In the early-mid 1990s, U.S. newspapers were awash in display advertisements for Business Class travel, frequently showcasing the seat, its airplane real estate, and electronic amenities.  I collected these ads, and spoke to several different carriers, their design consultants, and specialist airplane seat manufacturers about the Business Class seat as design artifact, marketing myth and technological reality. The following essay was first published in I.D. International Design Magazine, September-October 1995.



KLM Northwest advert
Qantas Biz Class ad
Advertisements for Business Class travel, gathered from various 1990s newspapers and magazines. Collection: Janet Abrams.

Advertisements for Business Class travel, gathered from various 1990s newspapers and magazines. Collection: Janet Abrams.


Much sat-upon but seldom celebrated, the Business Class airline seat is a utopian vehicle for our time.

Compared with the executive's leather swivel chair, which commands pride of place in the proverbial corner office, the Business Class seat has an altogether more demanding brief. Hurled into the stratosphere on a regular basis, and required to withstand 16 times the force of gravity under extreme circumstances, this species of furniture must also provide comfort, security and entertainment for serial sitters — assorted-sized travelers who each park their rear for the long haul.

Airline travel presents time en bloc, as an antique, viscous substance. Sitting still for 10 to 16 hours at a stretch is not a normal activity. It makes us fretful, forces us to encounter ourselves, stationary albeit moving rather fast. A Mechanical Bride, or more accurately, an Electronic Groom, the high-end seat is a cabinet of curiosities with buttons to press and gadgets to retrieve from hidden compartments —myriad opportunities to kill time while crossing space. 

The Business Class “product” (to adopt airline parlance) entails many privileges and rituals in addition to the chair itself, usually including door-to-door ground transportation, private airport lounges, priority boarding and baggage handling, special menus and entertainment options, and of course, a luxury amenity pack to take home and keep.

But over the past few years, airlines' advertising campaigns have increasingly focused on the seat as the principle feature of this class of service, rival carriers loudly proclaiming the revolutionary ergonomic and electronic virtues of their particular chair. With the advent of new in-flight entertainment systems, the seat is rapidly evolving from a cozy nook in which to dine, watch movies and thumb a book, into a veritable Command and Control hub — a personal cockpit of sensorial pleasures. Chaise longue and La-Z-Boy rolled into one, the Business Class seat is a hybrid of several distinct environments: bedroom, office, restaurant, shopping mall, cinema and soon, possibly even casino.

Articulating furniture is far from new. Indeed the contemporary Business Class airline seat is the logical descendant of such distinguished 19th-century precursors as the dentist’s chair, the barber’s chair, the “variety couch” or invalid chair, and the railroad sleeper seat — furniture that “regulates passive postures and conveniently offers the body to manipulations,” as Sigfried Giedion observed in his 1948 Mechanization Takes Command. At the end of the 20th century, the Business Class seat — arguably the “constituent furniture” of its time — ensures that the passenger submits with similar docility to flight attendants’ constant ministrations. 

Business Class is a fairly recent invention, dating back some 10 years, when companies began to balk at the cost of First Class travel for their employees. Airlines responded by introducing this new category, which had fewer frills than First Class, but was still far more cosseted — and costly — than Coach. The Business Class cabin yields more revenue per mile than any other part of the plane, so as competition grows more intense, the seat itself becomes a strategic weapon in the battle to attract and retain premium-fare passengers. The brand names for Business Class conjure an aura of privilege and discernment, like cigar-wreathed gentlemen’s clubs: “BusinessFirst” (Continental), “Club World” (British Airways), “Upper Class” (Virgin Atlantic), “Connoisseur Class” (United).

Transpacific travel has been the high-growth destination over the last five years, according to Wade Worley, corporate vice-president for marketing and sale at B/E Aerospace, who points out that “there really is a very narrow band of competitive airlines, with very much the same equipment n the same routes. What motivates a customer to go to a particular airline? The amenities. The seat is the platform for those amenities.”

Hence the lively action on the design front. As posture controls are refined and new communications gadgets incorporated, the Business Class seat seems to be approaching its apogee. A Passing Time machine, the airline seat (in any class of service, is an amalgam of many components, supplied by various vendors and assembled by the seat manufacturer to each airline’s specified “trim and finish.” The same basic frame may be employed by different carriers, and yet they offer the passenger a markedly different experience, not only in outward appearance, but also in the feel of the controls, degree of adjustability, and the styling of leg- and headrests, tray tables, entertainment appliances, consoles and end bays.

For all the marketing hype and mythology, there is really no single optimum solution, though certain attributes and appliances have come to constitute the identifying characteristics of this class of seat. A closer look at two of the fancier models currently is use, on Virgin Atlantic and Continental Airlines — both built on the same “Goldwing” frame manufactured by SICMA of France — reveals contrasting interpretations of comfort and convenience in the prestige airline cabin.



What’s comfortable — in terms of hardness or softness — appears to be a highly subjective, and culturally variable, criterion. Airlines and plane manufacturers conduct extensive ergonomics research when designing cabins and seats: Boeing uses an “anthropometron” to determine the appropriate human factors, and Lufthansa commissions research into patterns of sleeping, sitting and motion in the airline eat and the University of Kiel, German. It is extremely difficult to determine ideal pitch and recline angles, simply because of the variety in the sizes of passengers, but airlines tend to aim their Business Class seat toward the 97 percentile male.

“The average business flyer is male, taller and heavier,” says Kathleen Boyd, who was Continental’s product development manager when the BusinessFirst seat was designed as part of the airline’s corporate identity overhaul, undertaken with design consultants Lippincott and Margulies in 1990. The new seats were introduced on Continental’s wide body planes (DC-10s and 747s) in 1993. “The 95 percentile male is 5 foot 11 inches and 185 pounds, so the seat is not going to be as comfortable for smaller people,” she adds. The ratio of male to female passengers in BusinessFirst is approximately 80/20, according to Boyd, though to judge from the advertising across the industry as a whole, one might deduce it was closer to 100 percent male.

On Lufthansa, which serves 93 different countries, “the 97th percentile passenger is an agglomeration of a lot of different physical and cultural characteristics,” says spokesperson Dan Lewis. “Germans prefer a firm, supportive seat, whereas American cars and furniture tend to something much softer and spongier.” Boyd points out that there’s a trade=off between comfort and economics in the selection of the seat’s padding. “The main measure of durability of foam is its hardness, but if you have a more comfortable foam, you may have to replace it more often.”

“Harder, firmer seats give you much better support. Overly padded seats just jive the illusion of comfort,” agrees Gabriel Murray, interiors design director at Rodney Firth & Company, the British design consultancy that advised Virgin on its Upper Class seat, pushing the design toward its more “quilted,” undulating form reminiscent of the ribbed seats in luxury cars. “Often the seat cushion is made tremendously thick, to look comfortable, plushy, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way,” says Chris Brady, Virgin’s product development manager, who with his colleague Ashley Stockwell, a British-trained industrial designer, customized the SICMA “Goldwing” seat to Virgin’s specifications within a tight three-month schedule for design and installation. Since the basic dimensions of the “Goldwing” frame couldn’t be changed, they actually reduced the depth of foam cushioning in the seat pan, so as to lower it and prevent loss of circulation in shorter people’s legs. Continental’s seat takes the layered approach to comfort, with secondary cushion panels on top of the basic upholstery; an aluminum diaphragm with the seat provide supplementary lumbar support, adjusting electronically to push into the lower back in three positions.



The more passive the passenger gets, the more animated the seat becomes. The degrees of freedom to which the user in accustomed in daily life get transferred to the chair, which doesn’t quite have its own intelligence, but is heading that way. Electronic equals automatic equals magic — albeit at a cost. Some airlines have declined to switch from manually operated adjustments for recline and leg rest deployment because of the considerable extra weight that electronic controls entail. More weight means less freight: sophisticated seats incur trade- offs elsewhere in a plane’s load factor. And manual overrides have to be included anyway, to ensure that seats can be brought back to the FAA- regulated stowed position in the event that the electronic systems fail.

Headrests, like ancient tribal headdresses, are ceremonial attachments whose form and positioning are the subject of detailed design scrutiny. Instead of the usual winged affair, the top of Continental’s Business First seat curves over like a swan’s neck, then tapers down, and can be manually maneuvered back and forth. Its leg-rest lifts and extends in a smooth electronic ballet: the lower, segment portion slides forth like a friendly mollusk out of its shell, from inside the curved thigh-supporting section, both parts clad in dark blue leather.

“A seat is a symbol of what’ you’re about,” says Continental’s Boyd. “We wanted to give ours the look of home furnishings, maybe even of office furniture,” an association certainly reinforced by its dark blue wool fabric, developed by Tester of Italy, which evokes a pin-strip tone corresponding to the airline’s revised corporate palette. “Business travelers are more conservative. They’re less likely to go for olive and silver, more likely to see blue and gold and handsome,” Boyd notes.

Rather than that classic “teardrop” shape, with ear wings that taper toward the neck, Virgin’s Upper Class headrest is inverted: thicker below, it lift the chin up and is gently scalloped to support the skull. The leg rest appears as a natural continuation of the main structure, joining the seat pan with a soft radius achieved with stitching, fabric and an extra piece of foam. “When it’s deployed, there’s no break, visually or in terms of support,” says Virgin’s Chris Brady. “We wanted the seat to work in concert with the human body. So we tried to have all the radii rounded wherever possible, even though Sigma’s machinery dates back to the ‘70s: everything’s just foam cut at right angles.” Improvising sculptural changes to the basic SICMA seat on the factory floor, the Upper Class model was “designed by the seat of the pants — pardon the pun.” With its segmented styling and vivid wool fabric — gray with gold stars, or red with dark red stars — Virgin’s seat is a cross between the Michelin Man and the throne of a Japanese emperor. 



Just as the yard was once the measure of a king’s outstretched arm, so, nowadays, outstretched legs are the gauges of an airborne executive’s authority.

Legroom means everything in Business Class: those extra inches are often calibrated in charts that compare one carrier’s vital statistics with those of top competitors. Seat “pitch,” as it’s called, is the crucial measure of airline real estate, calculated as the distance from one seat to the same point on the seat behind. Since seat are fixed to tracks that are integral to the structure of the plane, this distance can be modified — but more legroom obviously means fewer seat in a given cabin space.

A telling 1994 advertisement for Virgin Atlantic’s upper Class feature an elongated set of silver cutlery running the entire length of the margin in the New York Times. “Every seat in our Business Class is 4 feet 7 inches apart,” the caption beings. “Which explains why your food tray inst on the back of the seat in front of you.” The very image of this magically extended knife, fork and spoon _ stretched out on the avionic equivalent of the Procrustean bed — conjures other things that have the potential to lengthen.

So, are airline legroom inches perhaps a metaphor for something else?

“Being squeezed into a small seat is like being squeezed into a condom that’s too small,” confirms Dr Judy Kerensky, “media psychologist” for New York’s Z100 radio station’s call-in program Love Phones. “Penis size has to do with power and so does personal space, where a person sits and how they’re treated. But physical size is not the only criterion. The concept of personal distance varies according to culture, so a smaller Asian person may actually end up needing more room in their seat than a larger Italian person.”



Now that the phone, fax and email can penetrate his — rarely her – airspace, the Business Class passenger can send and receive from Olympian heights. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, however, he much prefers the first of these capabilities, preserving, as it does, the customary top- down line of command. Messages coming from below are far less appreciated, since they intrude on one of the last bastions of personal inaccessibility. Being airborne hitherto meant being out of reach, unless one specifically chose to initiate communication.

Advertising for inflight communications (such as those provided by GTE Airfone and AT&T) invoke the authority of this lofty and omniscient seat of power. Like making a cellular phone call from the top of a mountain, air-to- ground communication has inherent snob value: it has become almost a badge of honor among cyber-pundits to drop mention of the fact that the text one is reading was composed by them on board a plane, and transmitted either directly from the seat (using the RJ-11 jack, linking their laptop to email) or from a pay phone at the next available airport. Sitting on an airplane doing business via the Internet is the apotheosis of cruising the “Information Highway,” that semantic phantasm whose chief characteristic is its ability to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

There’s a hint of ambivalence over the capture of this once duty-free sanctuary as an annex to the corporate office tower. Advertisements make double-edged References to the seat as both a locus of reward for work done/status acquired, and a detention cell where naughty schoolboys are obliged to keep their noses to the grindstone throughout the flight. “I did send the fax from the plane. Really, I did,” promises Pinocchio — that mendacious man-boy, ne of the tumescent snout — from an airplane seat replete with laptop and modem, in a recent ad for AT&T.

Lufthansa’s Business Class invites one to partake of “Workers’ Compensation” — “a place where hard work is rewarded by hours of indulgence...where extra wide seats, swivel tables, integral footrests and enhanced recline provide a unique feeling of freedom and movement.”

More recently, US Air adopted a slyly reproachful tone to lure passengers to its Business Select service, launched in January 1995. “If You Want to Earn 50% More, You Should Be Working Here,” admonishes the caption to a man tapping away diligently at his keyboard atop the tray table. The “50% more” turns out to be a Frequent Traveler mileage bonus rather than actual remuneration, but the implication is that merely by sitting in the right part of the plane, one’s earnings could double (surely more true for the airline than for the passenger). 



While seat controls and amenities are lovingly detailed in airline advertising, any mention of the safety requirements that seats must meet is discreetly omitted “16G is the requirement that’s really driving the turnover in seats,” according to Larry Stapleton, senior director of client services at Walter Dorwin Teague Associates, referring to the increased forward loading requirement that is already effective on the Boeing 777, and is expected to become mandatory on other commercial aircraft within the next few years, replacing those designed (as late as 1989-90) to the former 9G standard. At manufacturers’ test rigs, seats are put on sleds, hurled across the floor at high speed to simulate the impact of a crash, and checked to see that they haven’t escaped their moorings. On board, video monitors are attached by mechanisms that must sustain 150 pounds of “breakaway force” which, says Stapleton, means that “f your head hits this thing with more or less your full body weight, it has to move out of the way.”

To “delethalize” their design, seats are made with no pointed edges, and materials are rigorously tested to r=ensure they meet smoke and toxicity requirements set by the Federal Aviation Administration. “Take Langenthal,” says Stapleton, referring to a brand of wool fabric treated for enhanced fire retardance, which is commonly used in seats and cabin furnishings. “You can put a blowtorch to it and it will glow but not smoke.”



Business Class passengers are accustomed to giving orders and making decisions. So what better than a panel of buttons to push, not just in the armrest but, now, on devices that pull out on a retractable cord? So numerous and varied are the possible models of phones, game controllers, pop-up video monitors and seat-back screens that the World Airline Entertainment Association even issues a glossary of acronyms covering the relevant hardware and software, ranging from the BMM (Boarding Music Machine) to the EMC (Entertainment Mulitplexer Controller), not forgetting the indispensible MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure).

Inflight entertainment dates back to 1961, when TWA showed By Love Possessed on a New York to Los Angeles Boeing 707. Today, IFE brings multiple choices to each seat, which — like a suburban house “passed” for cable television — is simply the end-node on a complex electronic distribution system. A central Cabin Management Center routes entertainment (movies, TV, live radio, audio, and games) telecommunications (both satellite and terrestrial) and data to each seat, which carries its own 386- chip mini-computer in a “muxbox” (officially the Seat Electronics Box) slung alongside the flotation cushion.

Personal video was the big trend in the late 1980s, then interactive systems — already developed by the early 1990s — started to be installed last year by airlines like Northwest, Singapore and Virgin Atlantic, even in coach, though not without inevitable problems with software glitches. Virgin’s Chris Brady estimates that each pair of Upper Class seats, which costs around $20,000, has another $5,000-$7,500 of electronics attached. This retrofitting brings its challenges. “Seat manufacturers are used to bashing big tough bits of aluminum; now suddenly they have thread fragile wires through their structures. The SICMA “Goldwing” seat weighs over 200 pounds, and was designed 20 years ago, well before inflight video was introduced. So we patch it on.” Live TV via satellite will be next, as soon as signal compression problems have been ironed out.



The fetishizing of the Business Class seat reflects wider cultural angst about the sea changes occurring in the world of work. Corporations are undergoing radical organization restructuring: “re-engineering,” championed by Michael Hammer and James Champy, is largely a response to new information technologies that have obviated many white collar jobs. Commentators such as Robert Reich (The Work of Nations, 1991), Peter Drucker (“The Age of Transformation,” in Atlantic Monthly, 12/94) and Jeremy Rifkin (The End of Work, 1995) have catalogued the social and psychological traumas consequent upon the global shift into an “Information Economy.”

Much the same technologies that are giving rise to the “virtual office” at ground level are being implanted in the premium seats on planes, which become extensions, or substitutes, for the hitherto secure desk on terra firma.

Against this background, the Business Class seat is more than just a utilitarian device for portion-controlling passengers into a pricey cylindrical space. It is the mythic fulfillment on an idea: that work and rest can occupy the same designed domain. Its occupant, strapped and plugged in, never switches off — become merely an organic extension of the ceaseless world of business. Days flow backwards and suns set mere hours before they rise again, so circadian rhythms are substituted by a schedule of “passes” by the cabin crew, choreographed distractions that carve eventfulness into untethered time. The technologies that allegedly promote mobility and “freedom,” by emancipating us from desks in traditional workplaces, turn out to coil us in their grip.

The design of the Business Class seat aspires toward a condition that can never be attained: that of perfect comfort. Comfort and effort are mutually incompatible, but that is the paradox the seat purports to resolve. If you’re safely ensconced in it, “life” (to quote a Northwest ad) “is good.”

For now.