How BA business class went from evolution to revolution
BA design lead Peter Cooke’s journey has spanned from Concorde tray tables to Club Suites business class.
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.
Read: A sofa in the sky? Here are the business class seats that BA rejected
“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.
First Look: British Airways' Airbus A350 Club Suite business class
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.”
Also read: The little things you'll love about BA's new Club Suites business class
Hi Guest, join in the discussion on How BA business class went from evolution to revolution
10 Dec 2018
Total posts 40
Flew LHR - MAD two days ago (Tuesday 27, BA460) on an elderly 772 with the above mentioned third gen' "Skylark", eight abreast, frontwards/backwards layout. Ghastly Business layout. No personal 'bench' space to put anything on other than folding out the tray ... they don't even have 'anywhere' for their headsets and simply wedge them down the side of the seat cushion. Terribly exposed aisle (frontwards) seats and 'trip over your companions feet/legs' for the 'direct aisle access' backwards window and centre/centre pair. This one very tidy condition and everything working properly. Better than originally scheduled A320 with Economy seating with one empty seat between for pseudo Business. Ok for short Euro hop (this one two hours) but wouldn't like to pay Business for this layout for a long haul night service. Excellent light (hot) food selection for such a short sector and very pleasant and attentive Business cabin staff (5) ... (but only 20 pax in 60 odd pax cabin). Can understand why this product has been ditched as a serious long haul Business attempt.
03 May 2013
Total posts 664
Their old business class is exactly why I never flew BA; that and the 777-ghastly aircraft for ultra long haul! They got the seat right, now for the aircraft. Bring on the A350!
Etihad - Etihad Guest
21 Jul 2019
Total posts 149
Well said! Those seats are the main reason I avoid BA. I could never justify spending my hard earned wage on what is essentially a (very good) premium economy product. On my trips to Britain so far, I have flown virtually every reputable and half decent airline, except BA.
10 Dec 2018
Total posts 40
And your choice is?
06 Sep 2019
Total posts 1
I am curious about getting in and out of these seats. The entrance doesn't look particularly wide and the arm rest is also in the way. Can anyone, perhaps among the more amply padded comment on this?
I am also curious about how they accommodate people with disabilities.
23 Oct 2017
Total posts 4
Could not agree more with above comments. A couple of weeks ago flew BA from LHR to DXB in Club World on a 777. Worst business class seats I have ever experienced. Only storage at floor level, dreadful back and front seating and narrow uncomfortable lie flat bed. I kept hitting my shoulder on that entrance which didn't help my mood! To make it worse I had to pay substanially for the seats (award booking). Never again.
Changed to Emirates back to Sydney, also on a 777 and the experience was very pleasant. More room, heaps of storage and comfortable lie flat bed.
28 Mar 2018
Total posts 31
I'll also add the stupid retractable frosted partition.
FA intrudes the aisle seat space to take orders / deliver food to window seat.
When partition is up. It cuts off the window view for all except window seats.
You have to be an absolute idiot to even contemplate and approve a version 2 of a failed configuration.