Qantas says it’s 'all systems go' for the December debut of its new business class seat on domestic flights, with international flights to follow in January.
Dubbed the Business Suite, it will be fitted across the Flying Kangaroo’s entire fleet of Airbus A330 jets with the aim of helping the airline leap ahead of local and overseas competitors.
On its most popular Asian routes to Singapore and Hong Kong, Qantas will stack its Business Suite up against the highly-regarded business class of Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
In domestic skies Qantas will fly its upgraded A330s on the lucrative east-west routes as part of its dogfight with Virgin Australia.
Virgin Australia is believed to be beavering away on its own next-gen business class seat – but for now, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has boasted that the Business Suite “will be the best domestic business class anywhere in the world.”
To that end, Qantas has tapped the experience of ergonomics experts and frequent flyer alike to help refine the seat’s design while Qantas executives have spent nights sleeping in prototypes of the suite.
And, aware that the competitive clock is ticking, the airline has fast-tracked the development of the Business Suite.
“In the airline industry you’re always working with really long lead times” explains Kylie Morris, Qantas’ Head of Customer Experience, who signed off on the seat’s baseline design in early 2013.
“What we’ve tried to do with the Business Suite is to take off about six months off the design and development process.”
That included parallel design of multiple mock-ups of the seat for user testing.
“A lot more mock-ups have been developed on this program than for a normal (seat) project so we can see what it feels like from the customer’s perspective and bring forward decisions over what’s working and what we need to tweak and change” Morris tells Australian Business Traveller.
From baseline to bespoke
The foundation of the Business Suite is the Vantage XL suite (below) by Irish airline seat designer Thompson Aero Seating.
Qantas was the first airline to sign a contract for the Vantage XL but has been quickly followed by Scandinavia’s SAS (below).
However, the Business Suite is being heavily customised by Marc Newson, with Newson’s team based in Thompson’s UK workshop to further speed up the process and create what Morris promises will be “an amazing seat which looks luxurious and is incredibly functional at the same time.”
London-based ergonomists have hired “around 90 ‘pretend’ travellers to come in and sit in the seat, to test it and sleep in it” Morris says.
“We’ve also engaged a set of our frequent flyers who fly often with us domestically and up to Asia to get their feedback on the seat, and we’ve done trials with our own staff.”
“We’re testing everything from how people sit to the viewing angles of the inflight entertainment screen and even the location and angle of the reading light, to make sure that your shoulder doesn’t cast a shadow when you want to read a book” Morris reveals.
The location of the controller for the suite’s 16 inch video screen is also getting close attention, and not just to ensure it’s within easy reach.
“When you’re flying at night and the cabin is dark, sometimes the lights on the controller get in the corner of your eye, so we’ve thought about how to conceal that to keep a dark environment.”
Also high on the list is plenty of personal storage space, which is too often a shortcoming of current business class seats.
Today’s business traveller brings on board “everything from their reading glasses to an iPad or books, a laptop, their own amenity kit” Morris reasons, “and people want everything to be at their fingertips from the minute they step on the plane”
“So we’ve really had to think around what devices customers are travelling with, and how we provide the right stowage locations.”
Morris wants Business Suite passengers to be able to stow their carry-on items “into a space right next to them where they can leave them for the entire journey but also make sure they’re readily available, right at their fingertips, even during take off and landing.”
But for all its features, a business class seat has to be comfortable too, so tests of the Business Suite have involved travellers of all shapes and sizes, and “people that sleep on their back and on their side” Morris says.
“We’re looking at the contouring of the cushion foam, and whether people want it softer or harder. It’s like picking out a mattress for sleeping on at home,” Morris laughs.
Countdown to launch
With less than 20 weeks until the first Business Suite takes flight, Morris says the job is about “continuing to refine and refine until we get perfect comfort and experience levels.”
The Business Suite is now entering the home stretch for certification by aviation safety authorities.
“There’s a lot of testing happening right now, we have to put dummies in the seats and make sure the seat will meet safety requirements.”
“We’re reeling in the regulatory stages right now,” add Morris, who may still spend a final night sleeping in the Business Suite before its December launch.
“We’re on point to deliver this, so I want to be able to look our customers in the eye and say that we’ve done everything to make this seat as comfortable and amazing as possible.”
For more details, read: Up close with the Qantas Business Suite
Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT