Virgin Atlantic A330 business class seat. Purples and pinks cast a nice glow on the product.

The stratification of business class seats in the 2020s

Details and Design banner with text on graph paper backgroundAs the steady pace of new business class seats — and their implementation on airlines worldwide — continues to gather after aviation’s Covid shutdown, the trends are beginning to coalesce into four seat market stratifications. These are based both on the underlying product and the colour, materials and finish (CMF) that the airline (and in some cases its design partner) implement on top of it.

These stratifications are telling for a number of reasons: they indicate what markets the airline is aiming for, signal to the rest of the industry where development should go, and ultimately define what business class means for passengers around the world.

Super-custom experiences

These are some of the most impressive of business class products, and are also increasingly rare.

A few airlines have products in this category, and they invest heavily both in seat and CMF design, sometimes going as far to secure an exclusive for the product.

Whereas twenty years ago airlines like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic invested in super-custom experiences, now it’s limited to carriers like Qatar (with its Qsuites) and Singapore Airlines (with its longhaul product).

Qatar Qsuite business class seat with purple LED lighting casting on it.

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

Upgraded CMF-focussed designs 

Below the custom experiences yet still above the mainstream sit business class seats where substantial work is done on the CMF to create a bespoke feel, but the actual product itself is a standard seat.

This would include recent announcements and implementations like Qantas’ A350, Virgin Atlantic’s A330neo (and before it the A350), the latest set of American Airlines products, the Qatar Airways 787-9 business seat.

Qantas' Project Sunrise A350 business class seats are a grey seat with cream headrest and brown and grey thermoplastics.

For Project Sunrise, the customisation in business is largely CMF plus lamp. Image: Qantas

This category would also include the A330neo offering from Condor and the ‘bespoke version’ of Collins Aerospace’s Elements suite on Starlux’s A350s.

The business class CMF for Starlux features coppers and browns — but feels premium and modern.

The business class CMF for Starlux features coppers and browns — but feels premium and modern. Image: Starlux

An outlier case here would be the new Lufthansa Group FICE business class seats, revealed so far as Lufthansa Allegris and Swiss Senses. While these products are based on a previous design (Lufthansa’s product team tells RGN that they are based on the IP behind Safran’s Optima) they are different in layout (with an alternating 1-2 stagger in the centre section except on the forthcoming 747-8) and the space optimisation within the stagger does add substantial customisation to the product. The rub here is that there has clearly been strong attention to the base seat product, but seemingly less focus on the CMF (of Lufthansa’s implementation specifically).

Generic stock products

Many airlines, particularly network carriers, have eschewed both a highly customised experience and any significant CMF upgrades for a very generic, interchangeable business class.

These products don’t really stand out in any way from the competition, especially in look and feel: they could be any airline by just swapping out a logo or two within the cabin.

Example products here would include British Airways’ and Air Canada’s Collins Super Diamond, Air France’s Cirrus, and Air China’s Recaro product on the A350. These aren’t bad products, they just don’t stand out. 

British Airways' grey and cream business class seat.

BA’s latest Club Suite business class is very generic, with humdrum CMF. Image: John Walton


Catalogue low-part products

Standing out to one side of the more stock end of the spectrum are the catalogue, low-parts products that seatmakers have designed for airlines without the wherewithal to focus strongly on seat design, selection and customisation.

Key platforms here are Stelia’s Opal and Safran’s Skylounge Core, and it’s been very notable over the last few years that these seats have improved in their CMF options.

Where once the customisation choice was changing the colour of the seat covers, now there is more substantial customisation: witness the evolution of Stelia’s Opal from its Aircalin implementation to the Corsair version, or indeed the excellent Skylounge Core implementation that pushes Condor into a higher category.

Aircalin Stelia Opal business class seat in creams with beige details.

Aircalin was an early customer of Stelia’s Opal. Image: John Walton

The in-betweens

Sometimes it’s complicated to fit seats into any particular category, especially if the product is brand new and a stock version hasn’t been shown. For example, if other airlines decide to choose Collins’ AirLounge, it will be informative to see whether Finnair’s latest business class seat is a highly customised version of this product or really more of a strong CMF showing of the seat. 

Blue fabric adorns the AirLounge business class seat by Collins Aerospace.

The seatback fabric for Finnair’s AirLounge, created by John Horsfall, is simply gorgeous. Image: John Walton

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Featured image credited to John Walton