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Why Did Direct Aisle Access Become the Standard in Long-Haul Business Class?

Today, most legacy carriers offer luxurious business class cabins that elevate the inflight experience beyond what was previously realized in premium cabins. Services that do not offer direct aisle access are seen as outdated, but plenty of airlines still fly such configurations. For example, Lufthansa’s old business class – still offered on the airline’s A340s – and United’s old business class, still offered on Boeing 777-200s.

Airlines have been forced to innovate in order to remain competitive within the industry, and business class offerings have increasingly favored direct aisle access. But what made this shift so decisive? Why are airlines that opt for more traditional cabin configurations being left behind?

An elevated experience

Undoubtedly, the level of passenger comfort that direct aisle access provides continues to drive its popularity within the industry. Without it, passengers are forced to step over their seatmates on their way out of their seat, or to have someone stepping over them at some point during the flight. This is not so intrusive when everyone’s awake, but when the lie flat or reclined seat is deployed, a bathroom visit by the window passenger can be rather disruptive.

Photo: British Airways

Across the board, business travelers are an important segment for all airlines. Corporate customers, in particular, are the bread and butter of many full-service airlines, providing a high-value and predictable income for the carrier. As such, airlines will prioritize the convenience and comfort of the business traveler when designing premium cabins.

For those traveling overnight and expecting to work a full day upon arrival, getting a good night’s sleep can prove crucial. Therefore, being woken up multiple times in the middle of the night by a fellow traveler might not just be annoying but could genuinely affect the worker’s productivity the next day.

For businesses, ensuring that their professionals are well-rested and prepared for a full day of work is paramount. As a result, corporate travelers have begun to favor airlines that offer direct aisle access seating configurations.

But what about first class?

Traditionally, carriers opted to reserve direct aisle access for first class passengers, so what has led to the increasing demand for privacy and space in business class? Notably, first class has proven less and less profitable over time, and many airlines have begun to phase out their ultra-premium cabin in favor of larger business class capacities. United, for example, introduced its latest all-aisle-access business class, Polaris, right around the same time the carrier removed its first class cabin from service.

Qatar Airways is another good example of this kind of carrier, which only offers its first class product on select Airbus A380 and Boeing 777-300ER services. However, the airline began to offer its industry-leading business class product, QSuite, on the majority of its long-haul fleet. Marketed as “first in business,” the airline emphasizes the extent to which the cabin’s comfort would be compatible with the needs of business travelers.

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