A Short History of First Class Plane Seats
How the pointy end evolved from super-sized recliners to comfy beds & flying state rooms
There are many reasons you might enjoy a flight in first class. A big bed, a comfy seat, a good meal and the chance to sit back and watch the clouds go by. For many people the attentive service is appreciated – first class certainly has the best crews. And according to investment banker Alex Masterley the best crus (wines – geddit - see article!) too.
If like me you have been following Alex’s adventures in The Daily Telegraph for some years, you will know that he has enjoyed high-fare flying for a long time. In this article I explain how first class seats have evolved over the years. We will see what Alex and travellers like him experienced in his youth of the 80s, through the dotcom boom of the noughties and into the 2020s.
This is the first of two articles about first class. There is a common view in the airline industry that people no longer buy first class tickets because business class these days with it’s flat beds and suite-style seating is so good. I disagree and in next week’s article will offer a prescription to revitalise the front cabin.
First class seats in the jet age have always been big & comfy
Back in the 1980s and the decades before there were typically two cabins on flights longer than four or five hours – first class and economy. First on 747s looked something like this:
You get a good view of this cabin in the film “Frost/Nixon” (at 18:40 to 22:00).
Don Draper can be seen flying even earlier but not so different first class seats from New York to Los Angeles in Mad Men, a hit TV series set in the 1960s.
London-based British Airways (BA) updated their seats some time in the 1980s but changes were largely cosmetic – the ‘red’ cabin became the ‘blue’ cabin.
First class travel in those days was essentially a nice big easy chair. Some airlines would have put more effort into the trim and finish than others, but like today I doubt these seats stayed in pristine condition for long. Even glamorous Emirates was operating simple reclining seats like this in first into the 2000s, although note the ‘hood’ which gives a little privacy.
Flat beds arrived in the mid-90s
The big innovation came in 1995 when BA introduced the world’s first fully flat bed…
…which was the first time I ever saw a first class cabin. I was flying from London to Seattle on holiday with my parents in 1996 and although we did not turn left I got a good look through the curtain when boarding. With blue seats, pine-effect panelling and fresh flowers on show I thought it looked a bit like the hanging gardens of Babylon! I certainly desired to fly in it and to this day I believe that seeing this cabin was a big influence in my career choice.
Bunks were available in the early days of flight on airlines like Pan Am and TWA, the American pioneers. But seats that turned into beds were a new thing.
BA refreshed their original first class design with the help of designer Anya Hindmarsh in the 2000s. Notice how the pine-effect panelling in the first version is replaced with walnut effect and the original blue fabric becomes grey on the seat and brown on the side. I think BA were looking to remind people of driving a luxury car or perhaps even going on a yacht.
I was lucky enough to fly this seat twice, once on London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi (an almost empty flight, so I could take lots of pictures) and once on Dubai to London Heathrow.
In this picture I am wearing two badges - my “Junior Jet Club” badge which BA gave me in the 80s and my 787 “wings” which Boeing kindly gave me in the noughties.
Entertainment screens were tiny and attached to tape players! In the film Mission Impossible Tom Cruise gets his orders with one of these tapes, which of course self destructs in five seconds with a puff of smoke coming out of the player. Airbus and Boeing certification professionals would not approve!
Other airlines soon followed suit and the first generation of first class suites was born.
Clockwise starting from the top left we have Qantas 747, Singapore Airlines 747, Cathay Pacific 747, United 777, American Airlines 777 and Qatar Airways A330. If you visit Cathay Pacific’s lounges in Hong Kong or London even today you still see the influence of this design, with wood and green marble contrasting just as the wood-effect panelling and green fabric contrasts in the seat.
Each airline chose a slightly different layout. BA had 14 first seats on their 747 with ten windows and four centres. Singapore Airlines had 12, with six next to the windows, four centre pairs and two centre singles. Qantas had 14 like BA, but only eight next the windows and six centre pairs.
A nifty feature of the American Airlines product was that four seats could turn to face each other to have a meeting or a meal together. There was a picture of this floating around somewhere but it seems to have disappeared.
Emirates and Lufthansa stuck with seats next to each other, a rather crowded design…
…although this was the Emirates seat which introduced it’s “mini bar” concept, which is shown rather nicely in the picture.
Emirates went on to introduce the world’s first seats with doors in the early 2000s. I heard from a person involved with the project that the gold on these seats is real. He told me a story that Emirates check after each flight that all the gold remains once the passenger has left! He might have been exaggerating, but then again he might not…
The second generation of bed seats improved the first
When introducing their next first class products, airlines updated the trim, finish and general design of the spaces to be more suited to the 2010s. Entertainment screens became much larger although high definition was yet to arrive as in-flight tech tends to lag a few years behind what is available in the shops for certification reasons.
This generation of seats often introduced wardrobes and other storage spaces which the first designs lacked – you can see these in the images below.
A big part of these cabins was mood lighting, which lights the cabin appropriately to the time of day with orange “sunrises” to help passengers wake up and pink “sunsets” to help people sleep in the evening. You can see the blue lighting in the BA picture. Cathay Pacific cut the number of centre seats on the 747 from four to one but you can see how they retain and brown and green branding matching the lounges.
Clockwise from the top left we have Cathay Pacific 747, BA 747, United 747 and American Airlines 777.
Airlines using the A380 tried to make them a little special. Emirates installed a shower. Singapore Airlines the super jumbo’s launch customer (see article) offered suites. Qatar Airways went for an open and spacious look that celebrated the aircraft itself. British Airways bought a seat that was bigger than those it used on the 777 and 747. Entertainment screens were sometimes improved too and offered high definition. Today a screen supplier like Thales will charge $50,000 or more for a first class screen.
Clockwise starting from the top left we have Singapore Airlines suites, Qatar Airways, British Airways, Emirates shower and Qantas.
As some airlines abandon first class, others have made it better than ever
For many airlines this was as far as they took first class. Qatar Airways seems to be focused on Qsuite (see article), Cathay Pacific now only offers first on a few routes to Europe and the Americas and it is no longer possible to fly first on Cathay all the way from London to Australia. Since they retired their 747s, first is a 777-exclusive on Cathay - and with an off-brand red carpet to boot. United no longer offers first.
The latest first seats might be divided into two categories, which I call “2020 First” and “Cabin First”. Cabin First offered by Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines enjoy a high degree of privacy, their own room if you like. 2020 First offers the latest design and comfort – BA’s has doors and Lufthansa’s is more open. Air France has an interesting compromise – an open seat with curtains.
Clockwise starting from the top left we have Emirates 777, Etihad A380, Singapore Airlines A380, Air France A380, Lufthansa 747-8 and British Airways 777. Notice that the Singapore Airlines cabin is not so different to the Etihad apartment, although Etihad’s product is perhaps a little denser as the seat next door is just behind the bulkhead.
Finally, if Don Draper were flying transcon to LA today he would have quite a different experience. On single-aisle A321s with sharklets, American Airlines has fully flat beds and high privacy.
(Apart from some of the BA ones I don’t own the above images - if you do I hope you are cool with me using it to tell this story, if not please let me know and I will take it down)
There is a common view in the airline industry that people no longer buy first class tickets because business class these days with it’s flat beds and suite-style seating is so good. I disagree and in next week’s article will offer a prescription to revitalise the front cabin.
oliver AT ransonpricing DOT com