Qantas could be flying the first of its Boeing 737 replacement jets by the end of 2023, in the form of either an Airbus A320neo or Boeing 737 MAX: but will that next-gen jet also serve to debut a next-gen domestic business class seat?
We'd put money on it. New jets are typically the launchpad for new seats, among other upgrades to the passenger experience.
The airline's current Boeing 737 business class seat certainly isn't one for the 2020s, let along the 2030s – and Qantas says the delivery of over 100 jets will be staggered across the long stretch from 2023 to 2034.
Meanwhile, Virgin Australia is expected to roll out a new-look premium seat in when it pulls the wrapping of the first of 25 Boeing 737 MAX 10s in the middle of 2023 – six months before Qantas' chosen Boeing 737 replacement arrives.
So there's little room for doubt that we'll be looking for – and Qantas will be looking at – an all-new business class seat to crown the pointy end of either a red-tailed 737 MAX or A320neo.
There's far less certainty on what that seat will be.
Qantas says it's not even thinking about the seat right now – its immediate focus is getting the best deal on the right mix of jets to reshape its domestic fleet.
"It's only once in a generation you go through a major fleet renewal like this," says Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce. "This is a really strategic decision for our future."
But with Qantas planning to make that Max vs Neo call by the end of 2021 – less than 12 short weeks away – and place firm orders by mid-2022, attention will soon turn to what's inside those shiny new jets, and how Qantas will shape the domestic passenger experience of the coming decades.
Rethinking domestic business class for the 2020s
There have been plenty of advances in the seat space since Qantas spec'd out the Boeing 737-800: new materials and technology, fresh manufacturing techniques, more emphasis on the actual design itself.
We're certainly hopeful that David Caon – who worked tip-to-tail on the Boeing 787 seats, as well as the Airbus A380 refresh and Qantas' latest lounges – will turn his hand to styling Qantas' new domestic fleet.
In fact, with a few modifications – and definitely more legroom – you could do worse than a revised single-aisle version of Caon's Boeing 787 premium economy seat (a bespoke development in conjunction with Thompson Aerospace).
After all, it's not uncommon for international-grade premium economy seats to be pressed into service as a domestic or regional business class seat – it's a product that ticks all the boxes for better-than-economy comfort without pushing into the realm of flatbed business class, which demands more cabin space and thus delivers fewer seats in the same footprint.
Another possible model is Cathay Pacific's Airbus A321neo business class seat, which is another 2-2 recliner rather than a lie-flat bed.
Like its CX regional business predecessor, Cathay's A321neo seat – based on the Collins Air Rest platform, with styling finessed by JPA Design – is enclosed in its own hard shell cocoon.
As the seatback reclines, the seat itself inches forward while the seat pan angles up slightly, into a sundeck-style ‘lazy Z’ position while remaining inside the envelope of the seat’s shell and dedicated passenger space, so that the passenger behind doesn't lose any of 'their' personal space.
A sliding divider panel adds some extra privacy for passengers in these paired seats.
We know what you're thinking at this point: what about a business class seat with direct aisle access and which converts to a fully-flat bed?
It sounds good, and certainly some airlines are headed in that direction, but does it make sense for the sort of short-range and mainly domestic routes which Qantas flies?
The airline's top three routes on the east coast triangle – flights darting between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – are between 90-120 minutes. Nobody needs direct aisle access or a lie-flat bed for that.
Yes, there are longer routes – from the east coast to New Zealand spans 2-4 hours, while east-west transcontinental flights can nudge five hours – but generally speaking, only flights with an overnight leg would see passengers wishing for a fully flat bed.
There's little argument that a seat with more recline and comfort, more privacy and more mod cons wouldn't hit the sweet spot' for Qantas' domestic business class, without demanding the additional seat-stealing (and thus revenue-stealing) floor space of single-aisle lie-flat beds.
We'd love to be wrong on this score, if for example Qantas opted for something like Thompson Aero's original Vantage seat, which delivers lie-flat beds in a staggered layout so that paired seats alternate with 'throne' seats for the solo flyer.
Could Qantas split an Airbus A320neo or Boeing 737 MAX order across different aircraft types to create a 'sub-fleet' with such a primo business class, dedicated to the airline's longer flights?
In theory, of course. But the airline's history is not one of creating fleets within fleets – it's about standardising on a single product across the fleet.
This maximises the flexibility of the entire fleet in shuffling aircraft around the network, including when it's necessary to briefly ground one aircraft for technical reasons (aka 'going tech') and swap in another aircraft to ensure your flight is on time.
Beyond the physical form of the seat, other creature comforts we'd expect would be more storage space so that that passengers can tuck away items such as phones, tablets, laptops, books, reading glasses and what-not, while keeping them close at hand.
Both AC and USB-C power sockets should not only be present, but immediately visible and within easy reach (not buried at the base of the seat), with Bluetooth audio streaming so that travellers can use their own headphones or earbuds while watching movies or TV shows from the inflight entertainment system.
Executive Traveller readers: what would you like to see in Qantas' next generation domestic business class seat? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.