Narrowbody planes are increasingly being designed to be capable of extended range operations. With travel demand at an all-time low and passengers increasingly demanding more space, the evolution of lie flat seating on single aisle planes is set for some stark innovations. Let’s take a look at what’s in the market right now, and where we’re headed in the future.
Long-haul narrowbody will mark a return from COVID
The stars are aligning for a future where we see far more small aircraft operating long haul routes. Passenger demand is predicted to remain damp for several years following the crisis, meaning widebody jets may become difficult to fill on some routes.
On the other hand, narrowbody planes are increasingly capable of operating long haul. The A321LR already has a range of 4,000 nm, and the forthcoming XLR will increase this by 15%. The smaller A220 can go for 3,350 nm and has ETOPS enough to fly transatlantic. The 737 MAX, when it gets off the ground, has a capable range too, with the MAX 8 able to reach up to 3,550 nm.
These trends point firmly in the direction of passengers enduring longer flights on narrowbody jets. To some extent, this is nothing new, with many airlines already utilizing single aisle planes on some pretty long routes. airBaltic goes to Abu Dhabi from Riga using the A220, while GOL used to fly a nine-hour route using a 737 MAX 8.
But with long-haul narrowbody flying only likely to increase, what are airlines doing to help us feel comfortable in flight?
Which airlines already offer lie flat on narrowbody aircraft?
Spending longer on a small plane might just tip more people towards plumping for the premium cabin, and airlines are already making strides to ensure these options are possible. The fierce competition in the transcontinental US market saw a number of North American airlines adding lie flat capabilities, kicked off by JetBlue with its highly desirable Mint product.
American Airlines has a select number of A321s with lie flat seating, while Delta offers it currently only on some of its 757s. United had plans in place for a lie flat seat on its 737 MAX, but with the aircraft still grounded, this plan is on ice for now.
During 2019, we saw an uptick in adoption of lie flat business class products on single aisle planes, with Philippine Airlines, Copa in Panama, Saudia and Air Astana all joining the trend. However, one of the key pioneers of this trend was FlyDubai, whose 737 MAX offers incredible lie flat comfort, even on short-haul routes.
CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, Dr. Joe Leader, was lucky enough to take a short trip on one in 2018 and shared his experience with us.
But where is this sector heading? With few options for seat products historically in this market, the industry is crying out for a touch of innovation. Dr. Leader told us what he thought about the future of lie flat seating on narrowbody aircraft. He said,
“Having flown on lie-flat single-aisle aircraft, I can definitively say that the comfort level is on-par with widebody aircraft. JetBlue and Flydubai were original innovators in this area by bringing more suite-like products to single aisle aircraft, but we are only at the beginning of this seating innovation.
“In the years ahead, we will see thin suite doors for privacy on some single-aisle aircraft. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, business and first class passengers will have a stronger desire for their personal space to be better protected as possible.
While single-aisle solutions cannot recreate the experience of the Qatar Airways Qsuite or Delta One Suites, future seating innovations in this space for airlines will come closer than most people realized possible.”
What’s coming next?
The market is wide open for innovation in the single aisle business class sector. One of the most exciting products to be revealed recently is Adient Aerospace’s Aspect seat, a lie flat business class solution developed specifically for the narrowbody market. It should have been unveiled to much fanfare at Aircraft Interiors Expo in April, but due to the current situation, the company has had to be satisfied with a somewhat quieter reveal.
Although Capex is under increasing scrutiny right now, chief executive Andy Masson remains positive that the current market conditions are in the new product’s favor. He told FlightGlobal,
“As the market returns, we think it only accelerates that [shift] and points towards narrowbody aircraft becoming very prevalent in future … we have been asked for this single-aisle lie-flat seat for a while”.
Of course, Adient isn’t the only seat manufacturer looking to break into the single aisle space. Qatar Airways’ A321neo debuted a lie flat business class product from Optimares. The seat was developed specifically for Qatar. AvioInteriors is developing the Adagio business class seating solution for narrowbody aircraft too.
These next-gen solutions for lie flat business class on narrowbody planes are a world away from anything we’ve seen before. While adapted versions of the Diamond and Vantage can work in a single aisle plane, they are not as space conservative as something that has been specifically designed for the market.
Narrowbody specific products are likely to be more efficient and could employ innovative solutions to marrying up passenger space with the capacity required by the airline.
Nevertheless, traditional seat manufactures are making moves too. Thomson Aero is adapting its VantageXL seat into a more compact product it calls the Vantage Solo.
While not available just yet, the 33-inch pitch and reverse herringbone configuration would make for a very private experience, a decent capacity for the airline and, of course, that all-important door.
Overall, the innovations in lie flat comfort on narrowbody aircraft is highly likely to continue. As the MAX returns to service and the A321XLR edges ever closer, we could see some exciting new products offering even greater PaxEx in the future.
What do you think about lie flat seating on narrowbody aircraft? Have you flown in one? Let us know your experience in the comments.