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Business travelers will soon be able to strike the announcement “Please return your seat back to the upright position” from their list of dreaded phrases.
Confident that sleep is the luxury frequent fliers crave most, Qantas Airways Ltd. is introducing business-class seats that let passengers recline from the moment they board until touchdown at their destination. The seats, which need regulatory approval, could let travelers like David Killingback get more than seven hours of shuteye on a Melbourne to Singapore trip.
“I don’t care if they serve dog food or Chateaubriand for dinner,” Killingback, a managing director at Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch unit, who has flown the route as many as four times a week, said from Melbourne. “I want to be able to get to sleep as quickly as possible without disturbance, and wake at the last possible minute.”
Key to the break-through product’s safety is an over-the- shoulder sash — much like a car seatbelt — that will connect with the usual around-the-waist belt to provide extra restraint during takeoff and landing, according to Andy Morris, vice president for sales and marketing at Thompson Aero Seating Ltd., which designed the seat.
At critical times, the seats won’t be able to recline less than 25 degrees from the horizontal on international flights and 21 degrees domestically. That’s sufficient to allow the shoulder belt to work, withstanding the 16G forces that can be exerted in a survivable accident, said Morris, adding that the berths switch to fully-flat mode the plane is in level flight.
Qantas’s gate-to-gate sleeper seats represent the latest effort by airlines to woo premium passengers as fierce competition for economy-class travelers drives down margins. Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce, who unveiled the seats this week in Sydney, is looking for an edge over the premium cabins of Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd. as he works to return the airline to profitability.
While aircraft seats are traditionally locked upright during take-off and landing, when most accidents happen, Qantas says it’s awaiting approvals from Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority that would allow the new berths to be reclined at those times and which would also apply outside the country.
“There’s still a lot of decision makers and organizations that travel business class, even on those shorter sectors, and it’s very important to have the right product for them,” Joyce said. “Those people are loyal customers.’
The seats, developed by Belfast-based Thomson Aero over 18 months, have undergone 100 hours of trials. They’ll be fitted on domestic Airbus Group NV A330 wide-bodies from December, with an international roll-out starting January. The entire fleet of 28 A330s will be refitted by the end of 2016.
Without extra measures, sudden deceleration could cause someone lying flat to ‘‘torpedo underneath” the standard belt, Stuart Hughes, managing director of aviation-safety consultants Baines Simmons Ltd., said by phone from Erina, New South Wales.
The seats must also meet specified criteria for aircraft evacuation procedures, Morris said.
Anything that maximizes rest on flights between Australia and East Asia is attractive, said Con Korfiatis, a partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles International Inc. Emirates offers showers in first class on its A380s, Singapore Air touts private cabins with separate beds and seats, and Etihad Airways PJSC’s three-room Residence will have a butler.
“They’re differentiating their products,” said Korfiatis, who once led Qantas’s Jetstar Asia budget carrier. “They’re holding out for a higher yield,” he added, referring to a measure of ticket prices.
Premium passengers often account for a large portion of an airline’s sales on long-haul flights, including about 75 percent of revenue on cross-country routes in the U.S., according to consultant Michael Boyd.
In addition to Singapore, Qantas plans to offer the seats on flights to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Jakarta, Manila, and Shanghai. They’ll also be deployed on longer domestic routes, such as Sydney and Melbourne to the western city of Perth.
Brendon Cooper, a Sydney-based director of credit strategy at Westpac Banking Corp., used to fly to Singapore about six times a year for the bank.
“If you’re lucky you don’t get much more than four or five hours sleep,” Cooper said by phone. “It’s a nasty flight if you’ve got to go to work the next day.”
Adults need seven or eight hours of sleep nightly, according to recommendations from the U.S. government’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Bankers who travel count on getting all the rest they can before they land, said Killingback, of Merrill Lynch.
“We all do the overnight flight because it’s dead time,” Killingback said. “No one can afford to be out of play for seven hours in the middle of the day.”
–With assistance from Christopher Jasper in London.
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