About face! Why British Airways might need to accelerate its Business Class retrofit

About face! Why British Airways might need to accelerate its Business Class retrofit

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There’s quite a lot of commentary on Covid-19 right now, and the research is constantly evolving. There’s already some innovative designs on the drawing board for helping with the perception of social distancing, including Factorydesign’s Isolation Kit and Aviointeriors’ Janus seat concept.

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While Factorydesign’s concept actually is quite smart and has a post Covid-19 application, the designs from Aviointeriors –while innovative – with a Yin-Yang design, actually place people in the direct path of any sneeze or cough from their neighbour passengers.

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This concept seems to go against the IATA dialogue which showcase aircraft as one of the safest environments due to the configuration of the seating and HEPA filtration. While the cabin can still be improved, there is truth in their findings as those all facing in the same direction, separated by the physical obstruction of a seat back make it harder for a virus to propagate in comparison to a more common communal seating arrangement. It seems that air circulation within the cabin is crucial to stopping the actual spread in comparison to creating a ‘peace of mind’ solution through pure perception.

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In fact, theatres, cinemas, sports venues and other amphitheatre style spaces with tiered levels are some of the worst environments, as someone infected on an upper tier would directly transfer a virus to the tiers below and due to the curved seating increase the potential amount of people infected.

While airlines need not worry about tiered seating designs (as of yet), Yin-Yang seats already exist in Business Class cabins, with even the QSuites and most recently ANA 777 Business Class Suites offering forward-rear-facing seat designs. Yet thanks to the architecture of the seats, they are isolated from other passengers thanks to the high walls of the seat. When seats are side by side, the pairs face in the same direction, something IATA say helps reduce viral spread.

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In fact, Etihad, Qatar’s Qsuites as well as Turkish and ANA’s most recent designs are theoretically some of the best in the skies for reducing the spread due to their LOPA configuration. However, on the polar-opposite end sits British Airways Yin-Yang seats that still populate the majority of their fleet.

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While American still do have a Concept D seat on their 787-8’s, these have already been scheduled for a retrofit, removing the ‘too close for comfort’ head-to-head configuration during boarding, take off and landing. With just 20 or so currently in service, it will be quick for American to replace this sub-fleet with the new Super Business Class product with privacy partitions which will become excellent at reducing the airborne spread of a virus.

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British Airways however – with over 120 long-haul aircraft and only a handful of which feature the new Club World suites – has a much bigger challenge to overcome. Anyone who has flown British Airways’ existing Club World cabin has most likely experienced the awkward eye-contact game during take off, which ends with the embarrassing ‘race to raise the divider’ challenge. If you can stare someone in the eyes on an aircraft, the chances are if you are within range, your probability of infection would be higher than if you are cocooned.

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Of all carriers, British Airways previous business class product will raise the most concerns over passengers wanting to travel in a premium cabin, as social distancing is not only an issue, but the layout will become a potential health risk. While masks will still solve problems, the lowering of the privacy screen during any food service (no matter how hygienic) will be done at a time when passengers have removed their mask to eat or drink.

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British Airways are in the process of a retrofit, which was going to span many years however expediting this process will be of benefit to the carrier and much like United did with their Polaris product, educating passengers on the retrofit to the new Club World Suite, which in comparison is one of the most hygienic from an air circulation design will put them in good stead.

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However, apart from checking a seat map, it’s virtually impossible to tell if your flight will feature the new product. It seems British Airways have some work to do to help reassure their most valuable passenger demographic that the airline has their safety in mind.

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