Airlines are touting their modern business class seats, but older products offered more space and comfort, writes Michael Taylor.

Lie-flat seats have become the gold standard for long-distance business class travel in recent years. Any airline that doesn’t offer them – on intercontinental flights, at least – is thought to be second rate. But how do they compare to the recliner business class seats of old?

Business class is said to have been introduced by Qantas in 1979. Before that, airlines typically had just two classes: first class and economy. Targeted at business travellers, business class was meant to be something in between. It was a cut up from economy, but not as luxurious as first class, which was targeted at the rich and famous.

I will never forget the first time I was allowed to sit in a business class seat. I was flying from San Francisco to Hong Kong by way of Seoul, Korea. I was seated in the first row of economy, right before the bulkhead, and I had practically no legroom. At some point, a sympathetic flight attendant – seeing how restless I had become – allowed me to sit in business class while the lights were out.

“I am letting you do this so that you can get a good night’s sleep,” he said. “As soon as the lights come back on, however, you will have to return to your assigned seat.”

The seat was soft and commodious, with lots of “squish” room. It was like sitting in a comfortable armchair. Before I knew it, I was sound asleep. It was the first time I ever managed to sleep across the Pacific Ocean.

Which raises an interesting question: is it really necessary to lie flat to get a good night’s sleep? Over the next few years, I made several transoceanic flights in the old, unimproved business class seats, and I never had any problem falling asleep.

British Airways introduced seats that reclined into a fully flat sleeping surface in first class in 1995, and it was one of a handful of airlines that started equipping business class cabins with lie-flat seats four years later. Slowly but surely, other airlines started following suit.

I’ve now had the chance to fly business class with lie-flat seating on many occasions, and I can’t honestly say that I find them as comfortable as the old business class seats.

In comparisons of airline seats, three measurements are commonly applied: seat pitch, seat width and the amount of recline. The good thing about statistics is that they are quantifiable and easy to compare. Unfortunately, things like comfort are highly subjective, and it is almost impossible to find what I think is a much more important statistic: elbow room, and this is where many flatbed seats have let me down.

The armrests on fully flat seating tend to be extremely narrow, or even nonexistent. To make matters worse, there is usually a console on one side rising up to shoulder height. This can make the space seem highly confining. Try cutting a steak if the console is on the side of your cutting arm.

Sleep experts have identified six common sleeping positions: foetus, log, yearner, soldier, freefall and starfish. For those that sleep in the soldier position – lying on their backs with both arms pinned to their sides – flatbed seats work just fine. But they accounted for only 8 per cent of the sleepers who took part in a research project by the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service.

What about the rest of us? I fall into the foetus category, which means I curl up on my side. This is the most popular position of the six, accounting for 41 per cent of the study group. Is a fully flat seat really wide enough for us to sleep comfortably?

I recently flew from Hong Kong to San Francisco on a Boeing 777-300ER, returning by way of Los Angeles on the same aircraft type. I not only had a hard time falling asleep, I arrived at both destinations with a sore elbow on one side, a sore shin on the other, and lower back pain.

Out of curiosity, I decided to compare the width of my business class seat with those of a camp cot, a hospital gurney and a baby crib. The results follow:

  • Business class seat: 21 inches
  • Hospital gurney: 24 inches
  • Narrow camp cot: 24-26 inches
  • Baby crib: 28 inches

Not only was the seat too narrow for me to sleep comfortably in the foetal position, it was also much too firm for comfort – unlike the cushy business class seats of old.

I love the cocoon-like privacy that many business class cabins now offer. But I miss the sleep-inducing recliner seats that had initially encouraged me to splash out on business class travel in the first place.

Michael Taylor is author of the Accidental Travel Writer blog based in Hong Kong.