Ranking 2018’s top ten business class seats

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With the continuing decline of first class, and the increasing quality, space and luxury features in business, which airline has the best business class? That’s a question I get asked frequently, and it’s a complex one.

Any exercise that attempts to rank the best business class across airlines is bound to be fraught with subjectivity of the rankers and inconsistency of provision across airline fleets. Few carriers have the same seat fleetwide, so it makes more sense to look at the seats — and fortunately Runway Girl Network readers understand the complexities of the subject.

In terms of the list, my first criterion was that the seat actually be in service. Concepts are great, seats for 2020 may well be good, but they need to be flying now to count.

The rankings are based on hard product, though I’ve sometimes included a bit of a bonus for products where airlines have created signature items enabled by the seat’s structure or layout. As it happened, though, the soft product never tipped one seat over another in the rankings.

Notably, all the seats have direct aisle access, which is de rigeur for a top-rated business class these days. For this list, I didn’t account for the zero-sum issue, which would push the outward-facing herringbones up the list a little. I also didn’t take inflight entertainment systems into account, because most of these new seats have new systems with new HD screens — but not always with HD content.

So, onto the list.

1) Qatar Airways QSuite (Rockwell Collins)

After flying in the QSuite, and despite a few teething problems with the seat itself, Qatar Airways’ bespoke QSuite product is simply the best business class seat I’ve ever flown. It’s spacious, incredibly private, well-designed, with ample storage and top-notch entertainment screen. Extra points for a sharing plate menu that takes advantage of the large side table, and for a customised cabin mood lighting design — but the QSuite is so good it doesn’t really need the extra points.

Qatar’s Qsuite was truly impressive. Image: John Walton

2) Thompson Vantage XL+

A door makes a lot of difference when it comes to privacy, as passengers on Delta Air Lines’ suite product on the Airbus A350 are finding. It seems almost inevitable that this Thompson Aero product will make its way into the business classes of other airlines.

Doors really do make a difference to PaxEx. Image: Delta

3) Rockwell Collins Apex

Space is a crucial consideration in business class, and it’s Apex’s strength in comparison with the competition. Its simplicity — a simple stagger, along the lines of the 2006 British Airways Club World seat that the Rockwell-acquired B/E Aerospace helped create — means no constricting spaces at either foot or shoulder level, edging it above the herringbones.

Rockwell’s Apex benefits from very few restrictions in getting comfortable. Image: Japan Airlines

4) Rockwell Collins Super Diamond

Of the very similar outward-facing herringbones, Rockwell’s edges Zodiac’s on the basis of production quality, and because more Super Diamond versions than Cirrus versions have a legrest. It’s spacious, customisable, and there’s no zero-sum game to be played on this herringbone.

5) Zodiac Cirrus

The evolution of Zodiac’s Cirrus from its launch with US Airways nearly ten years ago has been astounding to watch. Cathay Pacific’s 2010 implementation is one of my favourites, but more recent versions have missed the mark: Finnair’s A350 and Air France’s 787 lack legrests and a certain je ne sais quoi around elegance.

Overall, Cathay’s Cirrus is still a very good business class seat Image: John Walton

6) United Polaris (Zodiac Optima)

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Zodiac’s Optima is a game-changer for compact staggered business class, but the care taken by United Airlines (with Acumen and PriestmanGoode) in selecting and customising the materials used in Polaris makes it truly stand out. As Optima rolls out elsewhere, look for it potentially to make a separate entry onto this list.

7) Singapore Airlines pre-2017 (Koito/Jamco)

It’s hard to know exactly where to put Singapore Airlines’ variety of business class seats on the list, especially with the transition away from the Jamco seats introduced in 2013 that replaced the Koito seats that were largely fleetwide for longhaul.

Still, whether the newer Jamco model or the older Koito flatbeds, these flip-to-sleep seats are spacious and comfortable, allowing passengers to sleep in a surprisingly large range of positions. The jury’s still out on the new product, however.

It’s getting a bit long in the tooth now, but I really loved this original Singapore Airlines fully flat bed with direct aisle access. Image: SQ

8) Air New Zealand Business Premier / Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite (Zodiac)

With its flip-to-sleep design and herringbone configuration, this is one of those love-it-or-hate-it seats, but I happen to love it, especially for the routes Air New Zealand flies: long, largely overnight longhaul flights, plus a series of hops of a few hours over the Tasman Sea to Australia. I’ve also never had a problem turning my neck and shoulders to look out the window, and indeed having your head next to the window often means a better view than having to lean over a console. However, while the seat is still great on Air New Zealand’s 777s (and Virgin’s few remaining 747s), the versions of the seat on smaller planes like the A340 and 787 are tighter.

Air New Zealand’s Business Premier cabin is a great update of Virgin’s original product. Image: John Walton

9) Zodiac SKYlounge

The remaining three staggered seats in the top ten are largely tied, but SKYlounge edges out the competition thanks to the fact that both Emirates and ANA have a consistently comfortable version of the product, with particularly good storage options and, on Emirates’ part, a minibar and touchscreen remote.

The styling could use a rethink — something for the airline as it takes more A380s? Image: Emirates

10=) Stelia Solstys and Thompson Vantage XL

It’s hard to put clear blue water between the two major remaining staggered seats. With an increasing range of airlines adopting the direct aisle access daughter of Thompson’s decade-old Vantage seat, it’s showing a decent amount of of flexibility even as it becomes something of the entry-level staggered seat, especially as airlines start to think about extra storage and functionality.

Stelia’s Solstys III is now flying with Air Mauritius. Image: John Walton

If more airlines had ordered and been flying the Stelia Solstys III product, this venerable grandmother of the direct aisle access staggered seat would be higher up on the list, thanks to its extra storage and options for longer beds — and the location change of the table mechanism’s “knuckle” from its knee-knocking spot on earlier models. As it is, though, the earlier then-Sogerma Solstys seats are starting to feel a bit old or the product might have edged out Vantage XL.

There you have it: the latest staggers on top, followed by the latest herringbones and the award-winning Polaris. What’s your take, readers? I’m keen to hear which seats you think are best, and why. Hit me up in the comments, or on Twitter: I’m http://twitter.com/thatjohn.

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7 Comments

  1. Dorapilot

    This list forget some points worth of considering: first, the herringbone configuration is probably the worst invention possible to guarantee passengers’ comfort. Second, most of the new gen seats are so hard and narrow even for average persons that a flight back to the good old 80’s standard would be beneficial for both pax and Airlines. Simply large, comfortable, fully reclining seats, instead of those narrow “nests” with no space where to put a magazine would be largely appreciated.

    I just give you an example. On a recent flight on a new configuration Emirates Boeing 777 (the one with Zodiac SKYlounge seats), the flight attendants offer to the passegners light mattress to allow them to sleep with a certain grade of decency.

    In the list in the article the business class on Swiss B777 is missing. The best business class product (as a whole, not just seats) I have flown in the past 5 years.

    • John Walton

      Hi Dorapilot, and thanks for your comment!

      Your points aren’t necessarily forgotten — more that I think we place priorities on different things. I happen to find the herringbone configuration (whether inward- or outward-facing) very comfortable, and more so than most staggered configurations, and I say this as someone who’s over6′ tall and built for comfort rather than speed. I also don’t find most of the new generation seats either hard or narrow — last-gen, sure, but with the development of air pockets it’s now possible to adjust comfort levels, and quite a few airlines are really thinking hard about seat foams and so on.

      I’m not sure the new Emirates 777 has SKYlounge, which is the seat on the A380, but I’m all ears if you have information that it is. I love the mattress trend (which isn’t new, but which is certainly welcome), although finding space for all the bedding is a problem, though admittedly a nice business class problem to have.

      Lastly, the Swiss 777 Vantage implementation is a good one — I’ve spoken in-depth to the designers at LX and they made some very smart decisions — but the base model is a decade old now. If narrowness is a concern for you, I’m surprised that you’re a fan of an original Vantage product, and I must admit to not being particularly amazed by Swiss’ business class overall PaxEx when I flew it a couple of years ago now. What was it about the experience that wowed you?

      • Raoul

        My ‘remedy’ on Delta is to use the Westin comforter as a mattress pad and request a spare econ comfort blanket – which are quite nice (domestic F quality), and given typical cabin temperatures, a more appropriate warmth for a person of nordic heritage.

  2. Arcanum

    Personally, I prefer the Cirrus over the Super Diamond because the tray table is stored to the side rather than under the screen. When stored, the table on the Super Diamond reduces the height of the footwell just enough to irritate my feet, at least on Air Canada and Qatar versions I’ve flown.

    As for business class on Swiss, I’m in complete agreement with John. It’s fine but nothing special. The seat is tight but tolerable, the cabin is bland but not ugly, and the food is mediocre but edible. All in all, I would say the product is “functional”. Compare that to Austrian, which has the same basic seat but much livelier decor and arguably the best business class dining in the sky. In general, I find that airlines where J is the top cabin offer a better experience than those which also have F. I suspect it has to do with the need to differentiate the products somehow to justify the additional cost of F.

    John, I’m curious about the Etihad Business Studio. Is it a derivative of one of the products on the list or something bespoke like the QSuite?

    • John Walton

      Huh, interesting, Arcanum — despite my size 13 (US) feet I’ve never had that issue with Super Diamond, including on the Qatar version. And I absolutely agree with you on the fact that airlines without a first class deliver a better business as a rule — although there are exceptions, like Qatar Airways, JAL and ANA in particular.

      For the Etihad Business Studio, Stelia makes the A380 version and Zodiac the one on the 787 — it’s a custom product that I assume has some basis on, respectively, Solstys and SKYlounge, but I’ve never managed to get either the airline or the seatmakers to confirm that.

  3. Dorapilot

    John
    I’m 1,93 m and experience a lot of pain flying the new generation narrow, hard, cramped seats. A marked regress respect to this the 1990’s business class style of wide, comfortable, simple, fully reclining seats. Considering the fares paid nowadays, for sure not cheaper than in the past, the first airline that will go back to that era – of course with a state of the art IFE – will get a lot of success.

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