(CNN) — International first class suites — the kind of double-bed-in-the-sky experiences that have been the stuff of travel dreams for decades — have been on the way out for a while now.
With the Covid-driven retirements of many older aircraft, and airlines skipping first class on newer planes in favor of better business class mini-suites, there are only a very few places left where this kind of luxury in the skies can still be found.
But something similar is turning up on a growing number of new airplanes.
Next time you board a large passenger airplane, take a look just as you pass the first row of business class seats.
You might just spot the hallmarks of a new kind of seat — front-row business-plus.
These hidden first class seats will often have a slightly upgraded and more luxurious look and feel.
That’s actually a kind of secret first class, tucked away quietly at the front of business, but with more room, more hidden features, and more luxurious touches.
Anthony Harcup, a senior director at design house Teague, explains where the space for these seats comes from.
“Business class seats get their density efficiencies by staggering or nesting passenger enclosures — often the feet of one passenger will nest under the side furniture of the passenger in front,” he says. “The front row seat is free of any forward nesting passenger.”
This space, butting up against the wall at the front of the cabin, is often lost or left empty, or has something like a magazine rack screwed onto the top of it, or a cupboard for the galley kitchen on top.
“Repurposing that space to house premium features and create more living space transforms it into prime aircraft real estate,” Harcup says.
Prime real estate
The new spaces replace traditional first-class offerings.
The space available can be more than many airlines’ first class, which means designers can get creative: adding a side sofa to allow your partner or kids to curl up with you and watch movies on the bigger inflight entertainment screen that all that wall space offers.
Other options include mini-wardrobes so that you can slip out of your suit and into your airline-offered pajamas, leaving your clothes clean and uncrumpled for when you arrive.
All of this extra space, says Harcup, “is especially important now that first class seating is fading away in lieu of more efficient business class seat products. In this sense it’s a ray of light keeping the spirit and differentiation of first class alive.”
Designers and seatmakers (here the Collins Aerospace Elements seat) can go wild with the space ahead of the first row passenger.
One example is the latest Mint Studio from jetBlue, offered on its newest longhaul-outfitted aircraft. Both Teague’s Harcup (in a previous role) and Acumen Design Associates’ senior designer Daniel Clucas were involved with this innovative new space, which combines the private doored suite with a wraparound sofa that also increases the size of the on board bed.
Here, says Clucas, “We managed to not only offer a bigger and more comfortable bed, but also a larger monitor, second seat and more workspace.”
There are many options open to airlines, seatmakers and their design partners here, and choices to make depending on what the airline wants and needs.
If it’s a business-focused airline, it could offer “meeting seating” across an enlarged “business table” with extra power sockets and charging devices.
Perhaps it could offer some added benefits in what’s known as the “soft product” space of services and perks: how about a meeting-focused tea and coffee service, for example, or brain-food snacks?
‘Beyond first class’
Hidden first class seats take advantage of the overlapping between rows of nested, staggered or herringbone-pattern seat maps.
But for a more leisure-focused carrier, that same seating could be presented as “dining à deux”, with the “business table” turning into an extended romantic mealtime space, perhaps with low lighting options, flowers and even an electronic candle.
Family-oriented airlines, meanwhile, could sell it as a table for board games, extra coloring-in space, with a fitting for a bassinet crib and a spot for Mr Fluffy the stuffed animal too, together with some kid-friendly snacks and drinks.
So how do you spot these new seats? Well, the airline might be selling them as “Business Plus” or “Business Suite,” or something a little less direct, so keep an eye out even when booking seats at the back of the bus.
When you’re on board, take a look at the front row and see if it has more space than the row behind it, especially next to the seat, or if it has extra pillows and blankets. There might even be a bit of extra privacy divider.
Check out the fabrics and hard surfaces. Does it look like that little bit of extra luxury has been added? Any extra wood-effect paneling, a different look and feel to any part of it compared with row 2?
“When it comes to the front row, passengers will want to see features that go above and beyond the rest of the business class cabin,” Acumen’s Clucas explains.
“Simply having more space to sleep, lounge or work is not enough — so in our designs we have also included things like personal closets, vanity areas, mini bars and additional mood lighting.
“The extra space combined with these additional features really pushes the seat into, and often beyond, traditional first-class offerings.”