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Concorde is a single word loaded with, but never weighed down by, glorious association. Fifty years after its first flight, and 16 years after its last, the supersonic aircraft remains an icon of design, of aviation, of engineering, of luxury travel for everybody from rock stars to royalty.
For Peter Cooke, Design Lead at British Airways, Concorde is very much about tray tables.
Specifically, the tables fitted to the bulkhead (under the display which showed the plane's airspeed and altitude) for passengers seated in the prized Row 1.
“That was my first industrial design project,” Cooke tells Executive Traveller. "We had to take the tray table off the back of the seats and put them onto the bulkhead, and make them look similar and integrated (with the other tables).”
In the decades to follow, Cooke turned his talents to BA’s business class: beginning with an evolution of the original flat-bed Club World business class, and most recently shaping the newly-launched Club Suites.
“It’s been sort of a deep dive into the airline’s business class products,” Cooke says. The then-revolutionary Club World seat – which took honours as the world’s first fully-fled business class bed – was by 2006 refined into a 2.0 product with more room and more privacy.
“We called it a ‘stretch’ because we were basically pulling the two seats apart and actually lengthening the distance between the two passengers.”
Despite subsequent refreshes that core Club World seat remained BA’s flagship business class product until March 2019, when the all-new Club Suite broke cover. But the design journey was far from a straight line.
“We've been through quite a few different iterations and configurations,” Cooke reflects, driven in part by the increasingly-competitive business class market.
“The market is moving quite quickly, so you can spend quite a long time looking at different ideas and configurations – and then all of a sudden the market has moved again, and you have to start from the baseline again."
“We were the first to put flat beds in, business class, and then everybody started doing flat beds, and then everybody's starting to introduce a bit more space or a bit more privacy, then you get the (Qatar Airways) Qsuites coming into the marketplace, and so everyone's stepping up the benchmark.”
One of Cooke’s many detours was the Club World Mk III concept, internally codenamed ‘Skylark’.
“Skylark was quite a reconfigurable concept, so it could have been stretched and changed for different aircraft types (so) we could have designed different options on that.”
But its flexibility aside, there was no escaping that Skylark represented ‘more of the same’ in a market where passengers were expecting something very different.
Then-incoming British Airways CEO Alex Cruz was quick to scrap Skylark, and “it wasn't really a hard decision” Cooke says. “He was pretty clear, pretty adamant at that particular time, on what we needed to do. And it was great to have that kind of direction.”
Cruz’ decision offered Cooke and his team a clean slate – something which Cooke agrees he relished – although he says the cornerstone remained “trying to focus on our customers and what what they were looking for.”
“The key priorities were obviously that nobody wanted to step over anyone – everybody wanted all-aisle access. Everybody wanted a gate-to-gate IFE, and privacy was becoming more important.”
With a long list of must-haves and nice-to-haves, and a desire to have the new business class seat flying sooner rather than later, Cooke found an existing design from Collins Aerospace – the Super Diamond platform – which, with some bespoke modifications headlined by a suite-style sliding door, could deliver everything that BA wanted.
Although suite doors quickly summon concerns over claustrophobia, "the fact that the seat was at an angle of 17 degrees is tailor-made for a door on that product, because it does give that kind of space around you.”
Cooke also set out to ‘soften’ the material and overall ambience.
“A lot of business class seats, like our old one, are quite plasticky, it’s a hard product. So we tried to bring softer elements into the Club Suite, like the fabrics around the back of the seat which keeps it nice and quiet.”
“It’s just attention to detail, to make it elegantly understated so that the whole package comes together – because to deliver a really great total package to the customer is what we work on.”