British Airways launched its new Club World business class product last month. It has been six years since the revolutionary flat bed was introduced, and only months since the rollout for that product was completed, yet BA is already heralding the arrival of its £100 million “next generation” Club World.

BA says its new seats are 25 per cent wider than before (the armrests disappear when the seat is reclined), and are equipped with audiovisual on demand (AVOD), 10-inch TV screens, noise-cancelling headphones, larger privacy screens, and a US plug adaptor for laptops. There is also a new menu and a more flexible food option which allows passengers to choose when they want to eat.

The airline used feedback from its Executive Club members to come up with the new design, says Neal Stone, design manager for British Airways’ Club World. “We started the design process based on feedback from customers who have flown the [original] flat bed in the last five years. In 2000, it was ground-breaking, and because it was such a huge leap forward we were forgiven [by them] for missing a few details there.”

The purpose of the relaunch appears in part to be a chance to adjust these details, since the new seat is more “evolution” than “revolution”. BA has stuck to its old north-south format, despite carriers such as Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand adopting the east-west “herringbone” layout, and has instead focused on clever use of materials and design to maximise space and privacy.

Says Stone: “Layout is going to be the same as before [2-4-2 on the B777] but we have pushed and pulled and squeezed the product to take up the bare minimum of space, so more is given back to the customer.”

Stone believes sticking with the old layout will still work. “It is a completely new seat and we explored lots of different routes but came back to “Yin and Yang” as it was something that we have had positive feedback on.”

Industrial design agency Tangerine, which developed the original flat bed product, was brought in again to fine-tune the seat, while creative inspiration came from Tyler Brûlé, founder of Wallpaper*, and his design agency Winkreative.

Stone says: “Tyler came up with the notion that we wanted more cabin ambience than last time. He really wanted to bring in the feeling of the modern domestic, hotel-type experience. He wanted to introduce lampshades into the space – dotted around the cabin – to tune it down to something which feels more like a modern home than an aircraft cabin.”

So what prompted this upgrade? Business class is an airline’s most lucrative product, and developments in design are fast-paced. If you don’t refresh your product it will get left behind. However, few airlines offer the same standard as BA does in its business class cabin, and this is perhaps why BA has not made a more drastic change this time around. In offering flat beds on popular routes from the UK, Virgin Atlantic is the obvious competition, and then there are the business class-only Maxjet, Eos and soon, Silverjet. Etihad and Air New Zealand are already offering the flat bed business class product and early next year Cathay Pacific will begin its roll out too.

BA’s chief executive, Willie Walsh is not too concerned: “We are seeing some of our competitors trying to match the standard we offer, but it will take them some time to catch up.”

The new Club World is already available on some B747s with the rollout expected to be complete in 18 months. All London to New York planes should be fitted with the new seat by spring 2007.

The five priorities for improvement that came to light through passenger feedback were space, comfort, privacy, control and storage. To create more space, the seat has been made 5.25 inches (13.3cm) wider, making it a total width of 25.25 inches (64cm).

Jamie Cassidy, BA’s in-flight development manager, says: “Essentially it’s space [that matters]. Length was not an issue. The ability to turn in bed was our number one beef.” Now, says Cassidy, 97 per cent of Club World passengers will “fit” the seat comfortably.

The length of the seat is 6ft (182.9cm), but the seat also reclines into what is called the “Z” position, which extends the seat to 6ft 6 inches (198cm). This position supports the legs and lower back in a similar way as a sun lounger.

Louise French, cabin development manager, Club World, says: “Now with the new seat, passengers can have two different ways of being comfortable and can turn [in the bed] more easily.”

Aisle access will remain the same as before, with passengers having to climb over the footrest of the person behind them, but the footrest has been made lower and narrower, making it less of an obstacle.

For comfort, the headrest and lumbar area are adjustable and the headrest contains a special foam that moulds to your head. This then reshapes as you turn the seat into a flat bed. The new seat also has directional, rather than overhead, lighting.

Privacy was perhaps one of the main concerns with the face-to-face layout, as you can be facing someone for the whole flight, inadvertently catching their eye. After inviting frequent flyers to test the seat, a new electronically controlled dividing screen was developed. It is higher than the old screen and made of a special material called Lumisty.

Stone explains: “It is a clever material. It has a microscopic pattern to it, so that when you look horizontally through the screen all you can see is a translucent panel, although you still get a lot of light coming through. If you look down through the screen you can still see whether the passenger wants something without disturbing them.”

He adds: “Before, the crew had to move the screen back and forth, which was a bit disturbing.”

The new AVOD service, with 50 films, 60 hours of TV and 50 hours of music, is currently being installed across all of BA’s cabins. Jamie Cassidy says: “[Now] passengers can go and do what they want, when they want to do it.”

The food service has also been revamped. The Club Kitchen replaces the old Raid the Larder concept, allowing passengers to get up at any point in the flight to tuck into snacks and drinks. Hot snacks such as noodles will be introduced shortly.

French says: “Most customers were happy with the main meal, but wanted flexibility so there are some changes [on the main menu] like salad choices and afternoon tea. Some people like to choose how they use their time on board. By introducing Club Kitchen, and modifying [the galley] to a customer friendly area, they can help themselves and this offers more flexibility.”

A drawer for laptops helps to tackle the storage issue. It enables passengers to work right up until landing, without having to get up and stow them away in the overhead lockers.

With so much attention being focused on business class cabins, it is not really surprising that in the same week that BA unveiled its Club World cabin, it also announced some changes to first class, albeit “soft” changes. These include a turndown service for flights leaving after 7.30pm, slippers and “catch” of the day.

Stone says: “[First class] is not a second cousin, it’s a very very different market and we are still committed to it.”

Having just spent £100 million on its new design, how long will it be before BA is forced to revamp its business class cabin again in the face of competition? Singapore Airlines, for example, has just spent £168 million on upgrades to its fleet (which is smaller than BA’s) and its new flat bed in Raffles class will have memory stick ports, so passengers won’t have to fly with a laptop. But SIA won’t be offering its product on the London run until it receives its A380 Super Jumbos, so that does give BA a breathing space.

Stone says: “I am sure that in six years’ time [things will change]. We do have a drive to keep inventing and designing and listening to what will happen. We’ll probably have an email next week from a customer, making a suggestion [and that’s] where we start again.”

Felicity Cousins