During the recent ITB travel exhibition in Berlin, Emirates revealed its new business class seat which will become standard on all Boeing 777-300ER aircraft delivered from November 2016. This includes the future Boeing 777X, when it eventually enters into service. I was fortunate enough to take a look at this new business class seat from Emirates and develop an opinion on it.
Prior to the official reveal of the new seat, there was much talk in the industry about this new product for the 777. While Emirates remained reasonably tight-lipped, it did reveal that the new product would remain in the existing 2-3-2 layout. My initial impression of the seat was that, despite being on the slightly narrow side, the legroom is vastly increased, as is the size of the IFE screen, which is one of the biggest I have seen in business class.
One of the welcome upgrades was the mini-bar, which is cleverly hidden into the side console. While not as big as the mini-bar on the A380 seats, it is a significant upgrade over the old seat. The biggest upgrade, however, is that now the seat converts into a true 180-degree lie-flat bed, unlike the previous product where it was lie-flat, but at an angle. The privacy is also increased, in particular for the middle seat passenger, thanks to the cocoon-style side walls.
A minor criticism is that the IFE controller is placed at eye level, which is a bit “in your face” but given that it is wireless, you can easily move it to the side table if it becomes too annoying.
Overall, I think the new product is a significant improvement over the existing 777 business class product. However, it is a bit of a shame that Emirates has no plans at this stage to retrofit it to the existing 777 fleet. This means that there will still be angle-flat seats in business class for a few more years until the current 777 fleet is replaced with the next-generation 777X series. The new product will start to be seen late this year with new build 777-300ERs.
Emirates has faced much criticism over this layout, in particular when its immediate competitors in the middle east are offering 1-2-1 layouts with direct aisle access for each seat. In my opinion, however, Emirates has made the right decision by sticking to its original 2-3-2 configuration for the 777 series of aircraft, from both a product choice and consumer perception in the market.
First and foremost, it comes down to a commercial decision. In most of its current 777-300ER configurations, there are six rows of business class (assuming it is a three-class aircraft). By changing the configuration to a 2-2-2 layout, that would mean six fewer seats in the business cabin. It might not seem like much, but this amount of premium cabin capacity can make a huge difference to the bottom line.
Now if Emirates were to go one step further, to be on par with its middle east competitors with a 1-2-1 layout, that would mean their business cabin would reduce in capacity by a whopping 18 seats or close to a 50% reduction in premium cabin capacity. Given that Emirates is at present the largest Boeing 777 operator worldwide and the aircraft forms the vast majority of the fleet, it really is not a wise commercial decision to reduce the business cabin capacity by close to 50%.
Another point to consider is the airline will be taking more deliveries of the Airbus A380. Many of the existing highly competitive long-haul/ultra long-haul 777 routes will progressively be upgraded to A380 aircraft, where the carrier’s business product really is on par with the other ME3 airlines. In these highly competitive markets, it makes the most sense to provide a competitive business class product with direct aisle access for every seat. This will mean that the new 777 product will likely only be deployed on the long-haul routes without much competition and where Emirates will still deliver the most premium experience when compared to the available alternatives.
The new business seat will also offer a great product upgrade for the carrier’s regional routes into Africa and secondary European/Asian/Middle East cities, where the flight time does not exceed 6-7 hours; it can be best thought of as a “regional” business class offering. All that said — yes, it can be a bit frustrating when you are the one stuck in the middle seat. But it still beats sitting in economy!
I like to think that the initial negative reception by the travel industry of the new product really is unjustified. One has to examine not just the hard product itself, but also the markets where it will be deployed, as well as understanding in detail the airline’s commercial decision for such a layout. After all, reducing your business cabin capacity by nearly half really is not the wisest decision, in particular when you operate into markets where your product is the only truly premium product to be offered and thus the demand for it is steady.
What do you think? Was this the right call or a huge mistake going with the 2-3-2 configuration?