Aboard many airlines, a full international first class seat and service are going the way of the fabulous old Boeing 747 or enormously spacious Airbus A380—into our fondly rose-tinted memories. As airplanes evolve, premium cabins are becoming scarcer. However, airlines are now focusing on enhancing business class seats to provide passengers with the same level of comfort as first class seats from decades past, but without wasting too much cabin footprint. Rather than investing in costly first class cabins, airlines are instead offering business-plus seats that provide the same luxury, privacy and wow factor as the best remaining first class seats.
First Class for Free?
Northern Irish seat maker Thompson was one of the first to develop this front-row business-plus seating with an option for its Vantage XL seat. It’s a large and popular fully flat bed with direct aisle access arranged in a staggered layout on Qantas and other airlines, used in its doored version by Delta as its Delta One suite—and now, as Virgin Atlantic’s A330neo Upper Class and featuring the Retreat Suite as its front-row business-plus offering.
Thompson calls this its “first class for free” principle because airlines can use a front-row version of the same fully flat business class seat that they use in the rest of the cabin. The new seats take advantage of the fact that there’s no seat in front, opening up a space that would otherwise overlap with the row ahead (whether as a staggered or herringbone layout). Previously, this space would either have been integrated with the front wall of the cabin to allow extra storage for a galley or quietly kept as a slightly more spacious regular business class seat with a marginally bigger footwell in sleeping mode. Now the space can be either entirely carved out to create a premium experience, partly to offer a more modest upgrade, or (in increasingly rare cases) not used at all.
First Class Feeling in a Business Class Space
How do these seats differ from a standard business class seat in the row immediately behind them? To start, you might notice an updated aesthetic to the experience. Air France, for example, turns the space surrounding its in-flight entertainment screen a creamy white instead of the standard navy blue on its new Stelia Opera herringbone seat, arriving soon aboard its next Airbus A350s.
Starlux’s A350, meanwhile, upgrades its Collins Elements herringbone seat from fabric to sumptuous leather and surrounds the suite with a soft quilted material that feels elegantly residential and certainly puts the “lux” in Starlux. You might also enjoy extra privacy.
Air New Zealand’s forthcoming Business Premier seat, Safran’s Visa herringbone, offers doors only on the front-row Business Premier Luxe. Back on Starlux’s A350, and also in Lufthansa’s new Allegris staggered seat (to be built by multiple manufacturers), the sidewalls are slightly higher, although not to the ceiling in the way that some proper first class suites are.
You’ll likely find a bigger and better screen. However, the trade-off if you do is that the screen will be farther away, at the foot of your bed rather than closer to you, or on a swing-out arm from a seat in front—like on Virgin Atlantic’s A330neo in the Retreat Suite, where the bigger screen feels like a pretty exact trade-off for it being farther away.
You’ll almost certainly have more space at the feet when sleeping without the overlapping seat in front of you, and even a wider bed at hip level. You might be able to invite a traveling companion to dine with you, with one of you seated on a guest ottoman like in Condor’s new Airbus A330neo Business Class (the Safran Skylounge staggered seat), or even a more comfortable sofa, like with JetBlue’s latest Mint Studio, based on Thompson’s Vantage Solo herringbone seat. And you’ll sometimes find fun bells and whistles that take advantage of the extra space. Seatmaker Adient’s suite, designed for the front row of a Boeing 737 MAX, swaps overhead bins for storage under the partner sofa, concealing a champagne bar that rises from a secret compartment at the press of a button.
Business-Plus? First Class? Or Something Else?
Setting your expectations when you come to consider one of these seats is a crucial challenge for airlines. Do they call it first class, even though it doesn’t match other airlines’ seats? Do they add something to their business brand, like Air New Zealand with Business Premier Luxe? Do they call it something entirely different, like Virgin Atlantic’s Retreat Suite?
What comes with it? Is there a special meal service, additional wine choices or extra onboard amenities? And lastly—but in some ways, most importantly—how do you pay for it? By and large, early-adopter airlines such as Condor and Virgin are charging $200 to $250 for their front-row business-plus experience, with surprisingly few airlines allowing passengers to cash in miles for the front row.