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We are all very used to three or four different cabins on commercial flights today. With this, we have certain expectations of business class. On long-haul flights at least, it is usual to have a well-differentiated cabin and a flat bed seat. This was not always the case though. Cabins have changed a great deal over the past decades – but the flat bed only became standard in 2000.

The earliest aircraft cabins

It is useful to start with a reminder of how travel comfort and classes have evolved. In the earliest days of aviation, there was very little differentiation between passengers. Aircraft cabins were small, and travel was very expensive. Passenger travel, of course, grew alongside cargo and mail carriage.

As demand for flying increased, and aircraft got larger, cabins became more luxurious. The one class offered gradually became better – space was increased, and food and drink services were introduced. This perhaps reached its peak with the era of the flying boats before the Second World War. Aircraft such as the Short Empire and Catalina (used by Qantas and Imperial Airways) and the Boeing 314 or Clipper flying boats (used by Pan Am) changed the long-haul flying experience. Spacious cabins offered seats and convertible beds, lounges, and even restaurants.

Differentiating cabins in the jet age

Aviation changed a lot after the Second World War. The development of more airports and runways helped expansion, and it was not long before the jet engine made its way into common use. The jet age from the 1950s and 1960s brought significant changes and the start of the cabins we know today.

Separate economy and first-class cabins were popular from the outset. It was during the 1970s that we started to see the third “business class” cabin being introduced. Rising passenger numbers meant there was a new opportunity to offer something better than the increasingly cramped economy cabin.

With many airlines, this started as a separate section of the main cabin. This offered more privacy, better service and perhaps a bit more room, but with the same seats. Examples from the 1970s include Delta’s Medallion service and British Airways’ Executive cabin.

Introducing a separate cabin

By the end of the 1970s, this concept of a new cabin with the main cabin had been extended to improve seating. This really marks the start of a truly differentiated third cabin. Qantas and British Airways were likely the first to do this, with larger seats and better service in a separate cabins.

British Airways called this “Super Club,” with regular service starting from 1981. US airlines soon followed, with Pan Am and TWA both starting a third cabin of service in the early 1980s. The deregulation of airfares in the US at this time certainly helped this. Before, airlines were strictly controlled in the pricing they could offer. Relaxing this allowed them freedom to develop new services and pricing structures.


Taking business class further – the flat bed

These early cabins offered better seating and service. British Airway Super Club, for example, was arranged 2-2-2 on the Boeing 747 with larger partly reclining seats. The next defining change came with the introduction of the flat bed. British Airways led the way here, launching fully flat beds in its business class cabin in March 2000. These were spaced 2-4-2 across the cabin, in an innovative forwards-backwards arrangement that still remains common with the airline.

This was not the first time beds had been seen on aircraft – they were common on the flying boats and even US transcontinental DC-3 services. However, this was the start of a mass fixed seat product in a commercial cabin. The concept took off with passengers, and the next years saw many airlines launching similar flat bed products, with a range of designs.

Business class today

Business class has continued to improve, with almost all major airlines now offering a flat bed (or close to it) on long haul flights. It has gone even further than this, with many now moving to all aisle access layouts, and suite style seating with privacy doors. British Airways, for example, has started replacing its 2-4-2 traditional business class, with a new 1-2-1 arranged suite product.

Qatar Airways perhaps leads the way these days with its excellent QSuite product. This offers spacious suite style seats that can be combined in groups of two or four.

Business class has improved so much that it is now rivalling first class. Premium economy is now common with many airlines too, further pushing innovation and improvements to set business class apart.

The top-end first-class cabin is disappearing (or at least diminishing) with many airlines, and the better offerings in business class is part of this. With such good business class offerings, it is hard to offer much more in first class.

First class will likely remain as a premium option with some airlines, where they see a need for privacy and top end service from certain passenger groups, but will be economically less important than in the past. Qatar Airways is a good example of this. The airline has said it sees the need for a small first class cabin on its upcoming new Boeing 777X aircraft to cater to premium passengers on specific key routes. It will be much less prevalent though than the extensive cabins previously offered on its A380 aircraft.

Final Thoughts

Airline cabin offerings have changed many times over the past decades. The business class cabin changed flying from the 1980s onwards with better seating and service evolving. It is now changing again, sharing the top end role that first class used to have with many airlines.


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