Expert guide to business class seats & cabin layouts

By John Walton, October 26 2012

It can be tricky to tell how one airline's angled lie-flat business class seat is different from a reverse herringbone fully flat bed -- and figuring out just what the angled herringbone is takes a bit of illustration.

So we at Australian Business Traveller put together a handy guide to all the styles of business class seat and cabin layouts you're likely to see.

We've focussed on the key airlines with flights to Australia, but you'll find some weird and wonderful seats out there further afield, so there's some brief mention of those where appropriate.

And this guide is, as ever, updated to keep you abreast of the very latest in business class seats -- most recently with Cathay Pacific's brand new regional business class and Japan Airlines' trendsetting new fully flat beds with direct aisle access.

We'll start closest to home...

The recliner

You'll find recliners on most domestic business class flights, as well as on longer flights on some cheaper airlines. (Air Pacific's business class to Los Angeles via Nadi, for example.)

Virgin Australia's A330 business class recliner is fine for east coast-Perth flights, but any longer than that and we want a flat bed.

Jetstar also uses premium economy-style recliners on its business class offering

While comfy enough for a short hop to Perth, recliners are definitely below par in terms of comfort and sleeping options for flights over six hours -- from Australia to Singapore or Hong Kong, say.

The angled-recliner hybrid

In September 2012, Cathay Pacific brought out a much-spruiked upgrade to its regional business class for short flights out of its Hong Kong hub.

It slides forward and raises your legs up at an angle, putting you into a Z-bed kind of position, rather than reclining backwards into the lap of the person behind.

The airline's man in charge of seating told us that Singapore and Tokyo are on the cards for these seats in January 2013. 

The angled lie-flat seat

Most medium to long distance flights in business class -- especially in the Asia-Pacific region -- have angled lie-flat seats.

Singapore Airlines' new regional business class is angled-flat, although the seat technology somewhat makes up for a lack of sleeping comfort.

There are several varieties of this seat, but they all recline to form a mainly flat surface to sleep on -- but sloping at an angle to the floor of the plane, rather than a full 180 degrees.

You'll find them in either a 2-2-2 or 2-3-2 configuration, depending on the airline.

The upsides of an angled lie-flat are that you can adjust the seat to a comfortable position for relaxing on a day flight.

But there's a significant downside they're markedly less comfortable than a fully flat bed if you prefer to sleep on your side or front. Plus, if you're wearing a suit or other smooth fabric, you're likely to slide down the bed when trying to sleep.

Lufthansa's old angled-flat business class seat is really uncomfortable for any sleeping position that isn't on your back, since the seat support falls away below the knee.

Read more about angled lie-flat seats -- and the fully flat beds often confused with them -- in our exposé of the lie-flat lie.

The forward facing fully flat bed

You'll find this self-explanatory type of flat bed on Qantas' Airbus A380 (and refurbished Boeing 747s), Virgin Australia's former V Australia Boeing 777 flights, plus a few other airlines like Garuda Indonesia or Air China in our region.

Qantas' A380 Skybed is a good business class seat, although you do have to pick your way over the aisle passenger if you're not in an aisle seat.

These come in rows, with either a 2-2-2 (most Airbus A330 or upstairs A380 configurations) or 2-3-2 (most Boeing 777 configurations) layout.

Singapore Airlines' A380 and long-haul Boeing 777-300ER flights have a variant on forward facing seats, with extra-wide seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.

These are great for direct aisle access, but some people dislike having to tuck their feet into a small cubby-hole area when in bed mode.

The staggered fully flat bed

Giving everyone access to the aisle is one of the holy grails of long-haul business class, and the staggered fully flat bed layout is one way to do it.

Ahead of each window or middle seat is a small gangway that allows those passengers to slip out into the aisle without disturbing the person in the aisle seat.

Small gangways for window passengers ahead and behind this aisle seat mean that there's no clambering to get out during the night -- a real benefit ot this layout.

The arrangement also means that you have a more private mini-suite, which feels more private. That's a real benefit for the long-haul flights where you'll see these seats -- from our region, Etihad flights to Abu Dhabi and Emirates' A380 flights to Dubai in business class.

The only real downside comes if you're in the aisle seats, which have a little less legroom. So if you're tall, head for one of the window seats instead.

Further afield, you'll also find staggered layouts in Swiss' swanky new business class and Finnair's long-haul flights.

Swiss' business class seats are a real draw, especially if you snag one of these solo seats when travelling alone.

Japan Airlines has the newest version of these beds, with an extra-spacious 2-3-2 layout for its 777-300ER planes.

Australian Business Traveller toured JAL's Tokyo workshop, and we have a full photo tour of this promising new business class.

You have the choice of an aisle seat with extra storage, or a window/middle seat with extra privacy -- but there's no "midnight vaulting" required to get over the person in the aisle.


The forwards-backwards fully flat bed

There are two variants to the forwards-backwards cabin layout: United's, where entire rows go head to head and toe to toe, and British Airways', where aisle seats face forwards and everything else faces backwards.

Downstairs on Boeing 747s, and on 777s, you'll find 2-4-2 layouts, while it drops down to a more exclusive 2-2 upstairs on a 747.

The little kink in the divider screen in BA Club World is useful, since it gives each passenger a little more elbow room.

The little kink in the divider screen in BA Club World is useful, since it gives each passenger a little more elbow room.

Slightly confused? Here's the seat map from one of BA's 747 layouts:


The upsides to the forwards-backwards arrangement is that they're fully flat beds that slide down to recline, so they're great for relaxing on a day flight and getting some sleep on a night flight.

British Airways calls this the Z-bed configuration, and it's very comfortable for a day flight like Sydney-Singapore.

However, there's a big downside: window and middle passengers need to clamber over the aisle seat's legs to get out.

BA's seats are private and have decent elbow room -- thanks to the extra space from the fact that the seats are designed so your elbows are on the other side of the divider from your neighbour's knees, so you get more space -- but some people feel they're more cramped than exclusive.

United's seats are pretty narrow, since everyone's elbows in the row are next to each other, but they do go flat.

The herringbone fully flat bed

Seats in a herringbone layout are always fully flat, facing into the cabin from three or four columns of seats, making a 1-1, 1-1-1 or 1-2-1 configuration.

Air Canada's "Executive First" business class has direct aisle access for everyone in a 1-2-1 configuration.

You'll find them on Air New Zealand, Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic, Delta's Australian flights and Cathay Pacific's old business class.

These either fold forwards so you sleep on the padded back of the seat (Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand) or recline backwards so you sleep on the seat cushions themselves.

Here's how Virgin Atlantic's herringbone seats fold down to create a bed.

Upsides are privacy, direct aisle access to everyone and a good flat bed to stretch out on, although some passengers (especially people who sleep on their back) find them less comfortable than the forward-facing seats.

Downsides include fewer options for relaxing positions on day flights, and some window fans find it annoying to have to angle their heads to look out.

The staggered herringbone fully flat bed

Having invented the regular herringbone, the staggered herringbone "Dream Suite" is Virgin Atlantic's new idea for its slightly narrower planes, which can't fit two of the regular herringbone's angled seats together in a middle pair.

Instead, the staggered herringbone sees a zig-zag sort of pattern rather than the zip-like layout of wider planes.

In terms of flexibility, it's just about as good as the regular herringbone, but Virgin have also upgraded the seats a fair bit to give extra recline and a more modern cabin.

Take a look at our full photo tour of the new Virgin Atlantic staggered herringbone cabins for more.

The reverse herringbone fully flat bed

Cathay Pacific's new business class has a different take on the herringbone: window seats face outwards towards the window (unlike its older business class, where window seats faced inwards) and centre seats face inwards towards each other.

Everyone has direct aisle access, and there's a great amount of privacy all around.

Window seats in Cathay's new business class face outwards, away from the aisle.

There isn't really a downside to this sort of seat, which is why we rate it as one of the world's best business class seats.

For more on Cathay's new business class, check out our extensive coverage of the new seats and service.

The Lufthansa "playing footsie" herringbone

Lufthansa's new fully flat business class is an improvement on its older angled lie-flat seats, but there's a reason the German airline is the only one to have chosen this kind of layout.

Each seat angles towards its neighbour -- so while there's roughly a foot of space separating the seats at head height, you'll probably end up playing footsie since there's not much of a divider at foot level.

Plus, window passengers need to clamber over the person in the aisle seat to get out, which isn't ideal.

What's new?

For more on what you might see in the future of business class seating, head on to our article on the latest airline seating innovations shortlisted for the Crystal Cabin awards this year.

And for more in-depth analysis and reviews from Australian Business Traveller:

Of course, for the very latest news for business travellers and frequent flyers, tune into @AusBT on Twitter!

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

Tom W

Tom W

27 Jul 2011

Total posts 42

Window views must be difficult in reverse herringbone.



10 Mar 2011

Total posts 531

Actually not at all... You can look forwards out the window from the normal seated position or you can lean forwards a bit to look directly out the window. Either way, it's a vast improvement on the normal herringbone where you have to strain your neck to look outside.

Tom W

Tom W

27 Jul 2011

Total posts 42

Can you please provider article 'changelogs'? Articles such as this keep appearing again in your RSS feeds but I don't know what changes have been made!



21 Apr 2011

Total posts 43

Seriously, do you just keep recycling this article in bits and pieces on a slow news day? 

John Walton

John Walton

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 673

As with all our guide articles, we update them periodically to make sure that readers who come to them outside the news cycle know that the information is up to date, and to include new information (like the new Virgin Atlantic seats we included in yesterday's update).

I realise that this one was last updated in March, which is sooner than we'd like! All complaints on that front to Virgin Atlantic for releasing an interesting new business class, please ;)



Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer - Chairmans Lounge

01 Sep 2011

Total posts 351

Totally agree, Cathay Pacific now have the best long haul business class seat in the sky. It's private, very comfortable, a single seat, well angled.



Lufthansa - Miles & More

26 Oct 2012

Total posts 10

I can actually not understand, why Lufthansa is going for this strange design. The "old" seats (which will remain in many aircrafts for several more years!) are really bad, and already now the new seat has several downsides...

There was an event in Frankfurt for the best customers of Lufthansa and many of them were not happy. But Lufthansa does not seem to care.

Compare the new SQ business class seat for short flights to the Lufthansa concept: They just carry 3-3 economy layout and block the middle seats... It is really the worst that can happen to you in business class.... Lufthansa is not a quality airline any more if you consider all this for their business class product...

John Walton

John Walton

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 673

Well, it's about capacity: you can fit more people in, so you charge them less money than airlines like Singapore.

Lufthansa is, I understand, reviewing the /\-shaped seating in favour of a //-shaped version, but I've not had that confirmed officially.

In fairness to Lufthansa, all European airlines do the Eurobusiness thing. Singapore's regional business seat is on flights that are significantly longer than Lufthansa's short flghts, owing to the relative geography and aircraft size of the two airlines' fleets.

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