The secret convention where the future of airline travel is revealed

From the outside, Hamburg Messe is no different to the concrete and glass conference centres found in every large city around the world.

But each year, during the first week of April, it becomes a time machine that reveals the future of air travel and how jet-setting passengers will pass the hours.

And that's why I'm here, at the annual Aircraft Interiors Expo.

A private show

In the simplest terms, AIX is like a motor show for airlines, but with cars swapped for seats. And instead of punters poring over the shiny metal, airline executives are scoping out potential candidates for everything from spacious first class suites to ten-across economy benches.

Also in attendance: the manufacturers who'll produce those seats, and the world's leading design houses who will shape mock-ups and materials into memorable travel experiences.

Not in attendance: the public. AIX is a closed shop for industry professionals and the 'seat elite'.

My annual Hamburg pilgrimage offers a snapshot of the seatscape, and sometimes a little exec-spotting as airlines do the rounds.

Sunny side up

Qantas is here, of course, and no doubt shortlisting seat designs for its Project Sunrise jets which from 2022 will be making non-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne to London and New York, among others ultra long-range routes.

A decision on which jets those will be – the Airbus A350-1000 or Boeing 777X – is due towards the end of this year, but there's laser focus on the passenger experience of those marathon journeys.


Project Sunrise is expected to result in all-new first class suites and business class seats for Qantas, but those sitting further back won't be overlooked, promises Qantas International CEO Alison Webster.

In the hot seat

Speaking with High Flyer on the sidelines of an airline conference in mid-2018, Webster said Qantas had "recently put out the challenge around premium economy and economy seating in the Sunrise aircraft cabin to see what kind of a step change we can create for our customers."

At that time the airline had invited "global aircraft seat manufacturers… come up with concepts for next-generation economy and premium economy seats for these long-haul flights."

The Red Roo is one of many airlines which will use the delivery of new aircraft types such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 777X to launch also-new seats. The aim is not merely to catch up to the competition, but to leap ahead

Made to order

Often airlines will treat the catalogue as a starting point but invest heavily in customising the seat to create their own unique version.

The best example that springs to mind is the Qantas Business Suite, now flying on Qantas' Airbus A330 and Boeing 787s as well as Airbus A380s from mid-year.

Qantas is one of many airline to choose the Vantage XL business class seat developed by Northern Ireland's Thompson Aero Seating and London's Factorydesign – but Qantas' effort, shaped first by Marc Newson and then refined by David Caon, is more considered and more polished than any other Vantage XL derivative I've flown in.

The VIP area

Yet the are even more impressive seats tucked away out of sight, behind closed doors and watchful security staff, with an appointment-only schedule reserved for airline VIPs.

This is where the next next-generation seats and suites are taking shape, MoUs are being inked and deals are being done

Sometimes it's where the seatmakers and designers are seeking a prestigious launch customer before officially revealing their prized new pew.

Some of these seats are still being developed, ahead of a show-stopping debut at AIX 2020.

Still more are concepts – increasingly experienced by airline execs strapping on VR headsets – which will steadily evolve over the next few years to take centre stage at Hamburg in 2021.

This is how far ahead the airline industry works, and the secrecy under which airlines labour to hopefully delight their passengers and confound their competitors.

Privacy concerns

From what High Flyer observed as this year's AIX, when it comes to the large twin-aisle jets which ply the longest international routes, private suites with sliding doors are the new black of business class – although the result can sometimes be as much a cubicle as a cocoon.

Also on trend: 'open suites' where the angle of the seat and the design of the surrounding seat shell offer as much privacy as many passengers would want, without being cut off from the cabin and crew; and paired middle seats which convert into double beds.

On single aisle jets such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, fully-flat business class beds with direct aisle access are in the ascent.

This may seem indulgent for that 90 minute hop between Sydney and Melbourne, but across the world single-aisle jets fly many longer trips with overnight legs.

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.

Follow David Flynn on Twitter