airways seats may have really stood out 20 years ago, but it’s harder to tell the difference now. Service levels differ, but many seats feel similar. This is not surprising, since most airlines buy the same seat products from a few manufacturers. They can, however, make some minor changes and mark the seat differently.
For example, British Airways’ new Club Suite seat is Collins Aerospace’s Super Diamond seat, modified to include a suite door. Qatar Airways uses the same seat on its Airbus A350 and Boeing 787. In Asia, Hong Kong Airlines, Hainan Airlines, China Airlines and Air China also use the Super Diamond.
The BA Club Suite seat is a modified Super Diamond product. Photo: Justin Hayward/Simple Flight
The Cirrus seat is another popular product from the manufacturer Zodiac (since acquired by Safran Seats). The seat is laid out in a 1-2-1 reclined design, with some airlines using them all forward-facing and others opting for an alternating fore/aft design (known as reverse chevron). This is used by many airlines – including American Airlines for its business product on the Boeing 777 and First Class on domestic A321T service, Virgin Atlantic for the new A350 Upper Class product, Air France, Finnair and KLM.
The Cirrus Headquarters with Virgin Atlantic. Photo: Virgin Atlantic
It is surprising to think that just over 20 years ago, elongated products were relatively rare. British Airways must be credited with introducing them to the mainline service, but of course they are now extremely widespread. Feel free to discuss your favorite current seats in more detail in the comments or share your memories of past products.