New business class airline seats and other trends at the pointy end

It's arguable which airline invented business class, although Qantas claims bragging rights for introducing that now-established name in 1979.

And while some airlines are cutting back on their chi-chi first class cabins due to poor demand at the pointy end, business class is striding ahead.

New seat designs leap beyond lie-flat beds and bigger video screens as airlines vie for the wallets and purses of the well-heeled and the corporate traveller.

Here are five of the latest business class seats, from today's best designs to next year's impressive newcomers.

Virgin Australia's 'business/first'

The dogfight between Virgin Australia and Qantas escalated yet again this month when Virgin revealed an all-new business class seat to battle the Flying Kangaroo on both domestic and Australia-US routes.

It's good enough, maintains Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti, to be sold as first class, and that's a clue as to how the airline will market the new business class bench.

"I'd classify this more as business/first than business class seat" Borghetti says.

Unlike Qantas, Virgin doesn't have a first class cabin, but Borghetti expects the new seat will more than close that gap.

The 2 metre long lie-flat bed, which is up to 71cm wide with the armrests retracted, offers direct aisle access for every passenger.

Wrap a high-walled shroud around each seat for added privacy, add a 45cm video screen and it's closer to first class than almost any business class seat flying today.

Virgin Australia's new business class seat will debut on transcontinental routes between the eastern capital cities and Perth, with first flights from March 2015 and all six of the east-west Airbus A330 jets upgraded by August.

The airline's Boeing 777s which fly to Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi will get these seats between November 2015 and "early 2016", along with a revamped inflight bar.

Qantas Business Suite

The Business Suite is the third generation of Qantas business class seats designed for the airline by Marc Newson, and it's evolved several degrees from the initial illustrations shown here.

Walking around the new seat, secreted away in a locked room inside Qantas' Sydney HQ,  I'm struck by the attention to detail. And this is just a mock-up, one of dozens created as the seat makes its way from concept to cabin.

It's been refined by dozens of trial runs, including sleepovers, by frequent flyers and Qantas execs.

There's a clear emphasis on providing plenty of storage space for all the knick-knacks toted by a modern traveller.

That lack of space is a shortcoming of many current business class seats, including Qantas' own efforts.

Today's business traveller brings on board "everything from their reading glasses to an iPad or books, a laptop, their own amenity kit" reflects Kylie Morris, Qantas' Head of Customer Experience.

"So we've really had to think around what devices customers are travelling with, and how we provide the right stowage locations."

Morris wants Business Suite passengers to be able to stow their carry-on items "into a space right next to them where they can leave them for the entire journey but also make sure they're readily available, right at their fingertips, even during take off and landing."

The Business Suite will first be seen on Australian transcon flights from December this year, with flights to Asia following in January 2015.

Etihad Airways Business Studio

The lush three-room Residence and first class Apartments of Etihad Aways' new Airbus A380 are jaw-dropping show-stoppers but most business travellers will be plonking their bags and bums into the airline's new Business Studio seats.

It's less of an 'office in the sky' than the name might suggest.

The focus of the Business Studio is on a single space designed for multiple roles: working, relaxing, eating and sleeping.

This applies to all business class seats, of course, but London-based Acumen Design Associates amped up fittings such as an extra-wide and deep table for dining and working.

A relatively high 1.2 metre enclosure plus sliding panels between the seat and the aisle give the Business Studio a degree of suite-like privacy.

Travellers can also adjourn to a lounge, which is fast become a 'second space' for business class passengers on the superjumbo.

However, while Gulf neighbour and flashy competitor Emirates outfitted its A380s with a full-service cocktail bar, Etihad's elegant Lobby lounge is intended to offer the social aspects of a bar without looking like a bar.

It includes a semi-circular leather sofa, a marquetry table and a screen on which passengers can watch live TV channels.

"If our A380 is a boutique hotel, then this is where you can hang out, socialise, or just get away from your seat" explains Fiona Morrisson, Etihad's vice-president of guest experience.

Etihad also plans to use this social space for special events such as high tea.

Etihad's Airbus A380 will begin daily Sydney-Abu Dhabi flights from June 2015, following its launch on the Abu Dhabi-London route in December.

Singapore Airlines Next Generation Business Class

Any airline will agree that having a great business class is about more than just the seat.

For Singapore Airlines, its 'Next Generation Business Class' aims to make each airborne journey a vital part of the whole travel experience.

The space is intended as a 'personal sanctuary' that's less like a seat than a cabin on a private jet – if you were generously sharing your ride with hundreds of other travellers.

It's no accident that these seats were created by James Park, Managing Director at London's award-winning JPA Design studio, who got his own start working on luxury railway carriages for the Orient Express.

There's a warmth in the colours, finishes and rich detailing which is typically seen only in first class suites.

But the seat also acts as a stage for Singapore Airlines' highly-regarded inflight service, which in turn plays up the private jet philosophy.

The meal table can be extended by cabin crew – those famous Singapore Girls – without them having to reach over you.

Converting the extra-wide seat into a lie-flat bed is also a task performed by the crew, who flip over the back of the seat to reveal a  fabric-covered mattress which is dressed with bedding and a pillow.

It's all deliberately done to showcase the Singapore Girl and increase her chances to act as the airline's elegant friendly face.

Singapore Airlines is already flying its next-gen seats between Singapore and London, with an Australia-Singapore Boeing 777 service tipped to have the seats later this year.

British Airways Club World concept

One of the most radical rethinkings of business class comes from British Airways, with an approach so new that it's still in the concept stages.

BA's 'sky sofa' concept swaps the conventional seat for an elongated curved lounge, with several cushions to help the traveller get comfy.

This does away with costly and complex seat reclining mechanisms which add fuel-guzzling weight to a plane.

The idea is that passengers will sit, slouch, sprawl or even sleep on the skyborne sofa just as they'd do on their favourite lounge at home.

A fold-up section bridges the gap between the sofa and the ottoman footrest to create a flat bed.

British Airways has applied for a patent on the design, but has not yet revealed any plans to develop it into an actual seat.

Take a look at all the seats and cabins featured in this story in the gallery above.

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