With business class continuing to set new benchmarks in comfort, airlines are rethinking their approach to first class – and even questioning if these primo cabins have a place in the near-future skies.
The issue is being brought into sharp focus by the increasing popularity of single-aisle aircraft – especially the Airbus A321LR and XLR – to take on many international routes previously flown by larger twin-aisle jets such as the Airbus A330 and A350 and Boeing 787.
With less real estate sitting between the wings, airlines need to make the most of every square metre – another strike against spacious first class suites nestled in their own private cabin at the front of the plane.
The solution could be an innovative approach to the very first row of business class, where the aircraft’s configuration typically leaves a little extra room between the seat and the bulkhead wall.
To date, that surplus space has simple meant that passengers in row 1 enjoy more space in which to stretch out.
But the latest trend is to proactively embrace that space by upgrading the whole row 1 experience with additional features such as a chilled mini-bar – at a price, of course.
This variation is commonly described as this ‘business plus’, but London-based Factorydesign – which has developed this bespoke front row treatment for several airlines including China Eastern – prefers to think of it as ‘First Class for Free’.
That’s free for the airline, of course, not necessarily the passenger.
First class for free
The concept “revolves around the integration of the front row seat into customised front row furniture,” Factorydesign says.
“Opening up the upper monument area creates a larger open suite without the loss of seat count in the cabin…a truly premium, enhanced offer ‘for free’.”
Instead of selling business class seats in the first row for the same price as the ones behind them, airlines can promote and sell them as something better – something special – and something with added appeal on long overseas flights.
The poster child of this ‘front row first class’ approach is JetBlue, which adopted the new Vantage Solo seat from Thompson Aero – the same one shown above in the Factorydesign concepts – for the Mint business class of its new Airbus A321LR jets now plying the trans-Atlantic skies between New York.
JetBlue then tasked Acumen Design Associates with transforming the first two seats into Mint Studios: “a unique front row first class suite… that offers extra bed width and an immersive 32” monitor.”
“We explored concepts solely focused on a larger bed, or larger table surface, but in the end it was felt that opening it up the space as much as possible, and allowing the space to be shared with a second passenger would create a truly ‘wow’ experience,” Acumen says.
JetBlue charges a US$300 premium for its two Mint Studios on top of the US$2000 price tag for the A321LR’s 22 Mint Suites, which still retain standout features such as direct aisle access and a sliding privacy door.
Additional creature comforts for Mint Studio passengers include a mirrored vanity, extra storage “and a guest seat and table to work, lounge or entertain a fellow Mint traveller,” along with pyjamas and slippers.
Factorydesign sees further opportunities for this ‘mini first class’, with one piece of concept art showing “a backlit mini-bar offering as just one example of what can be done with the space.”
There’s also the potential to apply similar thinking to the rear row of the business class cabin, such as “a dedicated parent and baby suite, or destination space such as a self-serve bar.”