British Airways stretches out

Sleeper seats in business class -- bed and breakfast, the expensive way.

Published October 6, 2000 7:32PM (EDT)

The first thing I notice is the foot-long fan-shaped screens that separate the seats. They hover incongruously between each seat pair, and because they are an entirely new thing, the eye just doesn't expect to find them there.

Then I settle into my brand new Club World seat -- nicely roomy, and still with the feel of furniture that has just come through the factory door -- and befuddledly face a technophile's dream of gadgetry: shiny silver levers and sleek inset buttons with arrows and icons, things that pull down and things that slide out and things that I'm not quite sure what they do.

As the flight attendants take coats and drink orders, I start pushing and prodding and pulling and folding. Release one lever, pull a fluted silver handhold and a personal video monitor swings in front of me. Release the lever beside it and a tiny fan-shaped table barely big enough to hold a wine glass folds down.

Below this mini cocktail table is a control panel with five buttons: I push one and a flashlight-like beam mounted over my right shoulder turns on. Another automatically slides the seat into takeoff and landing position. A third adjusts all the regions of lumbar support, and by pushing up and down and forward and backward, in about 20 seconds I create a seat that's configured comfortably to the peculiarities of my posture. The fourth button slides the seat into an entirely upright position, like a conventional chair. And when I push the fifth button, the seat front slowly stretches out before me and the back slowly descends, until finally I am lying down, 180 degrees of full-out flatness.

This is the apple of British Airways' eye: the first-ever business class sleeper seat. And it's the linchpin of an aggressive and ambitious attempt to redefine the airline class system and to lure new customers by breaking old molds.

According to its slick promotional materials, the airline spent more than $320 million to create its new sleeper-seat business class, Club World. The goal was to concoct "a lounge in the sky," offering business-class customers what they most desire: "real sleep, comfort, space, privacy, flexibility and the ability to maximize their time."

All this sounds good, but the overwhelming attraction for me is the sleeper seat. For years, I have been plagued on long flights by an inability to get comfortable. I twist and turn and crack my neck this way and crane it that way and inevitably spend most of my supposed sleep time trying to find a position that will cause the least pain. And every time I think: If only I could stretch all the way out, really lie down, then I could sleep.

So when I heard about British Airways' new sleeper seat, I couldn't wait to try it out, and the public relations people agreed to let me "test-fly" the seat as soon as it began service on the San Francisco route, just a month after it was introduced on flights between London and New York.

My seat is roomier than the standard coach seat but still feels constricted because of those fan-shaped seat dividers that thrust up right beside me. These were the airline's solution to a difficult problem: how to maximize privacy with a minimum of materials and space. The airline wanted to adopt the design, in which the seats are side-by-side facing in opposite directions, to give as much individual space as possible, but without the dividers, I would be looking uncomfortably right at the seatmate opposite me. The dividers, which look like vertical meal trays, do afford a certain sense of privacy, but if I turn my head to the right, my seatmate's blue-jeaned knee is about 14 inches from my nose.

The privacy screens are slid out of the way when meals are served (unless, I suppose, you request that they be kept in place), and my seatmate turns out to be delightful, a director of business development for a major mobile phone and Internet communications company. We dine and drink and chat as if we were in a fine restaurant -- only this one's at 37,000 feet.

Then, at about 7:30, three and a half hours into the flight, the lights are dimmed and the window screens are slid shut, and some passengers pull their faux cashmere blankets out of their plastic wraps and move their seats into sleep position.

My seatmate and I say goodnight and slide the privacy screens back into place. Then I pull out my personal video monitor, recline my seat, wrap my blanket around me and movie-surf. All that's missing is the popcorn.

After a half hour of this, I slide the monitor out of sight and prepare to convert my seat into a sleeper. This is the moment I've been waiting for. But first, I decide to see how long it takes the seat to move from the absolute upright position to the fully reclined sleeper. For the record, it takes 53 seconds. I do this twice just to make sure.

Enough foreplay! I raise the far-off footstool so that it matches the height of the fully reclined seat; this completes the sleeper configuration and I stretch out, position my pillow just right and extend my toes as far as they can go. I am 6 feet tall and the sleeper is designed to just accommodate 6 feet, so my toes barely brush the back of the sleeper seat in front of me. If you're taller than 6 feet, you're still going to have to bend your knees a bit (or pay for first class, where the sleeper seats are designed for 6-foot-6 frames).

I squiggle and scrunch a bit and, with some disappointment, register the fact that flat as they are, these are still essentially airline seats -- they are not thick and soft and cushiony like my mattress at home. I try different positions -- arms by my side, arms behind my head. The sleeper is definitely more comfortable than a traditional airline seat, but it's still not as wide as most places I'm used to sleeping, so it takes some adjusting. On my back, on my side; knees flexed, knees straight.

Miraculously, the cabin is silent except for the hum of the plane. I think about camping in Yosemite, about sleeping on a thin inflated air mattress; I think this is kind of like that and then I wonder what the stars must look like outside the plane and then I don't think anything more because I'm asleep.

I sleep well for about three hours and then wake up and wonder why I'm in such a little bed in a spaceship and who all these other people are and then realize -- oh no, I've got to go to the bathroom. I slide off my sleeper and rise unsteadily to my feet and contemplate the situation before me. In fact, it is not nearly as dramatic as I had thought it would be. I had pictured myself somehow jumping over the prostrate loins of a snoozing stranger, but really, all I have to do is put a steadying hand on the back of my seatmate's seat and step over the ankles of the person in the seat diagonally opposite mine. This is infinitely easier than in traditional seating configurations, where you have to clamber awkwardly over the outstretched legs of the person beside you, hoping sudden turbulence doesn't land you in his or her lap.

Alas, for the next hour I sleep only intermittently. I fitfully shift positions, turn over, bend and straighten my knees, push my pillow around. I try to meditate, try to think of melatonin, consider asking for more champagne, compare the sleeper to my Yosemite air mattress and conclude that the sleeper is actually more comfortable overall. The plane hums, someone coughs, little bottle-clinks and people-stirrings emerge from the depths below, and then, again, I slip into the pellucid penumbra of sleep.

About an hour and a half later I am awakened by the sounds of orange juice being poured and breakfast orders being taken and window screens being slid open and conversations sleepily starting. I open my window screen to bright white clouds stretching across the sky like snowfields, and then, in wispy gaps, the muted greens and browns of the United Kingdom below.

I have a little of that head-sandy, mouth-cottony, hungover feeling I always have when I awake on a plane, but not nearly as pronounced as usual. I shake off my blanket, which was light and soft and warm, just as it should be, and move my seat into the upright position. The orange juice is sweet.

As we begin our descent to Heathrow, I try to summarize my appraisal:

All in all, I'd give Club World an A-minus.

The sleeper seat is certainly much more comfortable than a traditional business-class seat. It's not as thick or wide as a mattress, but the ability to stretch fully out is a tremendous plus. The privacy screens are not wholly successful, but they are trying to reconcile two opposing demands: On one hand, they are too flimsy and sometimes shake in a mildly disturbing way during the flight; on the other hand, they are too substantial and restrict one's sense of personal space. Still, they impart a sense of privacy and a limited cocoonlike feeling that are unique in my business class experience. The service, as expected, was dignified, friendly, efficient and unobtrusive.

What does Club World cost? A lot.

Current one-way Club World fares on the San Francisco-London route are $4,051. Compare this to the airline's other one-way fares: First class: $5,919; economy/business (World Traveller Plus) class: $1,799; and economy (World Traveller) class: $984. (Note: If you plan to travel between Oct. 19 and Dec. 14, the airline is offering a special seven-day advance-purchase round-trip World Traveller fare of $498 -- with one Sunday stay required -- and $558 for weekend travel.)

Current one-way Club World fares on the New York-London route are $3,174. The other fares are: First class: $5,026; economy/business (World Traveller Plus) class: $1,008; and economy (World Traveller) class: $663. (If you plan to travel between Oct. 1 and Nov. 14, the airline is offering a special seven-day advance-purchase round-trip World Traveller fare of $298 -- with one Sunday stay required and a maximum stay of one month -- and $358 for weekend travel.)

Is Club World worth this extra expense? Well, that depends on you. Clearly, it's a considerable amount of money. On the other hand, if you are like me, you usually lose a day to jet lag on long flights. If you can sleep well enough to arrive refreshed and ready for business, effectively saving a day, that may merit the expense.

As we prepare to land, I gather up my belongings, set my watch to 10 a.m. and realize with a start that, for the first time I can remember on this trans-Atlantic trip, 10 a.m. doesn't seem incongruous to me. Somehow body and mind have arrived together on this flight, and I relish the thought of a full day ahead.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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