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Business class seat reviews

A review of some of the best new business class seats – and the worst – in Asian skies, from genuine flat beds to flaky posers. Who has the widest seats and the most leg room? We compare business class SIA vs CX, and look at the A380 cabin.

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by Vijay Verghese

SEE ALSO First Class Seat Survey | Business Class Seat Survey | Economy Class Seat Survey | Small Airlines Guide | Airbus vs Boeing | Frequent Flier Programs

Cathay Pacific new business class rolled out March 2011

Cathay new business class/ photo: CX

I WOKE UP WITH A START and surveyed my dark, cramped confines. Where were they taking me? I recalled rattling down noisy roads, passing through a crush of sweating humanity, having my shoes and belt unceremoniously removed along with any dangerous metal objects – like nail-clippers – with which I might pose fierce, if futile, resistance. “Release me at once, or I’ll cut my nails.” That would not be an idle boast.

And here I was, dishevelled and solitary, pondering my fate. I knew anything could happen in The Philippines where groups like Abu Sayyaf organise free, unplanned excursions for tourists, often forgetting to bring them back. Ah yes, I was on my way from Manila to Hong Kong sampling a new-fangled herringbone business class.

Something strange is happening 30,000ft aloft in the privileged, pampered world of aircraft business cabins. Where once you could swing a horse by the tail (assuming you got it past customs), now sit dejected pin-stripers, wedged into tiny cubicles, wondering where the window went. If ever I needed reminding why I keep my office open plan – without partitions – this was it.

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Airlines everywhere have rushed to adopt the new herringbone array, usually in a 1-2-1 configuration (see the widest business class seats chart in our accompanying story). The prized window seats on either side of the cabin, are now angled inwards around 45-degrees. There are three consequences of this designer fad, none benefiting the passenger. First, you’ve lost the natural light and sense of open space, always a luxury when you travel. This is why people pay a premium to move up from frazzled economy. Airline pictures look fine under studio lighting conditions but, in reality, the seat spaces are a lot darker. Second, you are hemmed in on all sides by clunky cubicles that are, at the end of the day, monstrously antisocial and not always comfortable. Forget about chatting with colleagues, your family, or pneumatic Baywatch blondes in the next seat. There is no next seat. There’s no chitchat, argle-bargle, networking or cultural exchange. Zip. There is only you, with all your splendid business cards intact, entombed, alone, left to contemplate your expensive encapsulation for the duration of the journey.

{On the new CX business class cabin service is supremely attentive but niggles remain with the seat, magazine pockets, and stowage

Third, forget the window views. That’s all passé. Undistracted by the wondrous vistas outside, you can turn your full and frank attention, as did I, on the socks on display across the aisle, each pair on its very own Ottoman footrest. I checked rigorously for holes. The three pairs I viewed – and it was a long viewing – passed muster though the argyle looked suspect. By the time we landed I felt I knew these people intimately, every naughty contour of their insoles. But what was that smell?

New business class seats on Cathay Pacific, we compare CX vs SIA

Cathay, new business seat/ photo: CX

My experiences with the first Cathay Pacific 1-2-1 herringbone configuration were less than exhilarating. The seats appeared smaller and more cramped than the old ones and were seemingly no wider than the economy class seats. There was very little bottom-wobble room on these 23.5-inch-wide seats. Every centimetre had been fully utilised. The first impression was daunting. The cubicle partitions were close in on either side – and well extended – leaving the seated passenger with tunnel vision. The windows, as in any such configuration, did not adequately illuminate your book though they would, annoyingly, reflect off your large 15-inch LCD screen, otherwise a joy.

But things have changed. The new Cathay Pacific business class seats that started rolled out in March 2011 on select A330s flying HK-Sydney and from April 2011 on select B-777ERs on HK-USA routes (European routes saw these changes in 2012), offer a robust rejoinder to the earlier negative feedback, with some generous specifications. Cathay did something rather brave for an airline often ranked among the best in the world. It listened. And it made sweeping changes to its herringbone array.

The new CX business class seat on the A330 reclines fully at 180 degrees, doubling as a flat bed. It also offers considerably more stretch space as the armrests retract and elbowroom materialises. While the seat cushion width is an unremarkable, almost worrisome, 20.2 inches, the bed extensions and retracted armrests offer a more spacious usable bed breadth of 27.6 inches. The partition runs along one side with a fair amount of elbowroom on the other. Your feet will disappear, probingly, into a sharply tapered space (under the ottoman) but once all the bits are in place, this ensemble is both private, yet somewhat social, and a huge improvement on the herringbone.

Some niggles remain. While cabin service is supremely attentive, the seat and enclosure could do with modification. The ottoman is useful for stowing your laptop or handbag but other stowage space is negligible or inaccessible. The magazine pocket at the side of the seat is wedged so tightly between seat and partition wall that you'd need the fingers and dexterity of a five-year-old to reach inside. The grey teal seat fabric is nice. There's just not enough of it. Elbow room continues to be an issue if reading a newspaper and the armrest "stub" (it can really only be called that) is inadequate. Side-wall-mounted mini-trays appear to be randomly placed and the seat alcove storage (slightly behind the seat back) is almost impossible to reach. Moreover, anything that gets dislodged on takeoff or landing will be hard to recover from behind the seat without considerable acrobatics. The headphones are excellent with brilliant sound but the recessed socket is again only for the most agile fingers. C'mon, you can do better Cathay.

Seat controls are bright and well marked while the pipe reading light is a joy once you have dealt with the fiddly hard-to-find switch on the rim. Still, there's more space to crow about. But this pales in the face of the competition. On the B-777ER the seat width is 21 inches with a full stretch bed width of a more-than-comfortable 29.5 inches. The bed length has also increased to 75 inches (up from 71 inches) on the new Cathay Pacific business class seats, big enough for Yau Ming and his basketball buddies. Well, almost…

Old business class seats, Singapore Airlines

SIA's current business class seat/ photo: SIA

Perhaps the most appealing thing about the new design is an end to the W configuration of the “anti-social” herringbone and the introduction of an M configuration that is almost the exact opposite. With the narrow “cubicles” gone there is a refreshing sense of space that is more welcoming of light and movement. The single window seats angle modestly towards the window (offering a bit of a view this time) and with swivel tables that do not LOCK you in place. The LCD screen is a touch bigger at 15.4 inches and it swivels in from the other side making it far easier for stewardesses to serve your meals. The centre two seats angle in convivially towards each other, toes almost touching, offering passengers a chance to chat with each other while a small screen can be employed to create private space and shut out an overly persistent boss. The same screen has a built-in mirror for long dreamy vanity sessions. Expect seat-back power supply, a USB and an iPod dock, enabling playback through the personal TV. There is ample storage space, with a shoe locker and a side cabinet. Also look forward to new duvets, pillows and blankets.

A useful highpoint of any Cathay Pacific flight is the brisk and chatty announcements from the captain that keep you in the loop with humour and flair unlike on several airlines where the captain is either completely unintelligible, or missing in action. Service is efficient and brisk and smiles are more forthcoming these days.

{On the new SIA product, the seat flips down (train style) and is covered with a duvet to create a wide, 78-inch-long bed for a proper stretch

Singapore Airlines has been in alluring soft focus so long it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the cabin apart from beaming smiles and those signature sarong-clad Singapore Girls. The new Singapore Airlines business class seats come in a 1-2-1 configuration on the A380 and B777-300ER aircraft. This format will be emulated on the long-haul A340-500 planes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, SIA played it safe with the layout and its seats are both wide and, reassuringly, forward facing. Your eye and body follow the take-off and landing facing forward and not at a perilous angle with the runway flashing by at one end of your peripheral vision.

There has been no stinting on space with the new SIA business class seats, which are the widest anywhere. On 9 July, 2013, SIA announced its NextGen look with the first new seats in all classes rolling out - with enhanced KrisWorld entertainment - from September 2013 on the Singapore-London route on new B777-300ER aircraft. SIA's new business class seats are an evolutionary rather than revolutionary step with the same popular forward-facing seats with additional stowage (including for the laptop), better lighting and lumbar support. Set in a semi-private "enclosure" there's 132 degrees of seat recline. With the seat flipped down (train style) and covered with a duvet, passengers enjoy a spacious, extra wide, fully flat 78-inch-long bed. Two additional lounging positions have been included on the seat button menu - "Lazy Z" and "Sundeck".

KrisWorld content flashes up on an18-inch LCD touch screen and for workaholics, the seats include sockets for USB, HDMI and in-seat power. The new KrisWorld is based on a state-of-the-art Panasonic Avionics platform. SIA is the launch customer for the next-gen eX3 system that debuts on the B777-300ERs and on the later A350s.

New SIA business class seats on B777-300ER aircraft

SIA's new business class/ photo: SIA

Current business class seats are a staggering 34 inches across. That’s more than the normal living space for an average Hong Kong family of four. You can seat two people on this chair and still leave room for more. The ensemble is solid yet yielding, with gentle curves, in a corporate gold-tan-and-charcoal colour scheme. The bright blue cushions add a flash of colour in an otherwise straightforward and regimented presentation that is nonetheless easy on the eye and offers generous DVT-banishing legroom. The absence of partitions in the SIA business class means the cabin exploits natural light and the window seats are for window viewing. Socks are off the menu. Talk with your neighbour as much as you like unless he’s donned his noise-reducing headphones. This is by a long chalk the widest business class seat around and the best way to verify it is to sit in one.

Lying down is even better. The seatback folds forward to set up half your bed as the footrest angles up at the press of a button. This is a fully flat bed with duvet and sheets, not just a reclining seat though you will have to share some headroom with the protruding backrest that creates a substantial bulge. You ’ll find in-seat power and USB ports for your iPOD or to plug in your thumb-drive – there is an Office suite preloaded in your “business panel” that includes the 15.4-inch flat LCD screen. Work, save and off you go.

SIA believes this precludes the need for laptops thus saving space, weight and fuss. Unfortunately, to really appreciate this set-up you’ll need to bring your own keyboard, so… perhaps it’s safer to have your laptop along until Singapore Airlines decides on handing out keyboards. What about the plastic roll-up variety? You can spill coffee on them too without electrocuting yourself. If you are using your laptop, there’s a 110-volt AC socket with multiple plug options – it can handle Australian, Japanese, American and European plugs. On some aircraft a 15V DC socket is on tap but this needs an adaptor. And SIA cautions, “Charging batteries is strictly prohibited.” Use the phone to call seat-to-seat at no charge. “Hello Bob, I can’t see your socks.” “Hey, look out of the window moron.”

In-flight announcements are clear and to the point though not quite as chatty as on Cathay. And, as anyone who has flown Singapore Airlines Raffles Class will know, service is welcoming with ready smiles. The crew is comfortable with English idiom which makes for a welcome change in Asia's garbled skies when you are being asked: "K4cough-ee..?" Well, I'm not a coffee drinker anyway.

THAI Airways International launched its new business class on the A340-500 doing the non-stop Bangkok-New York run in mid-2005. That service was suspended July 2008 as fuel price hikes upset the economics of this long-haul route (and indeed of this aircraft type for THAI) but the A340-500 run to Los Angeles continues. The angled 170-degree-recline flat seat – as opposed to a fully flat seat – was a market leader when first introduced but has since been overtaken by the flat beds offered by several airlines, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, South African Airways, Jet Airways, Air Canada, Air New Zealand and Etihad. An oft-heard passenger grouse is that during turbulence you tend to slip down the angled seat like a log sliding off a wheelbarrow. Our advice? Less grease in the hair and Velcro socks.

New business class seats, THAI Airways International

THAI new business class pod/ photo: TG

The new THAI Airways business class seats on the B777-200 come in a 2-2-2 configuration in a classic forward facing arrangement (see the widest business class seats chart in our accompanying story). The roomy seat pods offer lots of legroom and endlessly customisable seat positions with lumbar support, massage, and so on. They look futuristic with elegant curves and the cabin is welcoming of light.

The aisles are wide too, creating a general sense of open space, not enough alas for a wildebeest stampede but sufficient for wind milling elbows and knees. The fact that the centre armrest at the seat-join is substantially higher than the opposing armrest does make repose for the elbows difficult and newspapers will be a balancing act. Still, on these seats you can actually open a newspaper and read it without hitting the partition. The entertainment remote tucked away under the centre armrest is, unfortunately, right where your elbow tends to rest with the result you may inadvertently press buttons that send lights flashing and stewardesses scurrying.

Service is exemplary. While several airlines are "learning" how to master this disappearing art, smiles come naturally here and it makes a huge difference - the difference between high flying and high dudgeon. Crew fuss but don’t intrude. And they remember requests. My green tea arrived expeditiously and remained topped up through the flight. The captain's announcements are confident and authoritative, albeit mysterious. You will strain to pick it all up. But you know he's smiling.

{The Emirates business class seats occupy modestly angled mini-pods with a fully flat 78-inch stretch with USB port and power

The smart shell seat, is private, semi-enclosed, with very generous 60-inch seat pitch (seat anchor to seat anchor). But with all seats in full recline, as on a long flight, the window passenger will have to step across his neighbour to reach the aisle. The colour scheme is in the usual rich, purple tones that one now uniquely associates with THAI. For entertainment, watch on-demand movies on the 10.4-inch screen and there’s power for your laptop (with an adaptor). The seats are not 180-degrees flat but the THAI business class service attempts to make up for this shortfall.

It is a similar sight on Emirates. The new Emirates business class seats occupy mini-pods that enable you to lie flat on a 79-inch rest area enjoying perhaps the largest TV screen anywhere with touchscreen technology. There's good work space and the forward facing seat does not disorient passengers or limit conversation with travelling companions. You’ll also find USB ports, power for your laptop, a good size table and a back massager when you’re finally done with that presentation. Angle the seat the weay you like it or go for the fully flat bed. These wider Emirates business class seats with more leg room and stretch space are available on A380 aircraft and most B777s.

New business class seats, Jet Airways

Jet Airways, curving out/ photo: Jet

Jet Airways from India has been around since 5 May, 1993 but it is only in recent years that it has made its presence felt in the high-stakes global arena with services from India to the USA, Canada, UK, the Middle East, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Hong Kong among others. It has proved a sharp and steely competitor with top-drawer service and touches. The Jet Airways business class seats in its Premiere section are also angled in a herringbone design, aimed away from the window like Cathay’s but with fuller, rounded footrest with a firmer leather finish, wider body space and seatback. Jet Airways uses a 1-2-1 seating configuration on new B777-300 aircraft (and a roomy 1-1-1 on the Airbus A330-200, as on the India-Hong Kong sector). A key ingredient in the sense of space – real space, not imagined with smoke-and-lights artifice – is its belief in fewer seats. The A330 for example carries 220 seats, just 30 of these for business class.

The leather-clad armrests are moulded onto the partition walls so the entire 23.4-inch seat space is for your back without dropdown armrests chopping off valuable inches. The Jet Airways business class colour scheme features corporate burgundy trim, in leather, and paisley-patterned seat fabric in powder-rose complemented by new designer uniforms in deep blue and canary yellow. It all makes a firm statement.

The side panel aisle-side does not extend too far creating the sense of entombment as on Cathay Pacific. It cuts away quickly and sweeps towards the aisle, creating more get-out room and eye space, with two sets of curved shelves, one with a deep cup-hole to hold your glass in the most turbulent of skies. The extra large table swivels out enabling a passenger to leave the seat without spilling the food. Watch on-demand movies on a15.4-inch flat screen. Also on offer are an electric socket for your laptop, USB port for power, and adaptors, with BVLGARI toiletries as added allure.

While herringbone is not our favourite configuration, Jet Airways has worked it to full advantage with professional, well thought out touches. The colour, the fewer seats, and the shorter partition walls help create room and cheer. There’s even a small airbag pouch on the seatbelt. At the end of the day, it’s the little things that count. The cabin crew is engaging, smiling, friendly and quick. As a younger airline - internationally speaking - Jet Airways brings enthusiasm and energy 30,000ft aloft. English should not be a problem here even if the bobbing heads sometimes appear to be saying "No" (to the Western eye) when they actually mean "Yes".

New business class seats, Virgin Upper Class

Virgin Upper Class, open/ photo: Virgin

Things are always stylish with Virgin Atlantic and so it is with their Upper Class Suite. The Virgin business class seats are in the de rigueur herringbone configuration, but here again, as with Jet Airways, if not more so, there is a pleasing sense of space, not least because the side partition is even briefer, covering just the length of the chair. The footrest is a genuine Ottoman, spacious, solid and accommodating, with its own small “seatback” for a visiting guest and that much-needed in-flight chinwag. The 22-inch-wide seats with lumbar support are in burgundy leather, well padded, comfortable, and solid. 

When converted to a fully flat bed, the stretch room is a Neanderthal 79.5 inches, or six-and-a-half feet with the shoulder width at a roomy 33 inches across. The simple uncluttered colour scheme – with mood lighting – is bright, airy and easy on the eye. On some long-haul flights you may even encounter a “snooze zone” with dimmed lights and extra-quiet service. Or stay awake and socialise. Yes, socialise. Talk – that thing you do with the mouth – to fellow passengers and swap frequent-flier tall tales at the bar. Enjoy a vast selection of movies and games on your 10.4-inch LCD screen or plug your laptop into an electric socket and get working. Later, get some wind in your hair with a “Limobike” transfer at Heathrow or Gatwick, or simply sit back and enjoy a more sedate chauffeur-driven car transfer to and from airport. Of course you’ll need to be ticketed on an adult J or D booking class. And with enough of those miles, you could be one of Branson’s first passengers in space.

Not to be outdone, British Airways that bastion of wholesome British goodness (and occasional mischief at Terminal Five) has created its seats in a seductive 69 position, paired head-to-toe in groupings of two. The new British Airways business class seats in Club World come in deep corporate blue to match the best Armani blazer with seats configured 2-4-2 all forward (or backward) facing on B777s and B747s, with 2-2-2 on the B747 upper deck. The seat pitch – read bed length – is 73 inches, more than adequate for a tall man, and it is 180-degrees flat.

The newish Club World seat is touted as 15 percent wider than the old offering with a slew of whiz features like “memory foam” pillows that hold their shape even if your head does not after the tenth Guinness, and a softer mattress. The 2-4-2 is a tight arrangement though the soft pastel colours of the moulded partitions and bright lighting offset some of the squeeze.  Curiously, while BA has artfully crammed in more seats abreast, the forward-facing arrangement, and more space between seat rows, gives the impression of being fairly open and well-lit. The window seat will be particularly snug if you’re a hearty beef eater, all the more so as the “wall” runs full length on either side of you. The narrow strait around your legs and waist opens up near the upper body. Of course you get to watch the world outside.

New business class seats, British Airways

British Airways business, tight/ photo: BA

The aisle seats are certainly preferable for the claustrophobic. These are easy to get in and out of. Best of all, there is no aisle-side partition. Each pair of seats is separated by a screen that can be raised or lowered at the push of a button. And the centre two seats in the 2-4-2 are twins. Both face the same way, forward. Chat as much as you like. Still, there are issues with stepping over feet to get to the aisle for some. A very useful feature on BA is the bedside drawer for your laptop and loose items. It is thoughtful, simple, sensible and reassuringly British. And for work or a quick unwind you have power supply, a 10.4-inch LCD touchscreen and phone.

Press a button and the seat will whirr into a NASA-recommended “Z” position with the knees slightly drawn up. If it’s good enough for outer space, it’s good enough for you. For those who have not sampled the new British Airways Club World or wish to re-familiarise themselves with the seat and facilities, the airline has a surprisingly engaging and informative Flash video presentation at www.newclubworld.com. Lastly, if you’re peckish, the Club Kitchen is well stocked with fruit, juice and muffins.

Malaysia Airlines has plenty of stretch room in its business class seats on A380s and has been steadily refitting its B747 and B777 fleet. The new Malaysia Airlines business class seats are more roomy and flatter, with several variations in position and lumbar support. Set up a 10-minute back massage at the press of a button. Enjoy movies on a 10.4-inch LCD touch screen or ask for the portable media player that is available on some routes. There is in-seat power for your laptop and a satellite phone if you're in the mood to spend. Business class seats on MAS are forward facing. Inflight service and food is generally of a high standard and smiles are not in short supply.

No this-and-that distractions for me though. Cruising through stunning Asian skies, with dimpled islands dropping away below, I was fortunate enough to have a window seat. So I gazed at my neighbour’s feet. Hallelujah! It’s herringbone.

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