Why first and business class bars on planes are being replaced by on-board lounges

In 2020 the coolest airplane bar is actually parked at New York's JFK airport. It's been decades since American Airlines had its onboard piano clubs or Continental had Polynesian Pubs aboard; now even Emirates is pivoting away from its horseshoe-shaped bars.

Instead the new high-altitude drinking den is a best-of-all world lounge designed like a coworking space but with flight attendants who can bring you cocktails. And while it's been slowly cropping up as a trend-Etihad introduced the idea in 2014, with other airlines from Virgin Atlantic to Qantas recently embracing it - expect more airlines to follow suit with flexible and relaxed spaces setting the tone for your mile-high carousing.

Rethinking the Seat Map

Last September Virgin Atlantic introduced a new business-class-only concept called "The Loft," which offers various seating configurations in a common area minus a wall of booze bottles. Vice President of Customer Journey Daniel Kerzner says in-flight spaces resembling on-the-ground cocktail bars are out-of-date: "Customers told us they wanted multipurpose spaces akin to a living room or a corner booth at a bar rather than just high stools."

The Loft includes two booths, a small table, and a standing counter for three, with power ports all around. A 32-inch HD screen on the back wall allows passengers to sync up their Bluetooth headphones and watch a movie in tandem. From any of those areas, guests can order not just cocktails but light meals and snacks, like the airline's "Mile High" afternoon tea. As with most of the lounge spaces being designed on planes today, the seats all have safety belts, which means travellers don't have to stop socialising when turbulence hits.

Not surprisingly, this redesign benefits the airline, too. The task of preparing drink orders in galley kitchens gets spread out across the cabin crew, eliminating the need for a dedicated bartender; meanwhile, better separation between the Loft and actual plane seats keeps the party atmosphere from bleeding into the Upper Class cabin.

"We have given passengers a lot more privacy in the new Upper Class suites on the A350," says Kerzner. "But if you're travelling with someone else, the Loft provides a space where you can interact with one another."

The Privacy Paradox

That same rationale drove Qantas to install new lounges on three of its double-decker A380s, with nine more to come by the end of 2020.

Because first- and business-class cabins have basically morphed into self-enclosed pods with privacy doors and "do not disturb" signs, industrial designer David Caon aimed to create new common spaces with booths and tables on one side and a long banquette with a self-serve bar on the other.

The colour scheme has jade-toned upholstery and dark wood paneling that wouldn't look out of place in a slick Singapore speakeasy. And despite being much larger than the old onboard lounge, which was little more than a bench, splurging on the square footage didn't compromise head-count. Newer seat designs allowed Qantas to trade up 30 economy seats for 25 premium-economy and six business-class ones.

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"A more private seat is fundamental for longer flights. But passengers want more ways to spend blocks of their time, and that's what drove us to create a new multiple-use space on our airplanes," says Phil Capps, head of customer experience for Qantas. The airline's flights from Australia to the US can easily top 15 hours, which means even with two meals, a movie, and a solid eight-hour sleep, passengers might still have time to pass and want a change of scenery.

Other Adopters

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad was the industry's earliest adopter of this bar-to-lounge trend in 2014. Aboard its A380s passengers can camp out in "The Lobby" for meals, drinks, and self-serve snacks while getting work done around a decorative, six-seat table.

Similarly, Emirates began transitioning the mostly-standing-room-only bars on its A380s to a more understated, yacht-inspired design in 2017. There's still an iconic horseshoe-shaped counter, but flyers can also settle in at booths or an L-shaped sofa and watch live TV on a 55-inch LCD screen. The reimagined space can be found on 16 of the fleet's jets, with eight more to be delivered by the end of 2021.

Of course, if it's a bar you seek, you can still enjoy cocktails and conversation in all these spaces. But now you should also be able to get a little work done, too, if that's your flight plan.

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See also: Qantas' first redesigned A380 superjumbo takes off

See also: Flight test: This superjumbo has its own lobby bar and lounge on board

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