Business Traveller paid a visit to design firm Acumen, who have spent the last five years working on an entirely new business class for Japan’s All Nippon Airways.
Set to be retrofitted on 12 B777-300ERs before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with the first already in service between London and Haneda Airport, we find out how the product came to be, and what passengers can expect from it.
The new business class cabins from All Nippon Airways have a distinctly Japanese flair.
The unusually wide seat smoothly reclines down to create a large futon-like area on which two passengers (admittedly those on the smaller side) could sit cross-legged.
The cabin features three different wood-effect finishes inspired by traditional home furnishings; rosewood, light Japanese ash and dark Japanese ash. These feature on the seat doors as well as on the bulkheads, galleys and in the washrooms.
Finishings used in the cabin also evoke light slate, while back-lit panels resemble Japanese washi paper.
However the project was a much more international affair than the result may suggest, and the seat and cabin designs in fact originated in the former Holborn Town Hall building in London – the office of Acumen, a British design team who first started work on the seat five years ago.
The Acumen office in London
Back in 2014, the team drew up pitches for three different business class seats for ANA.
One thing they advocated for was the forward-rearward layout that ended up being used; the studio had previously produced a similar layout with the acclaimed ‘Etihad business studio’.
“You haven’t got a seat in front of you, instead you’ve got this big open space,” says Acumen’s Brand Experience Director Mike Crump.
“The new ANA cabin is a similar layout to [Qatar Airways’] Q Suite or the Etihad studio, but it is very different in its execution.”
“We presented the concept to ANA to justify what having a forward and aft seat could bring them. In this case it was a lot more space,” adds Acumen’s Associate Director Edson Alexandrino.
The configuration sees sets of two seats facing each other, totally blocked off in the middle, with extra leg space for one coming under the enclosed table of the one opposite.
“In Japan they loved the concept because of that futon-like space it creates,” recalls Crump.
“Often with business class seats you have to sit in a certain way, the bed goes down and you have to sleep in that position. You can’t use the space next to you because there’s side furniture or a seat next to you. This opens up this huge flat surface like no other seat on the market. Suddenly it makes your experience very different.
“When we took a prototype to the offices in Japan they sat in it crossed legged, two girls got in and had a chat. It made us think that it was game-changing in the way that people could use it. That’s why it felt so right, and so very Japanese.”
Five years ago they also believed doors would be a natural option.
“When we were first working on this product, no seats with doors had yet launched. But seats take so long to develop that others are now out,” says Crump.
While some claim doors can make a seat claustrophobic, Acumen’s Creative Director John McKeever believes it’s important to provide the choice.
“If you don’t want it you don’t have to have it, but if you do it’s there,” he says. “What’s quite nice about this one is the vertical pop-up screen, no other seat has really got that. It gives you ability to keep the seat quite open or to pop the screen up.”
He’s referring to the door’s two sections – a half-size slider that comes up and down (the right-hand section on the image below) and then the main sliding door (on the left). This gives the option to create three different levels of privacy.
Especially given that no doors were yet out when Acumen was designing them, there were a lot of challenges around getting theirs certified. A lot of discussion was going on around how to regulate suite doors, and the team had an “intense chat” with Boeing to make sure they could keep them as a feature.
“It’s the emergency escape path feature that’s part of the rules,” explains McKeever.
“You need to have two escape paths, so our second is essentially over the armrest because that screen can drop. And if part of the main door fails you have ways to either slide it back or drop it.”
The escape path is over the wall between you and your seat neighbour, though there’s of course also a full-height privacy screen, should you desire it. While the seats can’t form a four-way ‘office’ space like the Q Suite can, the large size of the screen and the fact that the seats face in the same direction means they would be easy to have a conversation through.
While Acumen came up with the basic concept for what is coming to ANA’s B777s, when they first showed it to the airline they were told that it had just seen a very similar concept at a private industry show – a new product called the Fusio by French manufacturers Safran.
ANA loved it, but asked Acumen if they would be able to merge their design with Safran’s similar one, fleshing it out into something that could be unique to the carrier. The original concept didn’t have doors and had different ways of deploying the table and controlling the seat movements, for example.
ANA is now the launch customer of the Fusio and the core concept is available to other airlines, though further orders have not been publicly announced. The seats were manufactured by Safran in France, and Acumen says they worked in close collaboration to make sure the finishings were “spot-on”.
It’s clear from talking to the team how much thought has gone into certain elements. Looking closely you can see that the seat walls along the aisle all have a slight curve.
“We added this after we’d built a whole cabin at the Boeing facilities to see what the aisle would feel like,” says Alexandrino.
“It was quite tight around your elbow area, but having the curve really does improve your experience as you’re walking down the aisle.”
It also enhances the space around your shoulders and legs when you’re inside the seat. This was done in spite of the manufacturing challenges, since all the mechanisms and rails around the doors need to compensate for the curve.
Then there’s the table, which is fully enclosed underneath the monitor and comes out on an arm and bifolds towards you.
“A lot of business class suites these days, you can’t actually get out of the seat once your meal has arrived,” says McKeever, “but with this, there is a curve so you can push it away and it nestles into position. You can still get in and out from any seat.”
About halfway through the design process, ANA brought in architect Kengo Kuma, the designer of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium who has also designed lounges for the airline, to work in collaboration with Acumen.
“He was able to remind us of those Japanese philosophies of clean lines and use of materials,” says Crump.
“One thing he specifically brought in was more natural elements of materials. We had some of that in, but not as much as Kengo Kuma wanted.
“Tokyo is very grey, but if you go inside buildings it’s very warm with a cosiness to it, with a lot of wood and naturalness coming in. He wanted to create that feeling, as he had in the lounges, with the use of woods and stones and earthy colours.”
The team agrees that it was refreshing to have someone from outside the aviation industry bring new ambitions to how a cabin could look – even if it required some compromise on what you could realistically get certified on an aircraft.
“He wanted wood everywhere! We were going, ‘oh my God…’,” laughs Crump.
“But he treated it as a whole environment – the wood effect around the seat should also be on the walls around the galley and into the bathrooms. He wanted that consistent approach. And once you got your head around it, it actually made a ‘wow’ experience because for the first time it integrated all those different spaces.”
It was quite rare for Acumen to have been asked to design the entire aircraft; new first, business, premium economy and economy cabins, as well as the galleys, washrooms and bulkheads. It meant the team could look at the different customer touch points in a more integrated way.
“One thing ANA really wanted to do was look at the welcome experience onto the aircraft,” according to Crump.
“Often you walk through a very industrial-looking galley full of boxes or catering things. ANA wanted to make that a more presentable and a pleasant experience.
“It’s still a standard and very functional galley but it’s dressed – there are two monitors as you come in, there’s a curtain and blinds that cover up the space for boarding, so your first impression of ANA is a clean, simple, minimalist-looking brand.”
Having Kengo Kuma involved forced Acumen to keep that minimalist goal in mind. Storage is aimed at allowing passengers to be able to keep surfaces clear. A pocket allows you to charge your phone and shut it away, along with a water bottle, headphones, iPad and book. Getting that storage required more “long conversations” with Boeing to achieve certification, but the result is that only the top compartment can be used for storage, which is then sealed off from the bottom with a rubber blade. There’s also more storage under the ottoman.
“It’s not like on some airlines which want to put lots of things on display and say ‘look what you get for your money’ – it’s more subtle. Part of the design approach was to remove anything that wasn’t necessary, taking away the visual stress,” says Alexandrino.
Creating unique seat and lighting controls was also part of the project, in collaboration with Panasonic. These feature a wheel that allows you to move the seat backwards and forwards as well as three pre-set recline options. Contrary to some media reports, passengers don’t need to get out of the seat to flip them into a bed like the old Singapore and Virgin business class seats.
There are also numerous lighting options – two either side of the seat are for reading, and one shines directly onto the table for dining. Then there is mood lighting with various tones underneath the monitor and ottoman, and even a wake-up light underneath the headrest area that can be programmed to gradually turn on at your desired time.
The large 4K resolution screen is also by Panasonic, although the exact dimensions have not been officially announced.
Another innovative feature on the plane – a first, according to Acumen – is a central door locking system that means cabin crew don’t need to come to each seat to ensure they are locked in place for take-off and landing.
“We tried out various techniques involving foot pedals, levers, lock tools,” says Alexandrino. “But with 64 seats plus eight in first it would have taken a long time – we felt sorry for the crew!”
Business class also features a galley which gets converted into a self-service bar for drinks and snacks after the meal service. Again Kuma’s influence is apparent here, with roller blinds and backlit panels to replicate Japanese washi paper.
The ‘east meets west’ nature of the product is clear as we watch a promotional video showing a CGI walkthrough of the aircraft.
Japanese actors feature as we’re taken past the new economy and premium economy seat fabrics, and the team remarks on the inspiration for the patterns, which evoke a traditional cloud pattern, an arrow Yagasuri pattern and the falling Sakura cherry blossom, all so quintessentially Japanese – and all filmed in Kennington.