Testing the World's Best Business-Class Seat — That Won't Arrive Until 2019
Panasonic demoed its incredible new business-class seat at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany this week. Join TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig for a test drive.
This week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo, Panasonic showed off its brand-new Waterfront business-class seat. (Don't ask me why it's called "Waterfront" ... the Panasonic reps I chatted with didn't have a clue.) Despite the (probably) silly name, Waterfront means business (class). It feels like it's pretty much ready to go, but Panasonic expects it to start flying in 2019, timed to coincide with the next-gen Boeing 777X launch.
If you know a lot about aviation seating, you've probably noted that Panasonic isn't a known player in that space. And you'd be right — this seat is a collaboration between Panasonic Avionics, B/E Aerospace, Formation Design Group and TEAGUE. Panasonic claims that it weighs 12% less than "existing business-class seats on the market," which means fuel savings for the airlines. Based on how polished the prototype on display was, I wouldn't expect too many changes (beyond airline customization). Let's take a look:
The seat on display at the show looks like it may be designed for the Starboard side of the plane. The seat number (4K) also implies a position at the right-hand window. Working with that assumption, the seat provides a fair amount of privacy, thanks to its aisle divider.
In this overhead view, you can get a good feel for the layout. The large display is the standout component, highlighted by a band of light, but the rest of the seat has a modern, elegant design as well.
Looking from the window side, it's clear that there's lots of storage available, which we'll dig into a bit more momentarily.
The seat isn't just labeled 4K — it actually has a 24-inch 4K display, so the content you'll be able to watch will be far sharper than anything on the market today. Given the expected 2019 launch, Panasonic hopes that another manufacturer doesn't beat it to the 4K punch. We'll have to wait and see.
The display is as gorgeous as you'd expect. Colors really pop and the detail is fantastic — these photos really don't do it justice.
I watched a scene shot at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and I felt like I was in a high-end section of the TV department at Best Buy — definitely not sitting in an airplane seat.
But enough about the display resolution — this seat has a lot more going for it. Take, for example, the way you pair your smartphone with the IFE system just by holding it up to the screen. The phone recognizes light pulses from the display, and then connects via Bluetooth.
Since you're using your smartphone with the IFE (if you choose to do that), the device already knows who you are. That also means you can select a movie playlist in advance and store preferences like lighting settings and your seat position (in theory). Your picks remain in the app, so when you're ready for your next flight, the seat already knows how you like to have things set up.
Waterfront doesn't just have an ordinary pair of headphones (although it can if you prefer to use your own) — the bundled headset connects to the system via USB, which allows the IFE to pump out high-end digital audio, making everything sound much better during your flight.
And how is Waterfront as a seat? It's very comfortable, as you might expect. I didn't notice anything remarkably different than what I've found on, say, Qatar's A350, but you should be comfy enough during a long-haul trek.
Overall, the design is quite thoughtful. The tray table, for example, slides out from below the display. But it also doubles as a charging platform for your laptop, with a nifty cable system to keep your wires out of sight.
It's big enough for even the largest business-class dining spread, and you won't have any trouble using it to hold your laptop if you need to get a bit of work done.
There's also a dedicated water bottle holder, and a magazine compartment.
And a small drink table that a flight attendant can easy fold down to serve you a drink without interrupting your work (or 4K viewing) space.
The basics are here as well, such as a flip-down reading light.
You also have hardware seat controls, which you may find easier to use than a smartphone when making quick adjustments. And the main storage compartment has a universal power port, USB, an HDMI input and even integrated wireless charging (your phone will need to be compatible as well, but, well, #2019).
There's also a wired remote, but it's pretty dinky. You'll only want to use this as a last resort.
Fortunately, there's a more sophisticated Plan B. If you don't want to use your own smartphone (perhaps you forgot to download the airline's app), there's a dedicated tablet that pops out from the seat. It duplicated the functionality of the companion app.
The app is surprisingly powerful, offering granular control of nearly every aspect of the seat and IFE. You can even select the color of the accent lights — not only for the seat as a whole, but down to each zone. For example, if you want the water bottle to glow red and the magazine pocket to be blue (or any of 16 million colors), that's totally doable. You can adjust the brightness of each accent light as well.
You can also toggle a Do Not Disturb sign, and you can set a time that you'd like the crew to wake you up.
As you approach your destination, the system will activate an "arrival mode." When that pops up, you'll receive gate and baggage claim info, along with a reminder to check for any items you may be about to leave behind. The main storage compartment also has a sensor that'll trigger an on-screen alert if you've left anything in there.
There's also a camera! Images immediately appear on your connected smartphone. So you can leave that selfie stick at home...
Overall, Panasonic's Waterfront seat is a huge step up from anything currently available. While you might find a bit more space with some other business-class seats, such as Singapore's offering, nothing comes close to Waterfront from a tech perspective.
For a more detailed look, be sure to take a look at the video demo up top.