The rise of 'business plus': The new travel class taking over the sky

There's no room for argument that business class continues to get better and better. Seat designs are striding ahead in comfort, privacy and features, to the point where many airlines are questioning the need for first class aboard their newest jets.

Some carriers – most notably Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines – are boosting first class to new heights of luxury.

Most, however, are keeping their focus on the less-rarified real estate of business class.

Qatar Airways has claimed the World's Best Business Class crown for its extraordinary Qsuites. Qantas will next year begin turfing out the decade-old Skybed business class pods from tis Airbus A380s, replacing them with the vastly superior seats of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

Even Singapore Airlines' 'regional' business class seat, now flying to Australia on some Boeing 787-10 and Airbus A350 jets, has the same fully lie-flat bed and direct aisle access as its long-range counterparts.

But is there room for a class of travel deftly positioned between business class and first class, especially on jets where first class isn't offered?

That's the thinking behind what some pundits term 'business plus', and it's being explored in some interesting if very different ways.

While business plus isn't a formal travel class per se, it's an upgrade of sorts from the conventional business class seats and sometimes cabin.

Malaysia Airlines

The most notable example is Malaysia Airlines' decision to rebrand the first class cabins of its Airbus A380 and A350 aircraft as Business Suites.

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It's largely a change in name only: Business Suites passengers will enjoy the same meals and drinks, inflight amenities, pyjamas and Malaysia Airlines lounge access as they would in first class.

However, the pricing will be pitched halfway between business and first.

"We realise that with the recent economic situation a lot of people have moved away from first class, and a lot of corporate passengers now have the limitation of not flying first class (due to) corporate policy," Malaysia Airlines' Head of Customer Experience Ms Lau Yin May tells High Flyer. "So we want to cater to that market and open it up."

In other words: passengers seeking a better-than-business-class experience can fly in what is to all intends and purposes first class, but book it under the more innocuous banner of Business Suites.

Malaysia Airlines' Business Suites will be mostly seen on the flagship route between Kuala Lumpur and London, which is usually flown by an Airbus A350 with four first class suites but during peak seasons is upgraded to an A380 superjumbo with six primo pods.

China Eastern

China Eastern is taking a different approach to 'business plus'. Its new Airbus A350s – one of which will fly the Sydney-Shanghai corridor in 2019 – already feature private business class suites framed by high walls and a sliding door.

But the four seats at the very front row of the business class cabin, facing the bulkhead wall, have an enhanced design which China Eastern describes as 'super premium' suites.

These feature a mini-bar and 32 inch touchscreen display and are expected to sell with a suitable premium mark-up.

Additionally, the middle seats in this front row are being marketed as an 'Air Living Room' where up to four travellers can share the same space 'for a business meeting or family gathering.'

The meal tables of each of the two seats are combined to form a single wide surface, which looks ideal for a few hands of poker, while the top of each suite's ottoman is flipped to turn it into a padded seatbelt-equipped companion bench.

Lufthansa

Finally, Lufthansa is known to have examined a 'business plus' cabin for its forthcoming fleet of Boeing 777X jets due from 2020.

Speaking to High Flyer in mid-2017, Lufthansa executive Harry Hohmeister remarked "there are good opportunities with new business class concepts which are nearly as good as first class but more flexible in terms of cabin design."

Lufthansa CEO Autoten Spohr detailed such a cabin concept as part of planning the Boeing 777x's layout, with the better-than-business seating slated for some jets flying routes with insufficient demand for a full first class cabin.

The German carrier appears to have decided against this, with some of the 777-9 jets now likely to sport a new first class suite, but I'd not be surprised if the concept appears on some other airline in 2019 or 2020.

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of . His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of 51698009 readers.