What Will Airline Business Class Look Like In The Future – And What Do You Want To See?

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The Thales Group – a French-based company that designs electrical and connectivity systems used in everything from commercial jets to defense and transportation networks – unveiled its vision of a new “immersive” business class seat at the Hamburg Aircraft Interiors Expo 2014 earlier this week. The innovative new seat was developed with BE Aerospace and design partners BMW Design Works.

Thales seat

Among the key new features of this seat are touchpad controls integrated in the seat, an Ultra-High Definition (UHD) main display screen, an advanced Passenger Control Display, and an Eye Tracking and Interactive Virtual Landscape Panel – all meant to blend the physical and virtual user interfaces into one cohesive passenger experience. Best of all, they are designed to be compatible with existing seat technology such as Thales’s own SmartPIMs, which allow flyers to connect their personal devices to the in-flight entertainment system and to charge them in flight.

But it goes beyond just that. The seat will “know” you by your connected PDA and remember your preferences, and the computerized system will read your social media preferences and history to tailor an experience just for you such as highlighting movies you might enjoy, what position you like to relax in, a four-zone massage system, what menu items you’re likely to prefer (so don’t go overboard with the beverage cart lest ye be judged on your next trip!) and a slew of other slightly Big Brother-ish features like visual recognition technology that will be accurate enough to tell your eyeglasses prescription – seriously!

Slightly less sinister – the new seats will also have headrests with surround sound for that movie theater-like experience, and the screen will tilt and adjust to your seating position. That’s a big improvement on a lot of current business class products where screens are either embedded in the seatback in front of you, and if you recline even slightly you lose the image, or those clunky screens that you have to either pull out of the armrest or unlatch from the wall of the seat and then fiddle with the whole flight to get the right angle.

The screen will be 24 inches and the passenger will be able to control it in a variety of ways including hand gestures, eye movements, near-field communication with a mobile phone, a tracker pad, or any combination of these. It sounds sort of like Google Glass for the airplane. Voice control remains an issue because of ambient airplane noise, but Thales plans to look into embedding directional microphones to resolve that with the next version of their seat.

The new seat sounds really ambitious – and even if an airline were to order it right now, it would take a good 3-4 years to come to market while Thales estimates you’ll start seeing these in the air in 5-7 years.

I personally love anything new and interesting when it comes to gadgets, and this seat is chock-full of them, so I’m mostly excited about that. While some of the features do seem a little intrusive – for instance, I don’t want my airplane seat broadcasting what I’m eating on the plane to all my friends or reading my Twitter feed – I do think that helping automatically personalize the flight experience could be great in a lot of ways like setting the seat position to what you like, helping narrow down the entertainment options and making sure the galley doesn’t run out of that steak dish you want before the flight attendants get to you to take your order. All in all, I think it could be really exciting.

I recently transferred 60,000 Chase points to United to fly EVA Airlines to the Maldives in business class- a $4,000 ticket for $24 in taxes and fees.
All I want in business class is some attention, a lie-flat seat…and maybe some Dom Perignon!

At present, what I hope for in a business class seat/experience is one that is absolutely horizontally lie-flat, one that is long enough to accommodate my 6’7″, a decent meal and wine list, and personalized attention and service. Sounds like the new seat will help with at least some of that and aims to make the experience feel more like flying in your own private cabin.

But what do you think? What makes a business class experience good in your opinion, and what would you like to see in the business class seat of the future?

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