After a lull in the launch of new onboard products, airlines are recommencing the roll-out of next-gen premium cabins and comprehensive retrofit projects

By Gary Noakes, published 21 April 2023

While the Covid-19 pandemic underlined the need for personal space and saw airlines concentrate efforts on safety and cleanliness, this distraction from the normal investment cycle is now over. Although some carriers had to postpone investments, others that were financially fit took the chance when aircraft were grounded to upgrade and redesign their fleet.

“No one foresaw how long travel restrictions would be in place, but for those looking to invest, it did afford them a window of opportunity to implement upgrades,” says Florian Mueller, FCM Consulting’s air practice lead. “These can’t be done overnight, with things like new seat design, production, and installation a years-long process.”

US-based Chris Sabby, CWT Solutions Group director, points out that most investments in new cabins coincide with new aircraft deliveries. “This was stalled during the pandemic as many aircraft were parked until they were needed again,” he says. “The timing wasn’t good to invest in new seat designs when many airlines were even blocking areas on planes for general seating. It’s safe to say the focus on improvements is back, it just varies in the approach by different airlines.”

He picks out Delta Air Lines’ free onboard wifi launched this year as a key innovation for business travellers, as well as United Airlines’ investment in new aircraft – in December the airline ordered 100 Boeing 787s and expects to take delivery of 700 new narrow and wide body aircraft by 2032. 

"The level of investment and how it’s focused is key to watch with each airline"

“It’s important to remember airlines have also made significant investments in the airport experience during the past three years,” Sabby adds. “For example, Delta has new airport facilities in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and New York JFK and La Guardia.

“The level of investment and how it’s focused is key to watch with each airline, but in the end the overall travel experience continues to improve – a good thing for everyone.”

Growing investment confidence among airlines has coincided with the need in some cases for carriers to align business cabins with their competitors or and/or joint venture partners.

It has been a long time coming, but three of the European giants, Lufthansa, Air France and KLM, are at last introducing new business cabins – almost all featuring sliding doors – and, except for the Dutch carrier, restating their faith in first class even at a time when some believe the gap between business and first is narrowing.

“With the newest aircraft, business class cabins and seats have reached a point in terms of quality where there’s little to improve upon – and while this is great for passenger experience, it comes with likely reductions in long-haul first class capacity,” says FCM’s Mueller.

Lufthansa will bring the first aircraft with its long-awaited new premium products into service later this year, with new first class suites appearing onboard from 2024. The airline had wanted to debut the product on the Boeing 777X, for which it is the launch customer, but this is delayed until 2025 and the cabins will now be fitted to Airbus A350 and Boeing 787s. The airline is pressing ahead after a better financial year than had originally been forecast in 2022.

“The whole focus is on privacy and offering individual products; in business class there will be seven different seat options,” says Christina Hamilton, Lufthansa Group key account manager, UK.

Lufthansa's new Allegris business seat (pictured) boasts a personal wardrobe, heating and cooling system and minibar. Among the variations – which will be priced differently or delegated to those who are higher tier members of Lufthansa’s loyalty programme – are suites at the front offering more space, extra-long beds and a double suite. Sister airline Swiss will also feature the Allegris product from 2025.

In first class, Lufthansa’s new suite (pictured) takes the sliding door to ceiling height and offers a metre-wide bed. There is also a double-bed Suite Plus for travellers with a companion.

Meanwhile, Air France unveiled its new business class in May 2022 (pictured here and at the top of the page) and it is now in use on services to New York, Dakar and Rio de Janeiro. Refurbishment of 12 Boeing 777s that have angled seats is the carrier’s priority and there will be no angled seats at all by the end of 2023.

The carrier will unveil its latest La Premiere first class suites this winter, promising the longest cabin in the skies and a seat that becomes a flatbed or sofa. Keeping faith in first class, it says the new cabin “will equip a larger number of aircraft than at present”.

KLM also has a business class refit underway. Its latest World Business Class (pictured), announced last year, offers a sliding door on refitted Boeing 777s, however the narrower 787 does not have enclosed suites and features a slightly smaller seat.

The differences illustrate the perils of buying flights with joint venture partners. In the case of Air France and KLM, partners Delta Air Lines and Virgin Atlantic have a more consistent product than their European counterparts, although Virgin is another carrier offering differential pricing and products in business class, in its case offering two Retreat Suites (pictured), a feature of which is dining space for four.

Another transatlantic joint venture, between British Airways, American Airlines, Iberia and Finnair, is edging closer towards consistency, with American Airlines revealing in September that it would follow BA in adding suites with sliding doors.

New Flagship Suite interiors will appear on Boeing 777-300ERs from late 2024, increasing the number of business class seats to 70 on these aircraft at the expense of first class, which will be ditched internationally. The seats will also be fitted to new Boeing 787-9 (pictured) and Airbus A321XLR deliveries and mean American’s business class capacity will be 45 per cent greater by 2026.

Rival carrier United Airlines is testing a redesign of its Polaris seat even though it is just coming to the end of a six-year refit of the original concept. One design is understood to be the current seat with a door fitted. United is tight-lipped, saying only that “we’re regularly reassessing and refreshing the offerings”.

Back in Europe, Iberia (pictured) debuted similar business seating to American Airlines on new Airbus A350s in December, while Finnair’s latest seat is now on the bulk of its long-haul routes, including Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. Finnair is bucking the trend, however, with no sliding door; instead, the AirLounge high-back seat has a fixed backrest. Features include full lie-flat beds with mattress, wireless charging and USB A and C ports.

In the Middle East, Etihad Airways (pictured) has adopted a business seat similar to that used by BA on new Airbus A350-1000s, labelling it Business Studio, dispensing with backward-facing seats in the previous design. It believes the new seat bridges business and first class and so has dispensed with first class on these aircraft. Unlike rival Emirates, Etihad has shied away from premium economy, instead offering an extra four inches of legroom – 35 inches – in a 45-seat Economy Space section.

Emirates, meanwhile, will upgrade 67 A380s and 53 Boeing 777s by April 2025, including fitting premium economy cabins for the first time. Business cabin refurbishment will mainly concentrate on fabrics and décor, with the current “bling” look toned down.

TMCs have particularly welcomed the increasing choice of premium economy cabins. “The rise in premium economy product has been very popular for corporate travellers, especially for those unable to fly business or first class, as they can still enjoy a level of comfort and space that enables them to be productive during flights,” says Mueller, who adds: “I expect further investments in upgrading those cabins.”