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Travelling Light by Vijay Verghese: It's a slugfest on business class

The truth about socks at 30,000 feet and other unfriendly sky stories

Published on April 26, 2008

Travelling Light by Vijay Verghese: It's a slugfest on business class

Travelling Light by Vijay Verghese


I woke up with a start and surveyed my dark, cramped confines. Where were they taking me? I recalled rattling down noisy roads, passing through a crush of sweating humanity, having my shoes and belt unceremoniously removed along with any dangerous metal objects - like nail-clippers - with which I might offer fierce, if futile, resistance. "Release me at once, or I'll cut my nails." That would not be an idle boast. And here I was, dishevelled and solitary, pondering my fate. I knew anything could happen in the Philippines, where groups like Abu Sayyaf organise free, unplanned excursions for tourists, often forgetting to bring them back. Ah yes, I was on my way from Manila to Hong Kong on a Cathay Pacific B747-400 sampling its new business class.

Something strange is happening 30,000ft aloft in the privileged, pampered world of aircraft business cabins. Where once you could swing a horse by the tail (assuming you got it past customs), now sit dejected pin-stripers, wedged into tiny cubicles, wondering where the window went.

Airlines everywhere have rushed to adopt the new herringbone array, usually in a 1-2-1 configuration. The prized window seats on either side of the cabin are now angled inwards around 45-degrees, killing natural light and the window view, hemming passengers in with clunky cubicles that are monstrously antisocial and not always comfortable. Undistracted by the wondrous vistas outside, you can turn your full and frank attention to the socks on display across the aisle.

The new Cathay Pacific business class seats employ the de rigueur 1-2-1 configuration with muted elan. The seat itself appears smaller and more cramped than the old version and is seemingly no wider than an economy class seat. This is partly an illusion on account of the tapering seat back and the drop-down armrests that further erode seat width. But it is partly true. There is very little bottom-wobble room on this 58.75-centimetre -wide seat. The cubicle partitions are close in on either side leaving the passenger with tunnel vision. The drop-down armrests cut into seatback space and it's tough to open a newspaper in this seat.

Singapore Airlines has been in alluring soft focus so long it's hard to tell what's going on in the cabin with those Singapore Girls. The new Singapore Airlines business class seats come in a 1-2-1 configuration on the A380 and B777-300ER aircraft. SIA has played it safe with the layout and its seats are both wide and, reassuringly, forward facing. Your eye and body follow the take-off and landing facing forward and not at a perilous angle with the runway flashing by at one end of your peripheral vision. The new SIA business class seats are the widest and flattest anywhere at a staggering 85cm across. That's more than the normal living space for an average Hong Kong family of four. Use the phone to call seat-to-seat at no charge. "Hello Bob, I can't see your socks." "Hey, look out of the window moron."

Thai Airways International's new angled, flat, business seat launched on the A340-500 and is served up on the B777-200 in a 2-2-2 configuration in a classic forward-facing arrangement. The generous seat pods offer lots of legroom and endlessly customisable seat positions with lumbar support, massage, and so on. They look futuristic with elegant curves and the cabin is welcoming of light. The aisles are wide too, creating a general sense of open space. The fact that the centre armrest at the seat-join is actually substantially higher than the opposing armrest does make repose for the elbows difficult and newspapers will be a balancing act. Still, on these seats you can actually open a newspaper and read it. Service is exemplary - with a smile.

Jet Airways from India has been around for 15 years but it is only recently that it has made its presence felt internationally. It has proved a sharp and steely competitor with top-drawer service. The new Jet Airways business seats are also in a herringbone design, aimed away from the window but with fuller, rounded footrests, with a firm leather finish, and wider seatbacks. Jet Airways uses a 1-2-1 seating configuration on its new B777-300 aircraft. A key ingredient in the sense of space - real space, not imagined - is its belief in fewer seats.

The leather-clad armrests are moulded onto the partition walls so the entire 58.5cm seat space is for your back without dropdown armrests chopping off valuable inches. The side panel aisle-side does not extend too far to create the sense of entombment you get on Cathay. It cuts away quickly and sweeps towards the aisle, creating more get-out room and eye space.

With the freshly laundered blue skies and dimpled islands dropping away below into azure seas, it was fortunate I had a window seat. I stretched, settled back and looked at some socks.

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