How the lie-flat bed became business class' most important luxury

Today's high flyers take lie-flat beds in international business class almost for granted, but these cosy cribs above the clouds are only a relatively recent addition to the travelscape.

First class didn't even get a fully flat bed until the mid-1990s – if you watch the original Mission: Impossible movie (released in 1996 – yes, some 22 years ago) you will still see British Airways' then-first class seat, a plush old-world recliner.

However it was only a few years later, in 1999, that BA launched a business class seat which transformed into a fully flat bed, firing the starter's gun on a race by other premium airlines to upgrade their own business class seats to suit.

Sloping sleepers

Qantas followed in 2003 with the original Marc Newson-styled Skybed for its Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets, although the bed extended at angle to the floor rather than go a full 180 degrees horizontal – that didn't come until the Skybed II of the Qantas Airbus A380s in 2008.

Such 'fully lie-flat' beds quickly became the norm for long-range flights on the big twin-aisle jets such as Boeing 747, 777 and 787, and Airbus A330, A350 and A380 superjumbo.

This same trend is now starting to trickle down to the smaller single-aisle jets such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, bringing a lie-flat experience to passengers on shorter trips of around 4-6 hours.

Virgin's 'Perth product'

This could extend to domestic flights between Australia's east coast capitals and Perth, if Virgin Australia makes good on John Borghetti's blueprint for what the outgoing CEO refers to as the airline's top-secret 'Perth product'.

This would see at least some of Virgin's workhorse Boeing 737 jets fitted with a radical new business class seat which leapfrogs the conventional domestic recliner of Virgin Australia and Qantas.

US airline JetBlue has already shown the potential of lie-flat business class on US transcontinental flights, with the Mint premium cabin of its Airbus A321 jets sporting flat beds and even some first class-style 'mini suites' on flights from New York and Boston to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Seattle.

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(JetBlue has been somewhat of a disruptor in the US, with its Mint class also offering free high-speed WiFi, live TV and radio.)

Joining the lie-flat club

Other airlines are now catching onto the lie-flat trend for single-aisle jets, especially as new aircraft join their fleets.

Some of Philippine Airlines' Airbus A321neo flights between Australia and Manila offer a two-metre long flat bed in business class.

Central American airline Copa and Emirates' regional sister FlyDubai have both rolled out lie-flat seats on their new Boeing 737 MAX jets, while United Airlines and Singapore Airlines' offshoot SilkAir both plan to introduce next-generation flat beds on their Boeing 737 MAX jets from 2020.

These show all the signs of being fore-runners in another flat-out race to add flat beds to business class.

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Traveller magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of Executive Style readers.

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