Observation Deck

Suite Life

Real beds and increased privacy are new features in first class

Yes, even with high load factors, and seemingly ever-lessening seat pitch in economy seating, there is positive news about passenger accommodations on aircraft; it’s just a matter of choosing the right place to sit, or, in this case, to lie down and sleep. There is, of course, the matter or price, and how to pay for this comfort, but it can’t hurt most of us to admire the high-end possibilities, and dream about being able to utilize them on our next long-haul trip.

Recently, Air France and Etihad have announced the La Premiere suite, and “The Residence by Etihad”, respectively. The former, to be installed on the Air France’s 777-300s, “ensures optimum privacy and enables customers to be totally or partially alone, in absolute comfort”. Etihad’s offering of “hotel-style bedrooms” for its first class A380 passengers “features a living room, separate double bedroom and an ensuite [that is, within the FC area of the cabin] shower room”.

Other carriers, including Singapore and Emirates have similar offerings for their F-class A380 passengers. SQ’s includes individual “cabins” with sliding doors and window blinds, as well as a “standalone bed; not one converted from a seat”. Emirates provides a suite that “comes fully equipped with a sliding door, a personal mini-bar, adjustable ambient lighting, and its own vanity table, mirror and wardrobe”.

It’s useful to recall that airline service began by catering to a premium market. While the comfort in some of the earliest widely-used airliners, such as the Ford Tri-Motor, left something (actually, quite a bit!) to be desired versus current standards – even reclining seats were still a forthcoming feature – sleeping accommodations, in the form of berth-style beds, had arrived on the scene by the 1930’s. Indeed, when the DC-3 was new, this seminal type’s first incarnation was as the DST: Douglas Sleeper Transport.

As commercial aviation advanced, there were numerous other aircraft types that were fitted with berth-type sleeping facilities. In addition, as aircraft became larger, it also was possible to install more luxurious passenger accommodations. The Pan American long-haul flying boats, in particular, evoke luxury and first class travel; no economy class or run-of-the-mill tourists catered to. In addition, many long-haul routes still featured night-stops; the Pan American/Panagra interchange services to the west coast of South America took five days to reach Buenos Aires from Miami, for example. Passengers slept in real hotel rooms on the journey.

Post-World War II, land planes became ascendant, however, and night stops fewer, although multiple landings for fuel certainly were in the offing in a number of cases. As new aircraft designs appeared with greater size, speed and range than their predecessors, overall trip time decreased, as well. Furthermore, economy class appeared, and over time, began to occupy increasing portions of the aircraft cabin.

The arrival of jet aircraft continued, and accelerated these trends. Even with the advent of widebody aircraft in the 1970s, however, First Class typically meant a large, comfortable reclining seat; this meant sitting up in a chair overnight even for premium passengers. Eventually, leg-rest/”sleeperette” type seats made an appearance, and the occasional airline (Philippine in the 1980s, for example) again tried berths; in PR’s case, on the upper deck of the 747. By the 1980s, however, three-class service, including one labeled ‘business’ had begun to make serious inroads in the business travel market. This led to a renewed interest in differentiating first class. The introduction of business class seats that could be turned into reasonable facsimiles of beds only exacerbated this need, and, now, has led to what we’ve been discussing here, in the form of suites/cabins/apartments, etc.

Care to travel in a “small completely enclosed, private room containing one bed, affording ideal accommodation for one person”? It includes a “wide, roomy sofa in the daytime, offering ample lounging space and at night a bed which folds into the wall at one end of the room.” However, the inclusion of “….complete toilet facilities available at any time” suggests that this is not something currently available in even the most luxurious current airline offerings; in fact, this is quoted from a brochure titled “The Pullman Roomette: What if offers and How to use it” that comes from long ago (the late 1930s) and a different industry (rail).

Apparently, the more things change, the more they remain the same, in a broader context. First-class railroad passengers also apparently valued their privacy and wanted something better than thick curtains separating their slumbers from their fellow travelers. In any case, I suspect that most, if not all of us wouldn’t gladly trade an economy seat (or even two!) for one of the new-fangled suites/apartments, even if the bathroom is still down the hall, however...

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