Chic to chic: airlines evolve from inflight bars to lounges

Airlines and their designers are swapping stand-up bars for more relaxed social spaces.

By Bloomberg Pursuits , February 27 2020
Chic to chic: airlines evolve from inflight bars to lounges

In 2020 the coolest airplane bar is actually parked at New York’s JFK airport. It’s been decades since American Airlines had its onboard piano clubs or Continental had Polynesian Pubs aboard; now even Emirates is pivoting away from its horseshoe-shaped bars.

Instead the new high-altitude drinking den is a best-of-all worlds lounge designed like a coworking space but with flight attendants who can bring you cocktails.

And while it’s been slowly cropping up as a trend – Etihad introduced the idea in 2014, with other airlines from Virgin Atlantic to Qantas recently embracing it – expect more airlines to follow suit with flexible and relaxed spaces setting the tone for your mile-high carousing. 

Rethinking the seat map

Last September Virgin Atlantic introduced a new business-class-only concept called “The Loft,” which offers various seating configurations in a common area minus a wall of booze bottles.

The Loft lounge, on Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A350 Upper Class.
The Loft lounge, on Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A350 Upper Class.

Vice President of Customer Journey Daniel Kerzner says in-flight spaces resembling on-the-ground cocktail bars are out-of-date: “Customers told us they wanted multipurpose spaces akin to a living room or a corner booth at a bar rather than just high stools.” 

The Loft lounge, on Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A350 Upper Class.
The Loft lounge, on Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A350 Upper Class.

The Loft includes two booths, a small table, and a standing counter for three, with power ports all around. A 32-inch HD screen on the back wall allows passengers to sync up their Bluetooth headphones and watch a movie in tandem.

From any of those areas, guests can order not just cocktails but light meals and snacks, like the airline’s “Mile High” afternoon tea. As with most of the lounge spaces being designed on planes today, the seats all have safety belts, which means travelers don’t have to stop socializing when turbulence hits.

The Loft lounge, on Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A350 Upper Class.
The Loft lounge, on Virgin Atlantic's Airbus A350 Upper Class.

Not surprisingly, this redesign benefits the airline, too. The task of preparing drink orders in galley kitchens gets spread out across the cabin crew, eliminating the need for a dedicated bartender; meanwhile, better separation between the Loft and actual plane seats keeps the party atmosphere from bleeding into the Upper Class cabin.

“We have given passengers a lot more privacy in the new Upper Class suites on the A350,” says Kerzner. “But if you’re traveling with someone else, the Loft provides a space where you can interact with one another.”

The privacy paradox

That same rationale drove Qantas to install new lounges on three of its double-decker A380s, with nine more to come end of 2020.

Because first- and business-class cabins have basically morphed into self-enclosed pods with privacy doors and “do not disturb” signs, industrial designer David Caon aimed to create new common spaces with booths and tables on one side and a long banquette with a self-serve bar on the other.

The new-look lounge design of the Qantas Airbus A380.
The new-look lounge design of the Qantas Airbus A380.

The color scheme has jade-toned upholstery and dark wood paneling that wouldn’t look out of place in a slick Singapore speakeasy.

And despite being much larger than the old onboard lounge, which was little more than a bench, splurging on the square footage didn’t compromise head-count. Newer seat designs allowed Qantas to trade up 30 economy seats for 25 premium-economy and six business-class ones.

The Qantas Airbus A380's upper deck now has two business class lounges.
The Qantas Airbus A380's upper deck now has two business class lounges.

“A more private seat is fundamental for longer flights. But passengers want more ways to spend blocks of their time, and that’s what drove us to create a new multiple-use space on our airplanes,” says Phil Capps, head of customer experience for Qantas.

The airline’s flights from Australia to the U.S. can easily top 15 hours, which means even with two meals, a movie, and a solid eight-hour sleep, passengers might still have time to pass and want a change of scenery.

Other adopters

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad was the industry’s earliest adopter of this bar-to-lounge trend in 2014. Aboard its A380s passengers can camp out in “The Lobby” for meals, drinks, and self-serve snacks while getting work done around a decorative, six-seat table.

The cosy business class Lobby on board Etihad's Airbus A380.
The cosy business class Lobby on board Etihad's Airbus A380.

Similarly, Emirates began transitioning the mostly-standing-room-only bars on its A380s to a more understated, yacht-inspired design in 2017.

The second generation of Emirates' A380 business class lounge.
The second generation of Emirates' A380 business class lounge.

There’s still an iconic horseshoe-shaped counter, but flyers can also settle in at booths or an L-shaped sofa and watch live TV on a 55-inch LCD screen. The reimagined space can be found on 16 of the fleet’s jets, with eight more to be delivered by the end of 2021.

Read more: Behind the design and evolution of Emirates' Airbus A380 bar

Qatar Airways' spacious and luxurious Airbus A380 lounge serves as both a social space and a bar.
Qatar Airways' spacious and luxurious Airbus A380 lounge serves as both a social space and a bar.

Of course, if it’s a bar you seek, you can still enjoy cocktails and conversation in all these spaces. But now you should also be able to get a little work done, too, if that’s your flight plan.

Syndicated

This article was published under license from Bloomberg Media and the original article can be viewed here

Bloomberg Pursuits

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They all look great on the slick pix. Once you actually see them, they look like a cleaned up crime scene. All antiseptic and uninviting. The closest to acceptable/sociable is and was the EK bar on the A380's.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Mar 2012

Total posts 211

I like both Qatar and Emirates offerings. Haven't tried out the 'new' Qantas on board lounge yet.

13 Feb 2015

Total posts 44

As there seems to be a trend I'm guessing there's actually demand for these sorts of spaces. But do people actually use them much? I've never felt the need, but I mainly travel either on my own or with my partner. And I'v never felt the need to socialise with complete strangers simply because I'm stuck on an aeroplane with them...lol

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Oct 2012

Total posts 19

Whilst I think the new Qantas lounges look better than what they had before; what I really would have liked is a larger bathroom or change area. They are for taller or larger people like being jammed into a sardine tin. I wonder if they surveyed people? I've flown many times and never saw the need to use them or many people in there.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Mar 2018

Total posts 3

Very true that the social aspect of today's flights has diminished somewhat the pointier your seat location seems. I have tried the Qatar, Qantas (Version 1) and Emirates air lounges and have always found the QF ones empty and dull. These areas are great if you travel with friends or you are so extravert that you just love making new friends when travelling on your own and finding another extraverted non virus troubled passenger. Certainly the Emirates set up is great and I always enjoyed the fact that when flying first class the staff insists you are served the Don Perignon Vintage.

After all it is a great marketing tool and a genuine space to be different.


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