In his final year at the Royal College of Art, London, the students in Joe Ferry’s Industrial Design Engineering class were given assessment projects to complete. Ferry’s came from Virgin Atlantic. His brief? To design it a new long haul seat that converted into a bed without changing the 140cm seat pitch (the space between seats).
Ferry’s idea was to recline the seat in a forward motion so the passenger could utilise the space created below the seat in front.
In this way, 140cm became a bed of 196cm at an angle of nine degrees from horizontal (with the plane’s natural flying angle of three degrees, this was an almost-flat six degrees).
Virgin liked the idea, Ferry passed his course, and three years of hard work later in 2000, the Virgin Upper Class J2000 seat was introduced on the Boeing 747-400 aircraft on the Heathrow-JFK route. It subsequently spread to Virgin’s entire fleet of 23 aircraft out of Heathrow including two Airbuses – the A340-300 and 340-600 as well as the 747-400. Not bad for a first attempt.
The trouble was that, in 2000, BA, Virgin’s main competitor on the lucrative transatlantic route, introduced the Club World flat bed. Ferry went back to the drawing board.
“The new brief was simple,” he said. “It had to be flat, it had to be fast (as in how quick we could get it to market) and it had to be the best. BA had definitely raised the bar.”
The design of the new seat was important to Virgin not only because business travellers like to be comfortable, but because Virgin’s appeal lies in the way it differentiates its product and brand. The average age of its business class passengers is 44. It’s a good age to have loyal, high spending frequent travellers, but you have to work hard to keep them.
For the new seat, secrecy was so vital that for the first three months they didn’t even tell Sir Richard Branson. “It wasn’t that we didn’t trust him,” Ferry smiled. “But he’s quite excitable and competitive and might have blurted it out.”
The Virgin design team of 10 were sequestered in a separate building at Virgin’s Crawley base just outside Gatwick. Consultancies working on the designs signed non-disclosure agreements and, when it came to the manufacture of the seat, the chosen company, Contour, dedicated staff to the project. Not surprising, when that same firm is also responsible for the BA Club World Flat Bed and First Class product, as well as American Airlines First Class bed/seat.
“I don’t think BA found out about it until three months before launch,” Ferry said. “It’s a small industry so we were pretty pleased with keeping it quiet for as long as we did.”
Virgin’s new seat has now been out since October 2003 and has been favourably received (see Business Traveller December/ January). It is the longest fully-flat bed in the world (202cm), has a 1-2-1 configuration in the cabin and a proper mattress. There’s also a partner seat for dining or work and you can simply push the table away and gain access to the aisle without folding anything away. The seats cost £25,000 each. What’s most noticeable, after the initial fact that the seats face sideways, is that there’s no restriction on reclining during landing and take-off.
“The prohibition on reclining was due to safety,” said Ferry. “If the aircraft came to a sudden top, there was a chance of a passenger “submarining” – shooting out from under the seatbelt. But since the seats are sideways facing, this isn’t going to happen. What’s more, on the side that you would slide forward, the seatbelt contains an airbag.”
Ferry is quick to mention all those involved in the development and success of the seat. London-based design agencies PearsonLloyd and Softroom as well as Design Q and Q-trim, as well as his 10-strong team at Virgin. He also admits it’s a work in progress. If you’ve flown Virgin Upper Class recently, you’ll have found a letter from Sir Richard Branson explaining how improvements have been made to both the cocktail and main tray table, and “a totally new reading light is being developed – brighter yet not prone to washing over other seats.” There are also plans for removing the centre partition to allow passengers to sit – and lie together. You can imagine the headlines already.
Of course the question now is not only how Virgin can stay ahead of the competition, but also what their competitors are planning. “I can tell they’re up to something,” Joe said of BA. “When they’re annoyed at us for getting ahead, they don’t talk to me, but recently they’re being a bit more friendly, so they must have something in the pipeline.”
For the business traveller, it’s all good news, not least because there’s a promise that the developments will gradually trickle down through premium economy to economy.