The zero-sum problem with staggered business class seating


In economy class, for the most part, it’s widely accepted that some seats within the same plane are better than others. Nobody wants a middle, for example, although window or aisle seats are not generally sold at a premium, despite efforts through the use of “preferred” or “choice” seating on the one end and the basic economy trend on the other.

On the whole, some passengers win and some passengers lose: the definition of a zero-sum game. Business class doesn’t have to be like that, and on many airlines it isn’t in the days of fully flat beds with direct aisle access. But, still, there are business class seat types where the issue is still apparent.

Let’s take two examples from this week alone. Japan Airlines released its new Sky Suite 3 outward-facing herringbone seats (incidentally succeeding the staggered B/E Aerospace Apex-based Sky Suite) on the longhaul Boeing 777-200ER aircraft it will refit, arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. Every passenger in this cabin, bar the ones who are close to a light, noise or traffic source like a galley or lavatory, receives the same amount of space, privacy and storage.

Every seat in the JAL cabin is functionally the same. Image: JAL

Every seat in the JAL cabin is functionally the same. Image: JAL

Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, started flying with its latest A330 business class, an implementation of the Thompson Vantage product akin to that on Aer Lingus, in a 1-2-1, 1-2-2 configuration. It’s not just that this seating pattern means that two passengers in every nine (so 22%) have to either climb over or be climbed over. There are implementations of Vantage XL — Qantas’, for example — that do achieve direct aisle access for all.

The problem is that some of the seats with direct aisle access are so much better than the others that savvy travellers will spend time, effort and travel anxiety trying to snag those seats.

Specifically, these are the window-window seats, as opposed to the aisle-window seats, and to a lesser extent the middle-middle seats rather than the aisle-middle seats. (In the implementations of these seats where there is a “throne”, like MAS’ A330, Swiss’ new 777-300ER or the narrowbody A321 and Boeing 757 cabins, the throne is both attractive in terms of space while seated but a negative for anyone over about 5’8” given the constraints on the footwell area.

The seats directly adjacent to the aisle themselves suffer from a significant lack of privacy and a much higher likelihood of being bumped into as passengers, crew nad trolleys make their way through the aircraft. It’s often a literal hazard — I saw a flight attendant go flying as she tripped over a passenger’s foot sticking out from the aisle-window seat in front of me on Qantas’ new product.


JAL’s herringbone replaces its staggered Sky Suite 1. Image – JAL

This zero-sum problem may just be a fact of life with staggered seating patterns, which remain popular in some implementations for density reasons, even as JAL swapped out its B/E Apex staggered product for a herringbone. The question is, in the age of more mobile, social and vocal passengers, for just how long will business travellers be content to have to work to get a seat where they can sleep undisturbed — or will they select an airline that doesn’t play the zero-sum game?

When Virgin Atlantic introduced the business class herringbone in 2003

When Virgin Atlantic introduced the business class herringbone in 2003


  1. Curious

    How do you define “window-window” and “middle-middle” here?

    “Specifically, these are the window-window seats, as opposed to the aisle-window seats, and to a lesser extent the middle-middle seats rather than the aisle-middle seats. “

    • DKM

      Take a look at the picture at the top of the article: the first window seat on the far right has the side table/storage area on the left near the window, that is a aisle-window seat, meaning a window seat but you are sitting closer to the aisle. The window seat behind it is a window-window seat.

      For the middle pair of seats, for the first row in full view in the picture, the left seat (sitting down facing forward, or in the picture, the seat that is closer to you) is a middle-middle seat because you are sitting closer to the middle and the side storage is on the aisle side.

  2. Reader

    This article would benefit so much from some seatmap sketches or schemes, showing exactly the differences between the mentioned configurations and what exactly the author wants to point out. I’ve read the full article and unfortunately didn’t get the point.
    Maybe add some illustrations?

  3. Andy E

    I fly Air NZ in their implementation of the Virgin herringbone, and although now surpassed by a few others, I have come to expect the privacy that direct aisle access provides me.

    I explicitly seek out direct aisle access when travelling now and as a result certain airlines will only get my travel dollars if I have no reasonable alternative.

  4. robert2

    I don’t think these new seats replace the 773ER SS7 sky suite product at all! These are for the 772ER refit, which JAL probably no longer uses for true longhaul. The only routes JAL named explicitly are BKK, SIN and HNL in the winter, all of which used to be strictly recliner J on both Japanese airlines. This is merely a move to catch up to the competition.

    The Japanese media, in their coverage, are pointing out that in the bed position, the footwell for the center seat pair are staggered, one on top of each other, like the PAL seats. The left seat dips and the right seat rises. Hearing this triggered an immediately eyeroll in me – my sense is that this is not on the same level as say CX or QR-style “cirrus” seats. If they’re doing 1-2-1 on a 772ER and still need to do that in the footwell, it’s for that dirty D-word – density.

    The reason seating is such a difficult game for flyers is very simple: airlines are squeezing current seat designs…almost “more than they should.” Both seat and aircraft manufacturers facilitate this behavior and they will push it as far as they can, until we stop saying it’s a “first world problem.” and until a greater force lays down the law to say “you can’t claim this or that unless you offer that much space in every seat!”

  5. Arcanum

    The difference between Malaysia and Qantas is that MH uses the Vantage while QF has the larger Vantage XL.

    @robert 2: Given that the 772s are used on regional flights, I don’t see a slightly higher density as a major issue.